Monday, May 04, 2009

In defence of dual-candidacy

Colin Espiner uses his On the House blog today to argue that sitting MPs shouldn't be allowed to stand in by-elections. And he's got a point that the results in Mt Albert could be rather odd:

So how will voters react to MPs banging on their door, asking to be returned to Parliament when they are already there? It's bizarre, in my opinion. Fancy Lee? Admire her journalistic background, or feel a connection through her Asian ethnicity? Vote for her and get a white dentist called Cam Calder.

Admire Norman's boyish charm and passion for the environment? Go ahead and vote for him (even though he actually lives in Wellington) and you'll actually get David Clendon, a small-business adviser who last stood in Helensville against John Key - and actually lives in Mt Albert.

Well, then, vote for Boscawen - a bloke's bloke, strong on law and order, and lives in Auckland. And you'll get Hilary Calvert, a female lawyer, who lives in, um, Dunedin.

This is slightly misleading in that it implies that the voters of Mt Albert will get these hidden candidates instead of, rather than in addition to, whoever they elect (the successful candidate switching from being a list MP to being the constituency MP for Mt Albert). But it is still a bit odd, and definitely something voters may want to take into account.

The reason this happens is because our version of MMP allows what is known as "dual-candidacy" - people are allowed to stand in both an electorate, or on the list. There's a bit of a campaign against this at the moment, driven by complaints about "zombie MPs" - MPs (usually incumbents) who are defeated in electorate contests, but return to Parliament anyway on the list. To FPP-dinosaurs, this seems unfair - the people have clearly chosen to evict these MPs, but their desires have been thwarted by the electoral system! What they don't seem to understand or accept is that list candidates are not their parochial property, but belong to the entire country. We get to vote too, and on the list, our votes count for just as much as theirs. Why should a popular MP with a national constituency and consequent high list placing be ejected from Parliament - despite their party getting enough votes to elect them - simply because rural hicks in some backwoods electorate prefer someone more inbred? Why should individual electorates have a veto on a party's list choices? When you turn it around like that, it's the parochialism of the FPP-dinosaurs which seems absurd. Once we have a national party vote, then the claim of individual electorates over "their" candidates is consequently weakened.

The Royal Commission on the Electoral System examined the issue of dual candidacy in chapter 2 [PDF] of its report. It found that dual candidacy in (then) West Germany had led to a lack of distinction between list and electorate MPs, a low turnover of deputies, and "a consequent stability and depth of experience within the Bundestag". it continued:

These characteristics are, however, not without their disadvantages. A lack of distinction between MPs elected in different ways may promote greater harmony within parties in the House, but it does not encourage list members to concentrate on the representation of interests transcending local constituencies. moreover, while the backup of a list position allows able representatives in marginal seats to be protected, it consequently gives voters little power to remove an unpopular member from the House.

If list candidates were excluded from contesting constituencies voters would retain the power to remove unsatisfactory local representatives and list members could focus on the representation of wider groups and interests, or on national issues. On examination, however, we consider the prohibition of dual candidacies to be undesirable in principle and unworkable in practice. First, the creation of 2 rigidly distinct types of candidate (and hence representative) would be likely to contribute to party disunity. Second, we see considerable advantage in allowing parties to both protect a limited number of their more valuable MPs in marginal seats and reward superior candidates in unwinnable seats. Banning dual candidacies would prevent such practices and be of particular harm to small parties who are unlikely to be assured of any constituency seats but who nonetheless wish to have their high profile members contest such seats. Third, a smaller party would win more list than constituency seats. This may be reversed if that party does particularly well in an election. Under MMP, therefore, a party may lose some of its list members while gaining seats overall. In our view this is an unacceptable prospect if dual constituency/list candidates are banned.

(Emphasis added)

I think the second point is important. To put it in concrete, consider the Greens. They have had a core of six MPs representing them since 1999. Under single candidacy, none of them would ever stand in an electorate - they are simply too valuable to waste (and I say "waste", because minor parties generally don't win electorates). Or consider ACT. Currently they are using Epsom as a lifeboat, but under single-candidacy there is a real risk that ACT voter's expectations of who would lead the party would be frustrated by the voters of Epsom (something which could happen under FPP - but which was one of the things we were trying to get away from). The same would apply to NZ First. Large parties can parachute talent into safe seats; for small parties, it comes from the list, but under single-candidacy this leads to the perverse situation that the people you vote for in electorate contests are not really the people you want to see elected.

I should also add that the entire anti-MMP campaign was focused on the idea of "faceless list MPs". Dual-candidacy has broken that down, and given those list members a strong interest in constituency work. This is something our political system does well, and it is worth protecting, despite its occasional frustrations and oddities.