Some of you may remember a very dear friend of mine, Terry Heffernan, who almost pulled off the biggest political upset in the history of elections in Whanganui in 1987.

Terry, who died in 2010, aged just 58, stood for the much-maligned Social Credit Party whose leaders were Bruce Beetham and Garry Knapp at that time 30 years ago.

On the night, Terry failed to win the electorate seat of Whanganui from Labour's Russell Marshall by just 27 votes (the final majority was 248).

These were the old First Past The Post days when the Social Credit Party was on a political roll and harnessed over 20 per cent of the vote only to get just three members of Parliament. This, I believe, was the real impetus for the change to the MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) voting system.


Since 1996, our electoral system has operated under MMP which has opened up Parliament, given minority parties a real chance at representation and has reduced wasted votes. Perversely, the way we elect our electorate MPs is still under the old First Past The Post system and this has drastically limited the chance of any minor party candidate ever representing Whanganui as our electorate MP.

FPP had helped to maintain the two-party stranglehold since 1935 when Labour candidate Joseph Cotterill first won the seat. The seat has vacillated between the Labour and National parties since.

That is the nature of the FPP system, it supports the two major political parties because, strategically, people cannot afford to vote for a minor party candidate (unless they are thoroughly convinced that minor party candidate has a huge chance of winning, which is very rare and highly unusual). So, an electorate vote for a minor party candidate is very much a wasted vote.

When Terry Heffernan almost pulled it off, these were unprecedented times. Labour and National were at a very low ebb and Social Credit was on a spectacular rise but, even then, Terry Heffernan couldn't do it.

Both Beetham and Knapp were elected in by-elections which is often a time when voters will cast a protest vote against the two major parties. However, in 1984, Social Credit candidate Neil Morrison did the seemingly impossible and won the seat of Pakuranga in a general election.

So, come next week, bookmakers would be offering huge odds for anyone other than Harete Hipango (National) or Steph Lewis (Labour) winning the electorate seat of Whanganui.

While I will certainly be casting a party vote on September 23, I will not be voting for an electorate candidate.

That is partly because of the old, outdated FPP system we use which does not guarantee that the person we elect has the majority support of the electorate. Whanganui voters may not totally support either of the National or Labour candidates, and the system we use to elect our MP must change, as should the system we use to elect district councillors and mayor.

If we used the STV voting system on all these occasions, people could rank their preferences and that can make a real difference to who is elected. Under STV, that person always has the majority support of the electorate.

Under STV, while devout National and Labour supporters may choose to rank Hipango and Lewis as their No1 choice, their second choice may be for one of the minor party candidates because STV takes away strategic voting and allows people to give weight to their vote and to who they really prefer to be elected.

Who knows ... maybe the most generally preferred electorate candidate might be from one of the minor parties and maybe that person should be our next MP for Whanganui.

And perhaps all those who voted for the third-placed National Party candidate in 1987 - who effectively wasted their vote - may have put Terry Heffernan as their No2 choice under STV and that may just have carried the day for Heffernan ... we will never know.

The other reason I will not be casting an electorate vote is because I have spoken to both Hipango and Lewis, quizzing them about their idea of democracy and, in particular, how they would vote on free votes (often referred to as conscience votes) in Parliament. To me, this important issue runs at the heart of true democracy and representation.

Unfortunately, I do not believe these two candidates seriously wish to truly represent the people of Whanganui. From the conversation I had with them, it was obvious they are both only interested in what they believe in when it comes to controversial issues decided in a free vote (former MP, Chester Borrows, was no different).

On certain issues it would not matter to these candidates how their electorate felt about a particular issue, they would vote according to their own "conscience" - even if a huge majority of Whanganui voters disagreed with them. To me, that is not democracy and that is not representation.

What are their options? Well, as Pakuranga MP Maurice Williamson once told me, he scientifically polled his electorate regarding all free votes in Parliament and voted how the electorate wanted - even if he did not agree. That is true representation.

-Steve Baron is a Whanganui-based political commentator, author and Founder of Better Democracy NZ. He holds degrees economics and political science.