Winner does not take all

datePosted on 10:28, October 21st, 2009 by Lew

Peter Shirtcliffe is furious (audio), and well he might be, because the government’s plans for electoral reform are eminently sensible, subject to wide bipartisan support, and most critically, not at all hasty. This is electoral reform done right: for change, a majority of voters must reject the status quo system outright at two consecutive general elections, with plenty of time for reflection, consultation and campaigning before each.

Shirtcliffe’s proposal for a one-off vote on which electoral system to use at the 2011 election makes only one concession from his holy grail of government decisiveness: he thinks it should be preferential. His scheme aims to deliver that grail to his beloved National party wholesale and for good, by springing fundamental constitutional change upon the NZ electorate with less than two years’ notice and discussion, with no societal safety net, no cooling-off period, no opportunity for reflection. It would turn the time between now and the 2011 general election into an all-out propaganda war for the future of democracy in New Zealand, a war in which the National government and its allies hold all the strategic ground: unprecedented popular support and an opposition at its nadir; confused and rebranding environmental and social justice movements; the recent memory of an unpopular and dysfunctional government which represented all that people thought was wrong with MMP; a political environment in which many people will simply vote for what That Nice Man John Key recommends; and an anti-MMP lobby which is practiced, prepared and very well-resourced. Shirtcliffe’s careful circumspection — refusal to express opinions on such matters as what system should be adopted, and how campaign funding should be managed — and flattery of the plebiscite (“we’ve got an intelligent electorate out there”) seeks to hide this behind a high-handed neutrality of purpose, masking the fact that the process he advocates yields his own cause very great advantages.

Shirtcliffe’s decisiveness imperative insists that the winner must take all, in elections and in constitutional reform as in heavyweight boxing: a few ceremonial minutes in an enclosed space which determine who is the winner and who is the loser, and all that happens in between bouts is meaningless hype. It is not a democratic model, it is not a consultative model, it is not a model which gives adequate consideration to the views and opinions of the electorate at large; far from respecting electors as intelligent and capable actors, it reduces politics for the individual voter to a single, somewhat inconvenient event which happens once every three years, or in the case of something as important as changing the electoral system, once every generation or so if we’re very fortunate. Fortunately for New Zealand, and indeed to the great credit of the National party, he has been denied. The proposed framework should yield a legitimate and durable result, and one which should be supported even by those whose preferred option is not selected.

There’s much which could go awry yet, but this framework is as good as we could hope for. Idiot/Savant’s assertion that “if we want to protect MMP, its not enough simply to vote for no change in 2011 – we also have to chuck out National, just to be on the safe side” seems a little overwrought — National under Key has taken to MMP like a duck to water, learning to play both ends against the middle in a way the Clark government never did. And although there have been some recent cat-herding problems to do with keeping errant ministers in line, and around the rugby world cup, I can’t see a desire to return to the bad old days of one party rule. I do think National will campaign hard for SM as an it’s-the-same-really-only-better option, and this provides Labour and the Greens a good opportunity to differentiate itself — by pushing for MMP-as-it-is-now, or MMP-with-some-changes; although it must be said Labour aren’t behaving much like MMP-aware political actors these days. A larger threat from the National party, I believe, is the possibility of rolling the abolition of Māori seats into the new electoral system, or choosing to support an electoral system in a second referendum which (they may claim) renders the seats obsolete. This will be a strong wedge, and will enable National to frame the debate in terms beneficial to its own interests.

I await the further propagandisation of electoral systems with interest. Meanwhile, I/S’s conclusion is unarguable: “we need to make it clear to both parties: our democracy is non-negotiable.” And I’m still interested in peoples’ responses to the question: what kind of electoral system do we actually want?

L

9 Responses to “Winner does not take all”

  1. Scott Yorke on October 21st, 2009 at 14:39

    I listened to Shirtcliffe on the radio on the way home last night. He appears to have lost none of the bitterness and bile that made me remember him from the ’90s.

