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Better Democracy

Entry 1427, on 2012-08-17 at 21:29:57 (Rating 3, Politics)

The old issue of our electoral system has become prominent again. The recently completed referendum made it clear that the majority of people like the current proportional representation system, MMP, but now the details are being debated.

There are many problems with the current system: first there is the threshold where a party needs at least 5% of the total vote to get any list seats, and there is the rule that a party with one electorate seat can have additional list MPs up to their proportion of the vote, then there are the Maori seats which give special privileges to one racial group, and finally there is the "overhang" which can cause extra MPs needing to be assigned to maintain proportionality.

Many of these issues seem the result of rather arbitrary rules. For example, why is 5% the magic number rather than 4 or 6? Why have a threshold at all? Actually there is a very good reason there is a threshold. Look at Israel where the threshold is 2% (up from 1% previously). How many parties in their parliament? There are 53 apparently!

Whether that is a good or bad thing is debatable. I guess it must make the whole system rather unstable and unpredictable but if people wanted less parties and a more stable system why don't they vote that way? The threshold does seem in some ways like an unfair restriction on what voters might reasonably want. Maybe they want a chaotic environment where there is constant turmoil caused by the interaction of many small parties. The alternative of just a few parties having total control is worse in many ways.

Also, some of the disadvantages of small parties only occur when there are a small number of them. If one small party tries to "bribe" a larger one and there are other small parties available as potential partners then the large one could deal with one of them instead. But if a large party needs a smaller one and only one is available then that small party could be seen as having too much influence. But I would have to say that our experience here in New Zealand hasn't really been that the "tail wagging the dog" scenario actually happens much.

The rule where a party with an MP elected through the electorate vote then gets seats in proportion to its total vote even when that vote is below the threshold is also strange. What was the point here? If a single candidate was voted in and his party was conspicuously avoided doesn't that mean that the voters have confidence in the person but not the party? Why would other "hangers on" then get a free ride in as well? That seems unfair and has lead to several dodgy deals here over the years. If nothing else happens then that rule at least really must go!

The Maori seats are another area of great debate. One of the benefits of MMP is to give parties with a specialist support base (for example Maori) the opportunity to participate in the government. The Maori seats should be unnecessary in that situation yet we still have them. Why? They do seem to be an example of reverse racism, which is really just another type of racism. Not only is it insulting to non-Maori because they get less privileges than Maori, but it is insulting to Maori as well because the inference is that they need special rules to do what others can do without help.

Finally there is the extra MPs problem. There should normally be 120 and the majority of people (81% according to a referendum held in 1999) think even that is too many. Having even more is not a popular outcome even when it is done for good reasons.

It's interesting to hear the different politicians' opinions on these issues. Some are predictably only interested in getting the best outcome for themselves. John Banks seemed to think the best political system was one which elected John Key. Others supported change even though it might be detrimental to themselves because they thought the changes would make things fairer. I commend them for that, even if I disagree with their political philosophies.

There's also some bizarre claims from the Nat's support parties, such as the current system has delivered 3 or 4 high quality members who support the John Key government. And these high quality members are? John Banks? Surely no one really believes that. Peter Dunne? Really? He's mediocre at best. And both of those won their electorate anyway which leaves the Maori Party. Yes, well, if they have "3 or 4 high quality members" I would hate to say what would represent low quality!

The consensus seems to be that if these rules were changed for the next election it would work against the current government. But I don't know if that is necessarily true. Hopefully Act will be gone at the next election, but National - which is likely to be the biggest party by a good margin - can still team up with the Conservatives which might benefit from the new rules. And they shouldn't assume Labour will want a coalition with any other party just to make a majority. That option is open to both major parties.

So in summary I think it's time to throw out our assumptions and fixed ideas about our voting system. Having many small parties might be quite a positive move because I think we need more variety in government. Bring on a better democracy!


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