Thursday, August 28, 2008

MMP symposium: the morning

Over the past two days I attended the New Zealand Centre for Public Law / Institute for Policy Studies / Birkbeck, University of London's Centre for New Zealand Studies' symposium on MMP and the Constitution: 15 years past; 15 years forward. I have covered the evening session here. Here's a rundown of the morning session. As usual, any errors are due to my poor memory and worse handwriting.

The morning session had the theme of "the future".

First up, at the horrifying hour of 7:30 am, Professor Philip Joseph (University of Canterbury) spoke on MMP and the Constitution: Future Constitutional Challenges. He argued that MMP has not changed the basic ground rules of the Westminster system. Instead, it has made them more visible. The key rule - summarised in the Cabinet Manual as "The Queen reigns, but the government rules, so long as it has the support of the House of Representatives" - is now out in the open, and governments must continuously demonstrate (rather than simply assume) that they hold the confidence of the House. And that is a Good Thing for our democracy. It has also revealed that the old "convention" of Cabinet collective responsibility was nothing of the sort; rather, it was simply a pragmatic arrangement, which could be changed to suit the times. Finally, it has weakened the fundamental dichotomy between "government" and "opposition", with non-government parties able to wield real influence over policy if they play their cards right.

Joseph highlighted several challenges. He thinks the Maori seats are likely to produce an inbuilt overhang, undermining proportionality (I think he's focusing on those electorates, rather than, say, the Auckland electorates, or South Island electorates, simply because they are brown). Population growth (or rather, unequal growth in the North and South Islands) will erode the number of list seats, eventually eroding proportionality and requiring either an increase in the size of the House, or a growth in the size of electorates (which will mean a reduction in the number in the South Island) (he also continued his earlier theme by suggesting the abolition of the Maori seats as a quick fix for this). Finally, the National Party is attempting to change the system - something Joseph thinks will be vetoed by the minor parties in future Parliaments. Overall, he thinks a return to FPP politics is now inconceivable. Quite apart from the political challenges any such reaction would face, MMP has generally met people's expectations around dispersing power. This is sometimes uncomfortable - the continual shenanigans of Winston Peters provide evidence enough of that - but it is better than the alternative.

Professors Stephen Levine and Nigel Roberts (VUW) spoke on "Future political challenges" [online next week sometime]. They looked at current proposals for another referendum as a repeat of the 1992 / 1993 process, and considered the options we had then. John Key has already said he does not want to return to FPP, and many of its supporters in 1992 (e.g. Jonathan Hunt) have subsequently admitted they were wrong. STV is ruled out by the unfortunate experiences with using it in DHB elections. PV is a minor cruft, nothing more. Which leaves SM ("sado-masochism"), the system which came last. They looked at the results of the 1996 - 2005 elections if they had been held under SM, assuming that parties would only get list seats if they gained 5% of the list vote (DPF has a similar exercise with slightly different assumptions here); their conclusion was that coalition would be rarer, but still necessary. 1999 and 2002 would have seen Labour majority governments, but 2005 would have been as tight as it was under MMP, with the Maori Party as kingmaker.

Instead of looking at such drastic solutions, they thought it might be worthwhile to consider what problems there might be with MMP. They identified five: the one-seat threshold (which produced the unfairness of NZ First being returned to Parliament with 5 MPs with fewer votes than the (unsuccessful) Christian Coalition gained in 1996), the different treatment of independents and minor parties, overhangs, closed lists, and dual candidacy (or rather, the dislike of the disparagingly-named "backdoor" or "zombie" MPs - those defeated in their electorates, but elected on the list) (I am surprised the threshold level was not on this list). They pointed out that these are all minor changes, and none really require a referendum to fix (though switching to open lists would require a 75% majority to comply with the Electoral Act's entrenchment clause, since it would change the method of voting). Referenda should be reserved for changing the system as a whole; for these sorts of minor changes, the government should use the normal legislative process, preferably with the widest cross-party support possible. Finally, they pointed out that in assessing changes, we should look back to the 1986 Royal Commission's criteria for judging voting systems. These are a clear statement of the issues, still relevant today, and give us strong reasons for preferring the current system.

Professor Jonathan Bradbury (Swansea University) spoke on MMP, Party Politics and Constitutional Change in the UK: the Experience of Scotland and Wales and Implications for UK Electoral Reform. While we think of the UK as still struggling with the unfairness of FPP, in fact they have embraced proportional representation at a regional level and in EU elections. Both Scotland and Wales use MMP (though with different numbers of list seats and regional lists), while Northern Ireland uses STV. A major driving force in this shift has been "Westminster as a negative template" - a desire to escape the problems of traditional FPP. But party political reasons have also played a role, and a far stronger one than in New Zealand. Scotland, for example, got MMP in an effort to prevent a future Scots Nationalist majority government capable of declaring independence; Wales' system is much less proportional in an effort to advantage the incumbent Welsh Labour Party. MMP has produced clear multi-party systems in all the areas it is used, with a shift to (generally) majority coalition government (though the current Scottish government is a minority coalition). And it has led to much greater diversity among representatives, and far more women in power. Finally, it has led to real competition among representatives to represent their constituencies (particularly in the area of constituency work). This has led to both Scotland and Wales cracking down on the ability of list representatives to do constituency work, with Wales even going so far as to ban dual candidacy in an effort to protect Labour MPs from competition in this area from their electoral competitors (something we in NZ would regard as undemocratic madness).

While these MMP governments are providing a good alternative model for how politics might work under PR, Westminster is still in the grip of the two-party duopoly, and there is no real appetite for reform from those in power. In 1999 the Jenkins Commission recommended that the UK adopt an MMP system with regional lists; despite the majority labour government having promised real electoral reform, it was ignored. But there is real disillusionment among the electorate with FPP, and it is now a straitjacket on an electorate which wants a much more diverse range of candidates (only 60% of voters support the 2 major parties now). Eventually, this pressure will force one party to act to avoid being seen to be standing in the way of change - but as in Scotland and Wales, their solution is likely to be driven more by selfish party political reasons than democratic principle.

Following Bradbury's paper, we had a short unscheduled presentation from Margaret Wilson, Speaker of the House and former Labour Party President. She supports MMP, and agreed with much of what had been said earlier. There is a big conceptual battle in electoral systems between majoritarianism and proportionality, but the majoritiarian solution - FPP - "certainly isn't participatory democracy". She saw some need for reform, and particularly supported the removal of the one-seat threshold, calling it a distortion on the electorate vote. As a former party president, she saw MMP as a gift - it allowed the internal debate within parties to be formalised and made public - "everyone gets their own party now". The party system can't always cope with the legitimate differences of members, but MMP put them up for election, making the result far more legitimate. I'm wishing I'd bugged her for an interview now and picked her brain, but at the time I couldn't think of much to ask...

After a short break, there was a panel discussion, with some of New Zealand's leading constitutional and legal experts (Sir Kenneth Keith; Mai Chen), Dr Thomas Lundberg from the University of Glasgow, and... DPF filling in for Chris Finlayson as he was attending a select committee meeting. It was a very interesting discussion, covering possible reforms (ditching the one-seat threshold was again popular), codification of government formation ("unnecessary"), corporate lobbying (Mai Chen: minority government equals leverage), and of course the Maori seats. Unfortunately its a bit much to summarise here.