To some degree, the Government has resisted the temptation to tamper with the two-stage referendum on mixed-member proportional representation. Indeed, the Prime Minister has gone so far as to say the National Party will not have a preferred electoral system. But it has been unable to bring itself to place the referendum in the hands of an independent body, most logically the Electoral Commission. This means, unfortunately, that the Government's imprint will remain on a process that falls some way short of the ideal.
There are two major failings. One is the overly long time to arrive at a final verdict. The other is that the wording of the questions will be decided by the Cabinet. Those questions will be put at referendums at the 2011 general election and, if necessary, the 2014 election. In the first, voters will be asked if they want to retain the MMP system. If they do not, they can choose another from a list of alternatives. If the majority do not want to retain MMP, a second, binding referendum three years later will pit it against the alternative that gained most votes in the first poll. That means a new system would not be used until the 2017 general election.
By any yardstick, this seems a protracted exercise. The two referendums that led to the introduction of MMP at the 1996 election were held around a year apart. That seemed about right, and the likes of the Electoral Commission would surely suggest a repeat of this timetable. Certainly, it should not be truncated, with a decision made on the basis of one definitive referendum in 2011, as suggested by opponents of MMP. That smacks of railroading. But nor is there a need to drag matters out if a second poll is needed.
The Government suggests its schedule is necessary "to ensure New Zealanders have time to consider all issues fully before making their decision". To help this along, it will put "significant resources" into a public education campaign to explain the alternative systems, which will be conducted by an independent panel. The bulk of this education will have to take place before the first referendum. That means there is no reason why a second poll, if necessary, could not be held within a year or two, and certainly in time for the winning system to be in place for the 2014 general election.
The Government suggests the public will be able to influence the wording of the referendum questions and the alternative electoral systems to be offered once these have been decided by the Cabinet. The avenue for this will be submissions to the select committee that will report on legislation to set up the first referendum. In reality, however, the Government is offering nothing more than sophistry. The select committee majority is not going to overturn a specific Cabinet wish. This situation is the more unfortunate in that the framing of the questions will clearly be very important. It is conceivable, for example, that the stocks of a preferred system, perhaps the supplementary member system in which the Prime Minister has previously expressed confidence, could be boosted by astute phrasing.
Early indications are that this will be a close-run race. A Research New Zealand poll of 500 people last month found that 45 per cent favoured retaining MMP, 42 per cent were against and 13 per cent were unsure. That should have persuaded the Government to hand over the whole process to a neutral party. If political overtones are evident in any aspect of the referendum, the credibility of the outcome will be tainted. Legislation underpinning the first poll will not be introduced until early next year. It is not too late for the Government to step totally aside. If it did, there would be no cause for public grievance whatever the outcome.