Monday, November 21, 2011
New Zealand electoral system referendum 2011
I have to admit I have had some difficulties deciding what to do about this one. This will be my second electoral referendum this year, having voted for the UK electoral referendum, which was a straight choice between FPP and a form of PV (FPP won overwhelmingly).
In the 1992 referendum I voted for no change, but also voted for the Preferential Voting system for change. Why? Well having experienced eight solid years of reformist free market governments, I was pretty happy with first past the post. I also saw the minor parties that were heaving in the polls being what they were. A xenophobic personality cult called NZ First and a lying mass of Marxist reality evaders called the Alliance. I also saw the Christian Heritage Party as the only other one sitting on the sidelines and wanted to avoid Graham Capill like (well you fill the gap). FPP looked like it delivered strong stable government, and MMP was backed by everyone who opposed less government, by those who opposed reforms largely now taken for granted. Preferential Voting was the “least worse” option, and after all it could be argued that a representative electoral system ought to have every MP gaining at least 50% of the vote.
Much has happened since then, but I am hoping that simply writing this post will clarify my own thinking, as I have not yet decided how to vote. Given I studied electoral systems as part of one of my degrees, I think I have a fair background on all of the options, so here goes.
The first point to remember is that electoral systems are about counting heads, not what is in them. Some people, across the political spectrum, laud democracy as something rather special, when it is, as Winston Churchill once said, the worst form of government ever devised – except for all of the others ever tried over history. The reason for that should be obvious. There is nothing inherently good, right, whether pragmatically or morally, about what the “majority think”. After all, if you accept that the bulk of the population has average intelligence and abilities, then the majority involves pandering to average people. Indeed, it also means that the most successful, able and intelligent (not always the same) are valued as much as the least successful, able and most dim-witted. It doesn’t take too much to figure out that untrammelled democracy can mean the majority vote to oppress the minority and take from them.
A simple view is it is like three wolves and a sheep voting for what they’ll have for dinner, but if you look at most politicians, most of what they promise during elections is to take from someone to give to another, although they are usually astute enough to focus on the giving, and ignore the taking. If governments can just spent and borrow and pass the bill to the next lot, then inevitably someone will have to make tough decisions. Greece and Italy are examples today of democracy failing, because people voted for politicians who gave them what was unaffordable. Now they don’t want to vote for politicians to make them face reality. Democracy isn’t good at getting politicians to make difficult decisions, or rather decisions that involve not giving people bribes. Mencken said elections are an advance auction of stolen goods. He was right. Imagine if Churchill had asked the British public if they were willing to go to war against Germany.
So I take a dim view of democracy anyway, in part because I know my opinion has a higher value than anyone else’s. If you don’t think the same way about yours, then you’re probably right as well. I simply don’t accept that my opinion can be reduced to it being counted the same as some half-brain dead nitwit who votes for John Key because “he’s pretty cool”, or who votes for Winston Peters because “she doesn’t like the Asianisation of the country”.
However, democracy DOES have a useful role – which is to remove governments. It is a limit on government because ultimately it offers one control on what governments do, by giving voters the chance to boot them out. In fact, if you look at recent elections, it is clear that 1999, 1990 and 1984 elections were exactly about that. Politicians and activists about electoral systems are almost always driven by their partisan views. The left love MMP because of the success of the Greens and the various Maori parties, the right don’t because it has seen the likes of NZ First emerge, and because ACT has done badly (and the conservative right has failed miserably too). So ignore them all, they are self interested wanting whatever system helps them gain power or blackmail power or whatever.
I have a different approach. To be honest, it is not something I get enthused about, beyond the basics of how the systems deliver different outcomes for the same votes, but also encourage different behaviour. Yet it is a chance to shake things up a little, so what is it I want from an electoral system?
I’d like an electoral system to enable individuals to be removed from Parliament, and MMP isn’t very good at that, because of party lists. Look also at what MMP does to electorate votes. In most seats, they are now considered irrelevant. However, in Epsom, Ohariu and the Maori seats, they are critical. Indeed they allow for an overhang for the Maori Party that over represents its support. Now supporters of MMP will say that these can be dealt with by tweaking it - such as removing the electorate threshold to let party votes count, or abolishing the Maori seats, but these aren't on offer.
