Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Commission calls for MMP shakeup

The Beehive in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Beehive in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Electoral Commission has proposed abolishing the rule which allows MPs who win an electorate seat to bring others into Parliament on their coat-tails even if they fall short of the party vote threshold, saying it was the most unpopular feature of MMP and should go.

As part of the MMP Review, the Commission has also recommended lowering the party vote threshold needed to get into Parliament from five per cent to four per cent - a move which would mean parties would need about 23,000 fewer votes to get into Parliament than at five per cent.

The two rules had created some apparent discrepancies in the past - including 2008 when former Act leader Rodney Hide won Epsom and brought four other MPs to Parliament with 3.65 per cent of the vote while NZ First fell just short of the five per cent threshold but could not return to Parliament.

Act's reliance on the Epsom electorate to ensure its place in Parliament also prompted the infamous cup of tea between Act leader John Banks and Prime Minister John Key in a bid to shore up Banks' chances in Epsom so National would keep a coalition partner.

Chief Electoral Officer Robert Peden said that the electorate seat threshold was the source of most dissatisfaction with the MMP system that was raised in public submissions on the MMP Review, and abolishing it would help ensure public confidence in MMP.

Removing that provision would be partly compensated for by lowering the party vote threshold needed to get into Parliament from five per cent to four per cent.

Mr Peden said lowering the party vote threshold from five per cent to four per cent would be a 20 per cent reduction in the number of votes needed to get into Parliament.

However, it was still high enough to prevent a glut of very small parties making it into Parliament. He said it was a significant change, which would mean parties could get into Parliament with about 92,000 votes rather than 115,000 votes.

Mr Peden said he could not say whether changing the rules would stop such events happening, but said it was impossible to take politics out of the electoral system.

The Commission also recommended scrapping the provision for overhang seats. It proposed keeping dual candidacy, under which candidates can stand in both an electorate and on the party's list, and leaving the formation of the party lists in the hands of parties themselves.

Mr Peden said parties should be able to protect good candidates who were standing in marginal electorates or in unwinnable electorates. There was a perrception list MPs were unelected and therefore not accountabe to voters.

"This is not true. List MPs are accountable to voters just as much as electorate MPs are."

He said overall the commission had concluded relatively few changes were needed, but those opted for would increase public confidence in MMP. He did not believe a referendum was required to implement the changes, which should be able to be in place by 2014.

If the proposed changes had been in place for the 2011 elections, National would have 58 seats instead of 59, because it would lose a seat to prevent the current overhang of one seat. That would mean it would require the Maori Party to get a majority of 61. It can currently secure a majority with only Act's John Banks and United Future's Peter Dunne.

There would have been a much more dramatic effect on the 2008 Parliament. Under the changes, NZ First would have had five MPs rather than none and Act would only have had one, instead of five. National would have had two fewer seats, but could still have secured Government - but the Maori Party would have been the 'kingmakers' and it would have had to rely on the Maori Party votes to get a majority.

The proposals would go out for a further round of public submissions until September 7.

The Government had promised MMP would be reviewed if a majority of voters voted to stay with MMP in the referendum on the voting system last election.

The Commission began the review in February by seeking public submissions, and about 4700 submissions were received.

The proposals being suggested by the Electoral Commission:

The one electorate seat threshold for the allocation of list seats should be abolished

The party vote threshold for the allocation of list seats should be lowered to 4 per cent

Candidates should continue to be able to stand both in an electorate and on a party list at general elections

List MPs should continue to be able to contest by-elections

Political parties should continue to have responsibility for the composition and ranking of candidates on their party lists

The provision for overhang seats should be abolished for parties that do not cross the party vote threshold

It recommended identifying 76 electorate seats (in a 120-seat Parliament) as the point at which the risk of proportionality from insufficient seats becomes unacceptable. New Zealand is likely to reach that point before 2026.

The gradual erosion of lists seats relative to electorate seats risks undermining the diversity of representation in Parliament - recommended Parliament should review.

- NZ Herald

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