Editorial: Chance to make MMP even better

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It is up to New Zealanders to say how they want the MMP system shaped. Photo / Mark Mitchell
It is up to New Zealanders to say how they want the MMP system shaped. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Now that the country has voted resoundingly to keep MMP, it is invited to suggest ways to improve the system. The Electoral Commission has begun the discussion with a paper that raises a few familiar questions for public comment but the review need not be confined to them. The commission says it is keen to hear any ideas. It should hear plenty.

After 15 years and six elections, just about everyone has something they do not like about the system. For many it is the idea of list MPs, who are chosen entirely by party officials and never need subject themselves to a popular vote. Others see that as a strength of the system. It allows parties to bring into Parliament people who represent minorities, or people with expertise who are not willing to undergo a personal electoral ordeal.

The list system undoubtedly has improved the representation of immigrant minorities and gays and produced ministers of the calibre of Steven Joyce in the present Cabinet and Margaret Wilson in the last. But it has also put into Parliament people who seemed ill-suited to politics, made no impression while there and were sometimes replaced by another nonentity.

Whereas electorate vacancies must be filled from a byelection, the occupants of list seats can come and go largely unnoticed.

Whatever the calibre of party appointees to Parliament, it seems wrong that they are not subjected to some sort of electoral test. Perhaps list seats should have to be filled by the party's highest polling losers in electorates - or perhaps an American system of party primary elections could compile the lists.

Some American primaries are open to all voters in the state, others are restricted to voters who have registered with one of the parties. The restricted system could work for party lists under MMP. Candidates for the list could campaign for the support of voters registered with the party for a primary in each region before the election. They would be ranked for list seats in order of their total vote at the end of the primaries.

A byproduct of this system could be greater participation in political parties. The time has long gone when parties such as National and Labour had mass memberships. They function these days on the efforts of MPs with paid electorate secretaries and some loyal activists and aspirants. People are less likely to join political parties or declare an allegiance, and they are given no reason to do so.

If they were able to register for a vote in a keenly contested list primary, it might inject life into parties at the grassroots and policy-making might cease to be the preserve of an elite that it has become.

The MMP review can also expect to hear criticism of the threshold exemption for small parties that manage to win a single electorate. It is in the interests of major parties to make room for a certain ally to win an electorate because the seat becomes additional to their proportional allocation. The ally might be then awarded two or more seats on a party vote well below the 5 per cent threshold. Jim Anderton, Peter Dunne, Rodney Hide and now John Banks have prospered on this oddity.

Proportional representation in New Zealand has developed characteristics its advocates did not expect. Unlike MMP's only model, Germany, we have not developed a taste for formal coalitions. Single-party minority governments supported by loose "confidence and supply" agreements have been preferred. We do not give three or four parties strength in Parliament. Power alternates between two familiar parties and their tiny "add-ons".

With just two changes of government in 15 years the system has proven stable. It has been deservedly endorsed at a referendum. With a tweak or two it can be even better.

- NZ Herald

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