Claire Trevett on politics

Claire Trevett is a Herald political writer

Claire Trevett: Big 'Dolly' stands in way of MMP changes

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Judith Collins offers farcical excuses as revelation delivered glibly over dismissed electoral reforms.

Justice Minister Judith Collins. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Justice Minister Judith Collins. Photo / Mark Mitchell

In the 1980s Australian show The Comedy Club, the naughty schoolgirl Jophesine had a standard defence to accusations of wrongdoing, no matter how compelling the evidence that tied it to her: "Dolly did it."

This week saw Justice Minister Judith Collins draw inspiration from Jophesine when she was asked if she would legislate for the Electoral Commission's recommended changes to MMP.

Her answer was blunt: "No." because she was unable to get consensus, "or even a majority".

She said this in a very accusatory tone, as if it was all the fault of the other parties. When asked exactly which parties stood in the way of consensus, she scoffed that "no party has been able to reach consensus because consensus requires all parties to agree".

By the time she was on Radio New Zealand the next day she was in full Jophesine mode and Dolly was the Green Party, Labour or political scientist Jon Johansson who apparently did not understand the political system.

Despite her protestations, it quickly became clear National was Dolly because National was the party preventing Collins getting the required votes for any legislation. Collins protested, saying it was not true National had simply ignored the recommendations and that "all parties have their own agendas".

She then released a spreadsheet which showed National opposed all of those recommendations for change.

Collins is right to say National was not alone in having an agenda.

Until 2011, elections for the Green Party were an extreme sport requiring crampons for it to scale above the 5 per cent mark. Labour, too, is not entirely disinterested. Its likely future coalition partners, the Greens and New Zealand First, rely on the threshold rather than the coat-tailing provision. National's interests are the reverse - it has relied on Act's John Banks and United Future's Peter Dunne holding their electorates to bolster its numbers. However, the cups of tea and quiet deals have taken their toll and National could benefit more from lowering the threshold instead of retaining the coat-tailing. However coy it may act, New Zealand First may well consider being a senior partner to National preferable to playing second string to the Green Party in a Labour coalition. In addition, the Conservative Party has polled above 2 per cent and boosting their chances could prove a better pay-off than sticking to Act.

Despite their own vested interests, Labour and the Greens do have a higher moral mandate for wanting change than National's mandate for keeping things as they were.

Not least, the changes they backed were recommended by that independent authority, the Electoral Commission.

Secondly, it was National itself which promised the review in the first place. National's subsequent abrupt dismissal of any of those changes has resulted in questions about whether it was acting in bad faith. Voters are indeed entitled to feel a bit duped.

What enhanced the impression Collins was simply protecting her own party's interests was her apparent lack of effort at even trying to broker some consensus. For example, it seems unlikely that it would have taken much "consulting" to get New Zealand First to agree to the lower threshold in return for getting rid of coat-tailing. That would have given a majority, even without National.

It also emerged that the "consultation" Collins undertook with Labour consisted of sending off a couple of letters, voicing her hopes for "a collaborative process" but then failing to meet them or respond to their initial positions. Instead she simply pulled the plug on the whole deal.

The manner of delivering the news was also rather cavalier given the review was required by law, had cost $1.4 million, thousands made submissions on it, and the Electoral Commission had spent months on it. Collins had been asked about the review for weeks. She was always "consulting with other parties". Yet she waited until Budget week and minutes before Aaron Gilmore was to deliver his final address to break the news, by way of a rather glib answer in Parliament.

The review was put up by former Justice Minister Simon Power, who took the precaution of putting it in legislation to ensure it happened. It is hard to know how many of those who picked MMP did so in the belief the review would iron out the most despised aspects of the system.

Power's announcement of the review before the referendum was taken as a commitment National would seriously consider changes if they opted to keep MMP. That may well have happened had Power stayed on. As it happened, Power then left it in the tender hands of Judith Collins, who is a very different kettle of fish. Collins' argument yesterday was that it was not her job to try to get some consensus on the issue. It may not be her job as a National MP, but it should be her job as a Justice Minister for the Government which ordered the review.

Power, who managed to usher through changes to electoral finance with some finesse, was the master of compromise. Collins' apparent aversion to the same act is perhaps the fault of those who sainted her as "Crusher".

Give someone a nickname worthy of a Viking warrior and they can't really be blamed for feeling they have to live up to it. Compromiser Collins doesn't have quite the same ring.

- NZ Herald

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