So I will vote to change the system, but what to?
First Past the Post is easy, but it does create constituencies where MPs win with a minority of the vote, and others where they are so dominant that it renders the voting by others to be irrelevant. Electorate boundaries are artificial constructs anyway, so FPP is far from satisfactory. Why should your vote be less valued because you are on one side of the road and not the other? It would make the National Party comfortable, but why is that a good thing? FPP did bring Muldoon and brought decades of stagnant do nothing government. It also brought Social Credit as the stubborn third party of weirdness. However, FPP most of all means that a lot of people who got a minority of votes get power. No, I'd rather not support that.
Preferential voting does away with the minority voting for a representative, and it also means every vote counts. You can choose someone who doesn’t win, but then rank your options. This has some appeal, but even at best I can’t see me ranking more than 3. Again though, it becomes a matter of electorate boundaries as to whether this works. Yet it would deal to the Epsom, Ohariu, etc problem. In Epsom, those who don’t support John Banks wouldn’t have to vote for the National candidate, but could vote for the candidate they prefer. Similarly those who would prefer the National candidate but would rank Banks second, could do so as well. Ohariu has a similar scenario. Maybe National voters would rank Peter Dunne second and keep him elected, or maybe most Ohariu voters don’t want him and would rank 1st and 2nd those who oppose him. Tauranga could have got rid of Winston Peters quicker as well. So you see, there is some appeal in this option.
Supplementary Member is a watered down version of MMP, so on the face of it less list seats, but all this does is reduce the effect of the smaller parties. The main advantage I see is that the list seats will reflect party votes, but this wont be affected by the electorate seat wins. Electorates suddenly become important again, and it gets rid of the “win an electorate, get some party seats as well” distortion that exists now. ACT, NZ First and others would apparently need to get 3% of the party vote to get a seat, but as Parliament would be dominated by FPP seats, it would make only a small difference.
STV gives you multiple member constituencies, but rather big ones. Some will baulk at huge constituencies, but frankly I couldn’t care less. It will make constituencies a little less partisan and parochial, but also means people can call upon multiple MPs to “help them out” (something I haven’t really understood, because I largely wouldn’t trust an MP to fix anything for anyone in a way that would appear to be neutral). It will mean that all MPs are actually accountable to voters directly. Party lists will not predetermine who gets elected, but voters will. What that really means is voters can remove them as well. STV means voters can rank candidates in preference, just like PV, or can just vote for the party’s list of candidates for a constituency. Candidates who get a majority of votes get elected, just like PV, whereas the remainder get elected based on preferences. In conclusion, I believe STV would be worth voting for. It makes all MPs people elected directly, even if from preferences, rather than MPs selected from lists developed by parties. In other words, voters can remove those they don’t like. It makes electorates important again, but greatly increases their size so that parochialism becomes less important.
There is one test I haven’t applied. Would it get more Libertarianz candidates elected? Well actually no. I am certain FPP and PV would not help that. SM might, because the threshold for a seat would be only around 3% compared to 5% today. STV I don’t believe would make any real difference to MMP on that front. However, I believe the advantages of STV, more generically, outweigh MMP enough to make it worthwhile of some attention.
Finally, what about the concern of coalitions vs one party government? Frankly I don't care that much. One party government can achieve good or bad, coalitions can as well. What matters is who gets elected. Yes MMP and STV both give the Greens a better chance than SM, PV and FPP, but they do the same to ACT and Libertarianz. I'm not sufficiently enamoured by the two big parties to want to trust them with one party government, besides would Helen Clark have acted any differently had she not been in coalition? I doubt it. So I'm going to say vote for change and vote for STV. If you want preferences, then an honourable second choice would be PV, as it would give constituents a bigger chance to remove MPs they don't like than either MMP or FPP. I'd rank SM in third place, as a way of reducing the threshold for small parties, though it also reduces their influence. Finally, I rank FPP last. I simply don't believe returning to two party politics would help advance freedom any more.