Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Act's poor showing likely to end Epsom hi-jinks

John Banks. Photo / Mark Mitchell
John Banks. Photo / Mark Mitchell

John Banks' agitated rubbishing of the Electoral Commission's MMP reform proposals suggests he might be rather worried about whether his tea party friend, John Key, will be rushing to his rescue next time around. And with good reason.

The National leader gave him the cup of tea he craved before the last election, but the Act leader conspicuously failed to deliver. Act polled so poorly that not one extra right-wing ally came sliding into Parliament on Mr Banks' coat-tails.

What the Epsom tea party fiasco delivered for Mr Key was a load of grief he didn't need. If last year's election had been held under the Electoral Commission's proposed new rules, Mr Banks, as the highest polling Epsom candidate, would still be the local MP. He just wouldn't have had the hypothetical right to bring extra list candidates in with him. Not unless the Act Party vote achieved the new 4 per cent threshold.

With Act in rapid decline, the chances of it again delivering five supporters to bolster up National, as it did in 2008, seem exceedingly slim.

So why would Mr Key oppose reform of the biggest flaw in the existing system.

National has only itself to blame for highlighting the rorting possible under the electorate seat threshold. In 2008 and last year it encouraged supporters in the safe Tory seat of Epsom to reject the National candidate and give their electorate vote to the Act candidate instead; first Rodney Hide, then John Banks. The National candidate was high enough up the party list to be sure of a seat in Parliament anyway.

Returning the Act candidate as electorate MP activated a quirk in the MMP rules suspending the requirement that parties get at least 5 per cent of the party vote before being eligible to have a proportionate number of MPs.

In 2008, Act scored 3.6 per cent of the total vote but because Mr Hide was returned as MP for Epsom, he was able to bring four list MPs with him. New Zealand First scored 4.1 per cent of the vote, but because it did not win an electorate seat, it got no MPs.

The commission noted the bulk of submissions objected to this "on the grounds that it runs counter to some of the most fundamental principles of the MMP voting system, including that all votes should be of equal value, the primacy of the party vote in determining election outcomes, and fairness of results".

Members of the 1986 Royal Commission that designed the current MMP system "told us they have long regarded the one electorate seat threshold as their one mistake. In their view there are no good reasons to retain it and it should be abolished".

With the Epsom hi-jinks of the past two elections fresh in voters' minds, it's going to be hard for Mr Key to oppose a solution that closes this loop-hole. Particularly when Act is so weak, the chances of National benefiting from this trickery at the next election are minimal.

In its other recommendations, the commission has taken a sensible, don't-rock-the-boat approach. It's proposing the threshold for a party's entry to Parliament be lowered from 5 per cent to the 4 per cent proposed by the commission. The threshold was proposed as a way of, in the commission's words, "discouraging the proliferation of minor and/or extremist groups in the House".

To it, a 5 per cent threshold was "too severe", but parliamentarians of the day ignored the advice and went with 5 per cent. The present review says it "has proved to be a high hurdle", noting that in the last three MMP elections, only the two major parties and the Greens have surmounted it three times, NZ First managing it in 2005 and last year.

It says that 4 per cent is still a significant barrier, noting that in the last election, nine of the 13 parties polled less than 4 per cent of the party vote, and that there have been only three instances of parties receiving between 4 per cent and 5 per cent.

Despite some public clamour against it, the review supports the continuation of the right of electorate candidates to employ the safety net of a place on the party list as well. I agree. MMP is a party-based system, and it makes sense that a party's best and brightest don't get sacrificed in an electorate seat they were never realistically going to win. The talent pool of aspirant MPs is shallow regardless of party. We should be finding ways of encouraging more quality contenders to our Parliament, not driving them away. For the same reason, I support the decision to permit list MPs to continue showing the party flag in byelections.

As for the proposal to abolish the provision for overhang seats, I'm going to have to plead lack of space - and lack of a degree in mathematics. It's all to do with trying to readjust the proportionality of seats in Parliament when, for example, the Maori Party's MP count, because of its electorate seat victories, is out of kilter with its proportion of the total vote. The proposal is to restrict the number of MPs to 120, and work backwards from there to proportionalise the seats.

If the last two elections had been conducted under these new rules, National's MP count would have been down two in 2008 and one last year. It seems unlikely that will get through.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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