Who wants to go back to the days of Robert Muldoon when no one got a say except a majority Government?" the Prime Minister asked yesterday, in response to the National Party's commitment to hold a referendum on mixed-member proportional representation.
This was Helen Clark's way of saying that few people wanted to ditch MMP, and even fewer relished a return to the first-past-the-post electoral system. In that, she is right. By and large, MMP has satisfied this country. People may have quibbles with aspects of it but there is no groundswell for its removal. Indeed, if anything, support has solidified since a shaky beginning.
The Prime Minister was somewhat mischievous in tracing the origins of MMP back to the Muldoon Administration. It was, in fact, a byproduct of a Labour Government's rapid economic restructuring in the 1980s. Those who voted for MMP no longer wanted unbridled power in the hands of a single party and hoped proportional representation would, thanks to the necessity for governing coalitions, be the harbinger of consensus politics. Some of the optimism was overstated. MMP, however, has produced nothing in the way of political maladministration that suggests its time should be up.
National is, nevertheless, offering a referendum in 2011, which will ask whether voters are satisfied with MMP. It did the same in 2002 and 2005.
National's leader, John Key, says he believes New Zealanders like some proportionality in their electoral system and would be unlikely to go back to FPP. Why, then, retain the policy? There are perhaps two reasons, the first reflecting National's underlying unease with MMP. It has proved less adept than Labour at forming the alliances that underpin governing coalitions. National is aware also that many people are unhappy at not having had another say on MMP as they were promised.
When adopted, the system was to undergo a review after two elections. The public expected a referendum. Instead, the review was done by a select committee. Unsurprisingly, given the presence of minor party MPs whose parliamentary presence depends on MMP, it declared all was well. The failure to allot the review to the Electoral Commission for an impartial opinion, and to allow the public a final say, has provided an unnecessary source of resentment.
Many of the aggrieved are probably irked further by certain aspects of MMP. Some dislike list MPs. The idea that people can get into Parliament without a personal endorsement from an electorate will never sit comfortably with them. Others are concerned that the tail too often wags the dog, as minor parties wield an influence out of all keeping with their representation. They wonder, especially, why small parties with electorate seats but less than 5 per cent of the party vote should get list MPs into Parliament.
All this does not, however, imply such people want to discard MMP. And those who do might ponder what would happen if a referendum in 2011 found them in the majority. National says this would prompt a second referendum, which would ask voters what system they would like. What would be the options? FPP would have few takers. STV has been mooted but its reputation has been tarnished by use in district health board elections. There, it has proved cumbersome, a criticism levelled, similarly, at preferential voting.
Twelve years ago, MMP was this country's answer to a widely recognised need. A change so soon thereafter would be justified only if it were failing to produce governments that voters could recognise as an expression of their collective will. Broadly, it has passed that test, the ultimate test of any democratic method.