Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Seat jiggery pokery may be in review's sights

In both 2008 and 2011, the National Party encouraged supporters to give their electorate vote to the Act Party candidate instead. Photo / Herald on Sunday
In both 2008 and 2011, the National Party encouraged supporters to give their electorate vote to the Act Party candidate instead. Photo / Herald on Sunday

The 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System that recommended the change to the MMP voting system doesn't appear to have anticipated the jiggery pokery that has gone on in the Epsom electorate at the past two elections.

The question is, will the just commenced Electoral Commission review into MMP propose a solution? And, more to the point, will the Government, which has gained from having a few tame Act Party allies at its side, support any change?

In both 2008 and 2011, the National Party encouraged supporters in this safe Tory seat, to turn their back on the National candidate and give their electorate vote to the Act Party candidate instead - first Rodney Hide, then John Banks.

The nod and the wink from the party hierarchy was that Paul Goldsmith, National's fall-guy, was high enough up the party list to be returned to Parliament anyway.

The game was to exploit a quirk in the electoral rules hurdle requiring parties to secure 5 per cent of total vote before their candidates can enter Parliament. This rule is suspended if, as Mr Hide did in 2008, the party wins an electorate seat.

In that case, he was entitled to bring four additional Act list MPs in on his coat tails, even though the party received just 3.65 per cent of the total vote.

At the same election, New Zealand First scored 4.07 per cent of the party vote - a larger proportion than Act - but because it failed to win an electorate seat it was entitled to no parliamentary representation.

The Epsom Right is only playing the same sort of game Labour and the Greens experimented with at the second MMP election in 1999.

Then, Labour leader Helen Clark encouraged voters in the Coromandel electorate to support Green leader Jeanette Fitzsimons to ensure the defeat of the incumbent National MP, and bring several Green allies in on her coat tails.

As luck would have it, the Greens' party vote was just over the 5 per cent threshhold, entitling them to six seats, so Labour's last minute hi-jinks were unnecessary.

The threshold - the royal commission recommended a 4 per cent bar, parliamentarians voted for 5 per cent - was proposed as a method of, in the words of the commissioners, "discouraging the proliferation of minor and/or extremist groups in the House". Interestingly, it also proposed that because of "the special status of the New Zealand Maori population" and the "relatively small number of Maori voters" that the threshold not apply "to parties primarily representing Maori interests".

It also suggested "this waiver could be extended to parties representing other minority ethnic groups ... if this was thought desirable". The legislators of the time decided this potential can of worms was not desirable. But somehow they let it slip by, the anomaly now so blatantly manipulated in Epsom.

Of other issues the Electoral Commission has been asked to review, the one that fuels most public ire is dual candidacy, the ability of electorate candidates to enjoy the safety net of the party list to cling to. Also under some fire, is the way list MPs turn up to contest a byelection, then return to the House after losing as though nothing has happened.

The 2009 byelection in Mt Albert being the most extreme example, with three list MPs, John Boscawen, Melissa Lee, and Russel Norman all lining up.

It's as though critics want blood on the floor, forgetting that the winner-take-all system went out the door with the introduction of MMP. The myth is that voters carefully consider the merits of each candidate in a field then vote the best one into office. The reality has always been that some electorates are top-heavy with Labour-leaning supporters, others are safe National seats, and some are in between.

True, a well-entrenched MP can build up a personal vote that, to an extent, transcends party attachments, but that is the exception. On the whole, voters' first loyalty has always gone to the party.

Why I support dual listing is that the talent pool of aspirant MPs is shallow.

Therefore, it's not to our advantage to put obstacles in the way of those seeking a parliamentary career, who could prosper elsewhere. The party list offers some certainty to candidates. It also enables parties to ensure their brightest are returned to Parliament. Dual candidacy means particularly minor parties can blood candidates in "hopeless" electorates, without it being a suicide mission.

Have your say before May 31.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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