The first day of hearings in the review of MMP has made one thing abundantly clear: we cannot look to political parties to lead the way when it comes to improving the electoral system. The parties were the first to present submissions yesterday and each has taken positions that suit its current interests.
On the vexed issue of the thresholds for party representation in Parliament, for example, National wants no change to the minimum 5 per cent of the nationwide vote or victory in a single electorate. Labour wants the single electorate qualification to be abolished and the nationwide threshold lowered to 4 per cent. Act and United Future, which owe their survival to a single electorate, also argue for its retention while the Greens want it removed.
Labour thinks it "unfair" that the electors of Epsom and Ohariu have had more influence than other electorates in deciding which party can govern after the last two elections. But it did not seem disturbed when Jim Anderton used the same single electorate qualification to add to the centre-left vote in previous elections. Likewise, the Greens were happy to win the Coromandel seat at one election and tried to hold it as an insurance against the risk of missing the 5 per cent threshold.
National, of course, would take quite a different view of the anomaly if Labour happened to be governing on the strength of one or two electorates with the balance of power, as well might happen sooner or later. In fact, it is surprising that both main parties have not made more use of the opportunity to sponsor candidates of allied parties in any number of safe constituencies, thereby making those seats additional to the main party's proportional allocation.
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Taken to its extreme, the mixed member system could produce a Parliament of 64 nominally independent electorate MPs and 120 list MPs from parties that cleared the nationwide threshold. Obviously, that is far more seats than MMP's designers contemplated or the country needs, but it is hard to see how the "rort" can be removed. Labour told the Electoral Commission yesterday it has no objection to an individual electorate being represented by an MP from a small party, it simply does not believe that should give the party a right to additional seats on a proportional allocation.
The commission could endorse that view. There is no reason a party that fails to reach the 5 per cent threshold should be given additional seats simply because it has won an electorate. But then, no party is in that position in this Parliament. None of the four small parties that won electorates last year qualified for more.
There are more important issues for the commission's review. The tendency for rejected electorate MPs to return on their party's list disgusts many voters. It would be easy to amend the law to prevent candidates hedging their bets but sitting MPs are unlikely to make that change even if the commission recommends it.
Nor are the parties offering the public a greater say in the selection of their lists. There are ways that voters could register, as in United States primaries, for the right to vote on the ordering of list candidates for their preferred party. Not many voters might take the trouble but the number would be greater than the membership of even the leading parties these days. The exercise might boost interest in them, even membership.
MMP was heavily endorsed by the referendum at the last election, when the promise of this review undoubtedly assuaged some concerns. The system is working better than its critics feared but its enthusiasts should not leave the review to parties with a stake in the status quo. MMP can be improved and needs to be.