Voters reading the largely sensible and uncontroversial recommendations of the MMP review could be forgiven for assuming these new rules will be in force for the next election. Indeed, there is no technical or ethical reason why that cannot happen. The review was designed in such a way as to take the matter out of the hands of self-interested political parties and to canvass the views of any citizen or group interested enough to contribute. The findings are out, and that should be an end of it. Unhappily, the Government shows every sign of dragging the chain.
This is especially disappointing, as so far National has barely put a foot wrong in this area. It was Jim Bolger who – albeit without reference even to his own party – decided we would have a referendum on whether to change the old first-past-the-post electoral system. Then a promise from former leader Don Brash was upheld by Prime Minister John Key, ensuring that public support for the now well-bedded-in MMP system would be tested. As a Government, National resisted all temptation to screw the scrum by promoting its own view about the system in the referendum run-up. In National circles, the proportional system is seen as a cumbersome nuisance at best and an outrage at worst. But the party rightly saw the honour of leaving the debate to non-politicians.
Till now, the only possible criticism it could wear was its decision to have a referendum on the system, as-is-where-is, and only after that to canvass ways the system might be improved. It should, in fact, have been the other way around: debate how to make the system better, then decide whether to keep it. In the event, MMP won convincing support from voters – even in its unimproved state – and now is the time to make the agreed-upon changes. National, however, is still talking about the possibility of consensus among the political parties. And it has also dog-whistled exaggeratedly about the potential for MP numbers to grow under the review’s recommendations. There is a clear whiff of disingenuousness here. National has benefited handsomely from the systemic tics the review has recommended abolishing. It will naturally feel no urgency about making the changes.
Equally, it is clear there will be no consensus among the political parties, whose views are an incompatible roil of ideals and self-interest. That was the whole point of an independent review. The only fair, clean and honourable thing to do is to introduce the amending legislation forthwith. Failure to do so will bring justified criticism that National is putting self-interest ahead of the public consensus. The review rightly judged that most people who can be bothered taking an interest in electoral fairness regard both the MMP seats threshold of 5% and the coat-tailing provision as unfair. By some lights the decision to reduce the threshold by which a party can qualify for an allocation of seats in Parliament to 4% of the vote was a timid move. But it is, in line with general submitter opinion, important progress. The abolition of the rule that allows a party that gains a single electorate seat to have a list-MP allocation even if it fails to gain 4% of the vote or more will also be extremely popular. Originally, these rules were built into the MMP system as temporary safeguards against Parliament becoming too fragmented. Had voters newly introduced to MMP’s range of choices elected a slew of loners, single-interest candidates and tiny parties, our system of government could have become inherently unstable or unwieldy.
Voting patterns did not prove nearly so excitable, and the time for these trainer-wheels to come off arrived years ago. Even if kept for the next election they would almost certainly not benefit National. Its coalition partner options have been reduced to three struggling parties – Act, United Future and the Maori Party – most of whom will be lucky to get elected at all next time, either in individual seats or through winning list allocations. So if it does swing the lead on getting these reforms enacted, National will be acting out of a purely illusory sense of self-interest. What it will achieve, however, is more public cynicism about its motives and actions – something this second-term Government can ill afford if it wants to retain the glittering electoral prize of the Beehive.