Monday, November 20, 2006

Foxes appointed to guard henhouse

A sharp-eyed correspondent has pointed me at a pair of motions on the Order Paper appointing former MPs David Caygill and Roger Sowry as government and opposition representatives respectively to the Representation Commission. For those who don't know, the Representation Commission is the body established under the Electoral Act 1993 to draw electoral boundaries. While there are other members - the Surveyor-General, Government Statistician, Chief Electoral Officer, Chairperson of the Local Government Commission, and an appointed chair - they are supplemented by two members appointed on the nomination of Parliament. And since time immemorial, the two main parties have had a cosy deal to appoint explicitly political representatives to give themselves a say in boundary setting.

This is putting the foxes in charge of the henhouse. In the US, political input into boundary-setting has resulted in systematic gerrymandering, and a ridiculous situation where representatives essentially pick their constituents, rather than the other way round. As a result, fewer than 20% of seats in the House of Representatives are considered contestable; the rest are safe, meaning that their incumbents are effectively unaccountable to the people they are supposed to serve.

In New Zealand, the Representation Commission has done a better job, and there isn't overt gerrymandering. But there's an important principle here that self-interested politicians (or their proxies) should not be helping to draw the boundaries which will help determine who wins and who loses elections. We should be choosing them, not the other way around. If political parties want to have a say, then there is a submission process which is open to the public. They should be using that, rather than abusing their power in this way.


What's the fox, and what's the henhouse?

It's not some cosy deal, the Parliamentary appointees, as the legislation you link to notes, are required to represent the Government and the Opposition. It seems reasonable therefore that one is chosen by the leader of the Government, and one by the leader of the opposition (I assume, as with Dr Brash's appointment to the Security and Intelligence Committee, after consultation).

Moreover, the membership of the Commission is not only set down by statute but also entrenched.

The alternative - that there is no Parliamentary representation and all the members of the Representation Commission are appointed by the Government of the day - as occurs generally in America - seems worse. The minority should have their rights protected.

I note also that our political parties do play a large part in the submission process. The suggestion that they are somehow abusing their power is more than a little 'out there'.

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 11/20/2006 04:04:00 PM

Graeme: and that legislation is itself evidence of that cosy deal.

While electorate boundaries are rather less important than they used to be (thanks to MMP), its still not something politicians should have a formal say in (or at least, no moe than anyone else). I'd rather the process was done by an entirely neutral body, with oversight through complete publication of its considerations and the submission process. While this leaves it theoretically under the control of the government of the day, I trust our neutral and professional civil service a damn sight more than I do politicians (but then, members of the National Party clearly beg to differ on that - which makes you wonder how they will function as a government when they're next elected...)

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 11/20/2006 04:14:00 PM

There are no obvious signs of any gerrymandering of New Zealand's electoral boundaries. The Maori seats can be said to be gerrymandering to help Maori get elected, but their abolition would be the only way to solve this, which is a seperate issue.

Posted by Nicholas O'Kane : 11/20/2006 04:58:00 PM

I can understand what Graeme is saying. If you didn't have the political representatives there, then the appointment of the other positions could become political issues and be partisan government hacks.

However, the system works quite well in preventing gerrymandering, but I wonder if there has been any active decisions by Labour + National representatives to block minor parties winning seats. For instance, how was Coromandel changed from 1999 (when won by Jeanette Fitzsimons) to 2002 (when won by Sandra Gouldie)?

But in large part, the system works well, just a few changes in removing the political representatives would be good.

Posted by Anonymous : 11/20/2006 05:01:00 PM

That's right Graeme, Don Brash and the Greens have lots in common and can easily be served by the same representative.

Posted by Anonymous : 11/20/2006 05:16:00 PM

anonymous at comment 4 - although the last redrawing of boundaries was in 2001/2002 Coromandel's boundaries were unaltered.

In terms of ensuring the representation commission does its job properly, they probably do.

I notice the Greens have no-one on the Commerce Select Committee...

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 11/20/2006 07:02:00 PM

But by making appointments explicitly political, you're forcing parties with extremely diverse views to be represented by the same person. Do you think that the Greens' (supposed) representative would argue particularly strongly in defence of a seat they held? Then in what sense is he representing them? The only answer to that is to have all appointments be totally apolitical.

Posted by Anonymous : 11/20/2006 09:46:00 PM