Editorial: Govt probably rueing MMP review pledge

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The Government may be regretting the review of MMP that it promised if the system was endorsed at a referendum. Photo / Ross Setford
The Government may be regretting the review of MMP that it promised if the system was endorsed at a referendum. Photo / Ross Setford

The Government may be regretting the review of MMP that it promised if the system was endorsed at a referendum. The system was endorsed and the Electoral Commission has duly proceeded with the review. Its tentative conclusions, published this week, could make it harder for the National Party to find partners after future elections.

The commission proposes that parties should no longer receive a proportional allocation of seats on the basis of winning a single electorate. If that rule had been in force at the 2008 election the Act Party would have received one seat, not the five it was awarded on the strength of Rodney Hide winning Epsom.

Likewise in 2005, United Future would have had just Peter Dunne's seat, not the three that its nationwide vote permitted, and in 1999 New Zealand First would have had one seat, not five.

The rule might not have made a difference to the result of the last election, when Act and United First received no additional seats.

But National might not have been as willing to endorse Act in Epsom if the system had not allowed the possibility of Act winning additional seats. We might have been spared the contrived cup of tea.

National is not the only major party to have profited from the one-seat rule. Labour used to give Jim Anderton's Progressive Party a free run in his electorate and in 2002 he received two seats for winning one. The one-seat threshold for proportional representation is an oddity in the system and should go. The only reason it exists is that Germany, our model of MMP, has a three-electorate threshold so that parties with support confined to a region might be represented.

New Zealand has a different regional safeguard, a fixed number of electorates in the South Island that predates MMP. But that device means that the number of North Island electorates constantly increases - which is creating another problem now that Parliament is capped at 120 seats.

As the number of electorate seats grows, the balance available for the proportional allocation is diminished. The commission warns that when electorate seats comprise 76 per cent of Parliament, proportionality will be at risk. At the present rate that point could be reached in 2026.

Far from suggesting the cap on total seats be relaxed, the commission proposes it be tightened by doing away with the "overhang" that happens when parties win more electorates than their nationwide vote would give them, as the Maori Party does. While a slight temporary increase in the size of Parliament has not worried the public, the commission is concerned that larger overhangs might result from its suggestion that winning an electorate should no longer be a qualification for proportional representation.

The commission believes the one-seat threshold to be "the single biggest factor in public dissatisfaction with MMP at present", which suggests it has not consulted more widely than submissions it received.

Among the public at large the most commonly heard criticism of MMP is that it allows MPs defeated in electorates to survive on the list. The commission considers dual candidacy to be a virtue.

It proposes no changes to the way the list system operates, asserting that list MPs are no less personally endorsed than electorate MPs because the commission circulates the list to voters before every election. Its proposals are open for discussion before the commission finalises the review.

But the draft looks to be as far as it will go.

- NZ Herald

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