Tuesday, February 16, 2010

MMP referendum: Good news and bad news

The government released its plans for the upcoming referendum on MMP today. The good news is that it will be a straight question of different voting systems, with no muddling of the issue by introducing the size of the House or the future of the Maori seats (and no chicken-strapping as they did in 1992 / 93 by running 120-seat MMP vs 100-seat FPP). Put like that, its difficult to see how MMP can lose; its undeniably superior to the other systems on offer, and without the temptation of fewer MPs, FPP just looks like a large-party gerrymander.

The bad news? There will be no spending limits. In 1993, Peter Shirtcliffe spent $1.5 million to try and buy the outcome of the original referendum. Cabinet has just given him permission to do so again - and he won't even have to say how much he is spending. Reading the Cabinet Paper [PDF], it seems that they diverged significantly from the proposals. Simon Power recommended they agree to either promoter statements only, promoter statements combined with registration and expense returns over a $40,000 threshold, or promoter statements, expense returns, and spending caps. Cabinet seems to have taken the middle option, lowered the disclosure threshold to $12,000, then dropped the disclosure requirement - so large advertisers will be required to register with the Electoral Commission, but will not have to tell us how much they have spent. That is not acceptable in a democracy. We're looking at a significant constitutional question here, on which some rather nasty people are going to try and buy the outcome. At the very least we should be able to find out how much that costs.

Correction: Edited to clarify spending limit (again). The initial decision was for $20,000, and this was subsequently lowered to $12,000.