Alan McRobie: Education on voting systems vital

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The referendum the National Party committed to in 2008 is just 5 months away. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The referendum the National Party committed to in 2008 is just 5 months away. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Alan McRobie, previously the principal political science adviser to the 1993 independent Electoral Referendum Panel, writes that an early start on the referendum debate is essential.

Although the referendum the National Party committed to in its 2008 election campaign is now only five months away, the promised public education campaign that is to precede it has not materialised.

Despite no apparent public groundswell for a review of our MMP electoral system, the Government proceeded to pass legislation setting up the referendum. This largely replicates the process used in 1992 and 1993, which was preceded by an education campaign.

Public information programmes, especially where complex issues are involved, are difficult at the best of times.

They involve creating an awareness of the issue, arousing interest and retaining attention, developing material to convey key messages to voters and, perhaps most important where a range of options is involved, providing information that will enable people to develop a good understanding of the likely consequences of each option.

Any programme should give voters time to become fully informed before voting. It is sobering to realise that this year no one under the age of 36 (close to one-quarter of New Zealand's voting population) will have voted in other than an MMP election.

The Rugby World Cup will be played between early September and the end of October. Given the nature of this festival, very few are likely to be interested in developing an understanding of the referendum.

During the final month it will be competing with the election campaign.

The nuances of electoral systems are complex. A substantial public education programme will be needed to remind those who were voters in the early 1990s, and to familiarise younger voters with the different options and their implications.

No electoral system is perfect. Although I have never been a fan of MMP because it gives considerable power to political parties, I acknowledge it has largely met the expectations identified by the Royal Commission - fairer representation for smaller parties, women, Maori and other minority ethnic groups, and greater transparency when contentious issues are being debated.

If a majority of voters support MMP there are four changes that might usefully be made to improve its public acceptance.

First, parties should be required to win at least two electorate seats before they qualify for a share of list seats. Had this applied last election Act, which won fewer party votes than New Zealand First, would have had only one seat instead of the five it was awarded.

Second, candidates should be permitted to stand either for an electorate seat or on a party list, not both.

This would remove what many see as "double-dipping", aptly described as "voted out on Saturday; back in on Monday".

Third, sitting list MPs' enthusiasm for standing in byelections in constituency seats should be dampened. It is somewhat bizarre to see sitting list MPs contesting byelections as has happened in Mt Albert, Mana and Te Tai Tokerau.

Fourth, serious consideration should be given to introducing the alternative vote (preferential vote), at least for the party list vote. Although MMP results in proportional representation, wasted votes still occur when parties which fail to reach the 5 per cent threshold are excluded.

The choice facing voters is whether New Zealand should retain a proportional electoral system such as MMP or the Single Transferable Vote electoral system (STV), or return to a non-proportional majoritarian electoral system such as First-past-the-post (FPP), the Supplementary Member (SM) electoral system, or the so-called (and misnamed) Preferential Voting system.

FPP was used in elections before 1996. In the last FPP election in 1993, fewer than one-quarter of electorates were won by candidates gaining at least 50 per cent of the votes cast.

From time to time some MPs have expressed a preference for a Supplementary Member system (SM). SM is not a proportional electoral system. It is a First-past-the-post system to which are added a small number of seats filled from prepared and pre-ordered party lists.

The Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system is used to elect District Health Boards and some local authority councils. It uses multi-member electorates, and voters use preferential voting to determine who shall represent them. The overall outcome is generally broadly proportional to the share of the vote received by competing parties.

The wording of this year's referendum is flawed because it describes preferential voting as a "voting system". It is simply a method of voting whereby voters rank candidates (and parties) in order of preference. Its outcomes are non-proportional. Furthermore, it can be applied to any of the electoral systems options we are being asked to consider. If voters are attracted to this referendum option they should ask themselves the question: to which electoral system do they want it applied? Despite the recent statement by the Prime Minister that National "would not campaign for any position in the referendum" Parliament has loaded the options in favour of single-party majoritarian governments.

The form of electoral systems is important because they determine who will write all of the other laws that govern the behaviour of a country's citizens. We need a good understanding of the different options on offer, and their implications for the composition of the Parliament and the formation of governments if we are to cast an informed vote.

- NZ Herald

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