Heather Roy

26 November 2018

Justice Minister Andrew Little was interviewed on current events programme Q+A last Sunday about his reform agenda. Reforms have been mooted by the Labour led government in a range of areas from cannabis legalization to abortion reform, euthanasia to electoral reform. The Minister’s thinking seems now to have progressed to the stage where he is considering three referenda at the 2020 election – cannabis legalistaion, euthanasia and electoral reform.

The electoral reform referenda would likely be about dropping the 5% MMP threshold to 4 percent and dealing with the coat tailing issue. Currently if a party wins one electorate seat and say 3 percent of the vote it brings to parliament the number of MPs 3% of the vote earns (4 or 5 MPs). However if a party gains no electorate seat but gets 4.9% of the vote it is not represented in parliament at all. An inherent unfairness exists with this situation.

I support the idea of referenda being held on these topics. They are all matters the public should have a say on. I’m particularly interested in electoral reform. During the 2017 election I wrote about why we should be considering electoral reform. MMP is now embedded in people’s psyche. We’ve had it for 22 years and first time voters in the first MMP election (1996) will now be at least 40 years old. We know enough about MMP to know where unfairness exists, and what changes would make our electoral system work better.

I would like to see two areas of our current system reformed:

  1. Drop the 5% threshold. I want the threshold to go completely and my reasoning is outlined in Trainer Wheels Off – time to abandon the MMP threshold. Minister Little talked about the distortion caused by the current threshold. The problem is that any threshold creates a distortion and we will only be true to voters wishes when each and every vote they casts counts. The wasted vote is redistributed to all parties proportionately, so the bigger parties benefit most. Because voters worry that the vote they cast may not count they often try instead to game the system by voting tactically, and it is the small parties that suffer as a result. Listening to people’s reasoning around who they voted for and why can be entertaining but counter-productive to achieving the government people really want.
  2. Move to a four year electoral cycle. Our three year electoral cycle disincentivises long-term change because the next election just about always gets in the way. Politicians have to focus every three years on being re-elected, to the exclusion of the real work of government. Projects deserving of cross party support and longer-term thinking (such as the right age for state pensions to begin) are shelved or abandoned while parties try to convince the public how different they are from each other. Effective policy development is the loser.

The timing for referendum is important. I believe the best time to have a referendum on electoral reform is when people are thinking about the electoral process. An election is the obvious choice – when this topic to being thought about, is best understood and more likely to be voted on. Bouquet of the week to Andrew Little for promoting electoral reform, but it will a brickbat if he doesn’t include a longer electoral term alongside the threshold issue.