Friday, March 26, 2010

A good idea

Over on Public Address, Graeme Edgeler gives a good overview of the government's Electoral Referendum Bill, which provides a legal framework for the upcoming referendum on 2012. One aspect he draws attention to is the statutory review of MMP if it wins. This will be conducted by the Electoral Commission, a fair and impartial expert body, and by taking it out of the hands of self-interested politicians, it will boost public confidence in the outcome and the necessity of any changes they come up with. This is a good idea, says Graeme,

In fact, it's so good an idea that I think we should expand upon it. If MMP loses its first round, it will be placed against an alternative voting system in a referendum at the subsequent (presumably 2014) general election. But that alternative system is still pretty hypothetical, just a number of acronyms on a voting paper which might mean different things to different people. It could be an STV system with 60 two-MP electorates, or an STV system with 15 electorates with an average of eight MPs, but ranging in size from six to ten. It could even be a first-past-the-post system with a single MP to be colloquially known as the dictator.

Exactly how that system is designed is pretty important, and it could make or break any second referendum. So my simple proposal is to ask the Electoral Commission to make the first attempt at designing it. As with the Commission's MMP review, Parliament could ultimately tell them to stuff off, but the sight of self-interested politicians messing with the independent recommendations of an expert body to try to jack-up the second referendum to get a particular result might get people riled in a way that might not happen if the jack-up occurred inside the machinery of Government.

I agree. As Graeme points out, we had a Royal Commission design our MMP system, which our MPs were forced to swallow mostly unchanged (though they did make a self-interested and democratically unjustifiable decision to raise the threshold in an effort to protect their own interests). If we're going to be seriously considering change, then we should pay the same care and attention to the design of the alternative system. Otherwise, we may end up with a politically designed strapped chicken, designed to either be unworkable or to appeal to the public dislike of politicians in an effort to discourage or force change.

The bill hasn't passed its first reading yet, but when it does, this is something to put in your submission to the select committee.