MMP rule changes expected

By Nick Clark, Felicity Wolfe

Following last year's referendum, where a narrow majority of New Zealand voters chose to retain the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system, the Electoral Commission is now reviewing how the system works.

Submissions have closed and the Commission will present its recommendations to the Ministry of Justice at the end of the month.

Federated Farmers did not submit on the review, but is watching the process with interest, president Bruce Wills said.

"My role has highlighted the absolute importance of having a strong rural voice in Wellington," Mr Wills says.

It is hard to say if the commission's proposed changes will directly benefit rural New Zealand, which has seen a steady decline in representation.

While there is some historic basis for thinking that a First Past the Post-style system would increase rural representation, it is unclear that would have been borne out had FPP been reinstated.

Some 86 per cent of New Zealanders now live in urban areas and it is hard to define what constitutes a 'rural MP'.

Federated Farmers is more focussed on communicating effectively with all levels of government, both central and local, to ensure farmers' voices are heard.

"With ongoing urbanisation it is more important than ever to have high-calibre leaders speaking up for rural New Zealand," Mr Wills said.

There has also been a lengthy submissions period allowing people to have their say on what they like, or want to see changed, about MMP.

There is a prevailing mood, among both the submitting public and the commission, to reduce the threshold for parties to gain list seats from 5 to 4 per cent of the national vote.

Five per cent is seen by some as too high a hurdle, while others believe a lower threshold would see many small parties gain seats, fracturing parliament.

Another likely change is when a party wins an electorate seat, but fails to meet the threshold, it will no longer receive any list seats, thus eliminating the need for 'overhang' seats. The rule is regarded by some as encouraging 'tactical voting', while others believe it a reward for winning an electorate.

Federated Farmers believes candidate selection is paramount, regardless of the electoral system. To ensure there are more rural MPs coming through, the rural community (including Federated Farmers) must encourage political parties to select rural candidates in winnable electorates, or give them high rankings in party lists.

This requires rural people to be well-represented within political party membership and for rural advocates, such as Federated Farmers, to persuade all political parties of the merits of having more rural people in their caucuses, just as other groups of society do.

One way the Federation helps nurture future rural leaders is through its leadership courses. These courses are designed to support and encourage farmers to become more active in their communities and give them confidence to step up and speak out.

Many rural leaders over the years have benefited from the Federation's training and today's courses are geared around the needs of the 'modern farmer lobbyist'.

"To have competent and capable rural leaders we must ensure good training opportunities are available," Mr Wills said.

"Federated Farmers runs numerous courses, there is also the Nuffield programme, the Kellogg's leadership course and the more recently established Escalator programme, run by the Agri-Women's Development Trust, all helping to ensure the rural voice is heard."

The Federation recognises simply having greater rural representation would not guarantee a cohesive 'rural voice', nor better outcomes for rural people. Instead of focussing on electoral systems, the Federation focuses on strong advocacy for rural communities.

- Hamilton News

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