This month's referendum on our national electoral system offers the New Zealand public an opportunity to embrace an electoral system that many politicians don't want - because it gives real power to voters.
The case is compelling for Single Transferable Vote (STV). STV utilises most votes, gives voters direct control over who is elected, delivers broadly proportionate results, imposes reasonable limits on the power of the major parties and enables quality independent candidates to be elected.
The Electoral Commission envisages that under an STV system it is likely that there would be 24-30 electorates. Each electorate would have three to seven members each. Voters would be asked to rank candidates in order of preference. The candidates with the most preferences would be elected to represent the electorate.
Under single member First Past the Post (FPP, the system currently used to elect electorate MPs), it is common for many votes to be wasted. Under multi-member STV this does not happen. This is because voters' preferences are transferred once a voter's first choice candidate is elected or eliminated. So, even if a voter doesn't get their first choice elected, they may very likely get their second or third one. It is common for candidates under FPP to win with only 30-40 per cent of the vote, leaving the majority without representation. For example, in 2008 at the General Election in the marginal electorate of Ohariu, Peter Dunne won with 32 per cent of the vote. This means that 68 per cent of voters did not support him as their preferred candidate. STV also delivers proportionate results as the number of MPs is basically proportionate to the number of first preferences a party gets.
Given MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) is also a proportional voting system and has delivered us more representative parliaments, why would we change now? The answer is the list system, which is MMP's Achilles heel. Under this system, it is the parties (often the bosses, not the members) who decide who gets the high list places that guarantee candidates seats in Parliament. These processes are generally not public or transparent. MPs are also not always accountable to the public they are supposed to serve. The reason being that it is not individual voters that list MPs are relying on to get into or stay in Parliament but those that call the shots in the Party. Under STV, each individual candidate must win and retain the support of their electorate.
Under MMP a voter must accept the total package of candidates offered by the party whether they support them all or not. Under STV voters are able to judge whether each candidate is of sufficient calibre to represent them. One feature of the party list system which has been heavily criticised over the years is that an MP can lose their electorate seat but still get in on the list. With STV this is not possible.
Introducing STV would not disadvantage the smaller parties who are necessary to make our Parliament representative. Given that each electorate would have 3-7 MPs each, parties would strategically focus their resources on winning seats in areas where their natural constituencies lie. Furthermore, unlike FPP where only one candidate can be elected, each electorate can elect a number of MPs to represent its various interests.
STV generally necessitates coalitions but this is an advantage ensuring wider perspectives around the Cabinet table while keeping the two major parties honest. The argument that STV potentially creates unstable government is not borne out when it comes to examining the Irish story. Ireland has used STV to elect the lower house of Parliament (Dail Eireann) for the last 89 years to elect stable coalition governments. Twice STV has been challenged in referenda and twice Ireland has opted to keep it.
Many New Zealanders are increasingly familiar with STV, using it to elect their local DHB since 2004. STV is also used to elect councils in Wellington, Dunedin, Porirua, Kaipara, Kapiti Coast and Marlborough Districts. Internationally, apart from the Republic of Ireland, STV is used in Australia, Northern Ireland, Scotland and India to elect politicians at a central and local government level.
In saying all this, on the basis of current polling, it is unlikely at this time that STV will gain the necessary support to win in a contest with MMP. Supporters of STV therefore might give consideration to supporting the retention of MMP as this option will trigger a review of the system. S76 of the Electoral Referendum Act 2010 gives significant discretion to the Electoral Commission to review "other" aspects of MMP. These aspects could include the way electorate MPs are elected and the way the list is constituted. At a minimum, STV should be introduced as the method of choice to elect electorate MPs.
Introducing STV is an inadequate panacea for bad governance, voter alienation or undemocratic decision-making but it can ensure that the will of the majority of citizens is accurately reflected in our parliaments come election time.
Iona Pannett is a Wellington City councillor who has led successful campaigns for STV in the capital.