    The Government’s proposals are surprisingly sensible (so far), and I’m pleased they haven’t tried to play politics with the issue (I am assuming that the decision to hold the referendum during an election year is not an attempt to distract unhappy voters – am I being too kind on the Nats?)

    At the end of this process I expect we’ll still have MMP. There doesn’t seem the appetite to go back to FPP and all the other systems have pitfalls. Not that MMP’s perfect.

  2. Lew on October 21st, 2009 at 15:07

    Indeed, the precedent is to hold referenda with general elections where practicable — this was the case with the move from FPP.

    I expect we’ll have MMP as well. Fine by me.

    L

  3. Graeme Edgeler on October 21st, 2009 at 18:42

    Indeed, the precedent is to hold referenda with general elections where practicable — this was the case with the move from FPP.

    Not really. The first referendum (i.e. the equivalent of the 2011 one) was held in 1992, not an election year.

    In recent political history*, there have been 4 referendums held at elections, and 4 held outside elections.

    *since 1990: the preceding national referendum was held in 1967.

  4. Lew on October 21st, 2009 at 19:04

    Graeme,

    Many people argued the 2009 referendum should have been held at the 2008 election according to custom, and the reason given for not doing so was one of practicality. It’s also my understanding that (at least) the 1995 referendum was not held with a general election because of the requirement that CIR be held within a year of the signatures being ratified.

    L

  5. Graeme Edgeler on October 21st, 2009 at 19:12

    …the reason given for not doing so was one of practicality. …

    Yes. When we tried holding CIR together with an election in 1999 the process sucked. Voters got confused. Polling clerks got confused. Voting took three times as long. Counting the votes took three times as long, and everyone complained that we didn’t know the election result before they went to bed, blaming the Chief Electoral Office for the problems.

    They basically resolved never to do that again, and now recommend that referendums be held at a different time from the election, or that we amend the voting paper so that all the questions appear on the same piece of paper (something that requires a Parliamentary supermajority to approve).

    The Chief Electoral Office/ Electoral Commission (they’re being combined) will have been dreading this decision.

  6. SPC on October 21st, 2009 at 22:06

    Clearly National enjoy being a threat to the continuance of the Maori seats, because while the Maori Party is dependent upon them they will appease National in the interests of their own survival. Maybe the advantages of this to National are greater, in the short term, than any offered by an alliance with Shirtcliffe.

    The real question with outcomes decided by referendum is the choices that are made available. In this case, the more choices made available, the more likely that MMP will be defeated and another vote held in 2014. Whether any one option will be preferred is unlikely IMO.

    I do however support preferential voting in electorates and reform of the under 5% threshold area.

  7. lyndon on October 22nd, 2009 at 09:26

    The critical problem with Shirtcliffe’s plan is that if a majority wanted to change from MMP, we’d have to replace it with whatever system recieves a plurality in the next question.

    Which excludes the rather likely possibility that MMP would still be more popular than any other option.

    You could ask his question every election and never settle on a result.

    This does not encourage me to think he has the interests of democracy at heart.

  8. Lew on October 22nd, 2009 at 10:02

    SPC,

    Clearly National enjoy being a threat to the continuance of the Maori seats, because while the Maori Party is dependent upon them they will appease National in the interests of their own survival. Maybe the advantages of this to National are greater, in the short term, than any offered by an alliance with Shirtcliffe.

    Right, and that’s an interesting evolution in their political alignment.

    But what happens when they have to make a decision on those seats — after the constitutional review next year, for instance? And what of their other major bargaining chip, the Foreshore and Seabed review? These two factors seem to me to be all that’s propping up that end of the coalition; National need to build some stronger, more enduring supports if they want it to continue.

    L

  9. Graeme Edgeler on November 2nd, 2009 at 15:12

    The critical problem with Shirtcliffe’s plan is that if a majority wanted to change from MMP, we’d have to replace it with whatever system recieves a plurality in the next question.

    Not true.

    Shirtcliffe proposes a vote where people rank electoral systems in order of preference. Whichever gets a majority is chosen.

    And as it happens, the change couldn’t work this way without a 75% majority in Parliament.

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