The MMP Review risks being perceived by the public as a sham dominated by the self-interest and conservatism of the entrenched political elite. While most submissions to the Electoral Commission will focus on issues of fairness, democracy and participation, for political parties and MPs there are pressing practical issues at stake - literally their careers are on the line. It won't come as any great shock to the public, therefore, that political parties are making their own interests the priority in the review.
Party submissions promote changes - or, more accurately, resistance to change - that match, almost exactly, the outcomes that would have served their interests at the last election. So United Future, Act and their coalition partner National, who all benefited from the one seat threshold exemption, continue to support it vigorously, while Labour and New Zealand First largely oppose it. Presumably, if the election had resulted in a different configuration of seats and percentages the party submissions would have reflected this. The public may have wished for a more long-term and principled approach to what is an important constitutional review.
The Herald's editorial today, Self-interest leads way in MMP review, explains the situation best. The newspaper warns that the recommendations of the various parties are self-serving, designed to inhibit change, and that we 'should not leave the review to parties with a stake in the status quo. MMP can be improved and needs to be'.
I made similar arguments this morning on TV3's Firstline - see: Bryce Edwards on MMP hearings - video. My main concern is that the review appears to be undermined, not only by self-interest, but also by the lightweight level of debate dominated by elites. The review should be a significant and in-depth opportunity to look at every aspect of the electoral system and consider all sorts of radical or fresh ideas that might improve the way our elections translate the popular will of the people into parliamentary representation. This is the first time in 16 years that we've had an opportunity to review MMP, and last year significant dissatisfaction was evident - not just from the 42% of the public who voted to get rid of MMP, but also from concerns about other aspects of the system such as so-called 'backdoor MPs', the high party vote threshold, dual candidacy, and the secretive production of party lists.
The decision over the level of the MMP threshold and the one seat exemption would have the most impact on Parliament, as it is a major barrier to new political movements gaining parliamentary representation. The most important feature of MMP is its proportional nature, with parties represented in Parliament according to the number of voters who support them. However, this principle is sacrificed by the existing 5% threshold, which is rather anti-democratic. The argument that eliminating the threshold would lead to instability with too many small, radical parties in Parliament is unproven and contradictory given the number of small parties that have been elected and participated in coalition government under MMP already. Our MMP governments have been remarkably stable in recent years, with small parties in government suffering generally being severely punished by voters if they are seen to cause instability.
Trying to justify pragmatic positions often leads to contradictory arguments. Labour, for example, wants the one seat exemption abolished because they say it gives too much power to voters in seats like Ohariu and Epsom, but at the same time wants the threshold at 4% which would effectively deny any influence or representation to tens of thousands of supporters of small parties - see: Commission warned against changing MMP system.
Winston Peters made an appearance to support his party's submission (see: Peters says MMP change call not 'sour grapes') which can either be read as principled, optimistic or, indeed, sour grapes, depending on which way you look at it. NZ First's rejection of the one seat exemption, and support for a 5% threshold, mostly reflects NZ First's interests over the past few elections but also shows a confidence that the party can sustain it's 2011 level of support in the future. The two main MMP lobby groups are also both calling for the one seat exemption to be abolished and for the threshold to be reduced to 4% - see: Kate Chapman and Danya Levy's Opposing MMP lobbyists partly agree.
Of course the Election Commission will have thousands of other - less self-serving - submissions to consider, but in the end they can only make recommendations to Parliament and the final decision is up to, yes, the political parties in Parliament. And that will be the ultimate test of the limits of their self-serving instincts.
Tomorrow is Anzac Day - which has seemingly now replaced Waitangi Day as New Zealand's 'national day'. The political characteristics of the day are fascinating - especially because it's come to feature such strong reverence from the public, to the extent that wearing a red poppy is now almost mandatory and attending dawn services is actually quite trendy. It's the sort of nationalism that is seen by all parts of the political spectrum as being respectable. Until recently Anzac Day was thought of as a dying tradition, and one that was very politically problematic, as it represented for many an unhealthy orientation to glorifying war and in particularly the invasion of a sovereign country by New Zealand aggressors under instruction of British imperialists. But as an indication of how much societal attitudes have changed, it's worth noting that the University of Otago, for example, is holding it's first ever Anzac Day ceremony tomorrow, which is explained by the President of the Students Association, Logan Edgar, in his Presidential Column, as well as in news item in the student newspaper, Critic: OUSA finally clicks, World War One happened.
The wearing of Anzac poppies is still slightly controversial due to the preference of some to wear white versions that signify opposition to war - see a discussion of this here: Poppy colours the subject of debate, and because of their Chinese origins (Poppy abuse shows Kiwis' 'dark side'). But for a thorough list of official details about the history and meaning of Anzac Day - see Government Historian Jock Phillips' Anzac Day no 97. And for those needing an antidote to the nationalism of Anzac Day, there's always these previous dissenting opinion pieces by Matt McCarten, John Minto, and Chris Trotter.
As our media becomes saturated with Anzac related stories - many regurgitating the same lines and sentiments year-after-year - it's interesting to compare the relative lack of coverage of the war New Zealand is currently fighting in Afghanistan - a war which has lasted two and half times longer than WW1. APNZ reports that New Zealand troops could finally be leaving Afghanistan next year but that their local interpreters are very concerned about their own safety after the troops leave - see: Afghan interpreters claim they will be killed when NZ withdraws. In Vietnam the flow of refugees in the warzone used to be referred to as 'people voting with their feet', and while the Government will no doubt try to label the withdrawal as a 'mission accomplished' decision, the interpreters' desire to flee their homeland paints a different picture.
Other important or interesting political items today include:
* The Government's SkyCity deal is covered by both Colin James (Various threats arise from one-armed bandit deal) and Chris Trotter (Pokies and our deal with the Devil).
* The political heat in Christchurch is still very evident today, with a large volume of interesting and critical items: Charlie Gates's Dalziel claims Cera ditched her (http://bit.ly/IiYMnB0), TVNZ's Blogger defiant at MP defamation claim, Gordon Campbell's On how the government is ducking responsibility for meeting needs in Christchurch, Sam Sachdeva's Call for inquiry on lack of cover, and Mary Richardson's New unit signals end of people's voice in rebuild.
* No Right Turn reports on a new left/green internet-based political group: Standup.
* David Farrar puts together some useful metrics to help rate the performance of MPs (Opposition performance statistics Q1 2012).
* Andrea Vance explains some change occurring in the judicial area (Judges to reveal expenses, jobs to go as ministry hit).
* Sarah Harvey reports on the brewing political will to increase the alcohol purchase age (Growing push for drinking age of 20), and Cathy Odgers protests against her own party's drift towards wowerism (Freedom, Choice and John Banks).
* Toby Manhire reports on Another NZ MP offends another foreign friend. This time: Mexico.
* Isaac Davison reports concerns about proposed Government reforms in the charity sector (Donors voice warning over dismantling of charities watchdog).