Friday, December 16, 2011

MMP review: By-elections

MMP is currently being reviewed, with an issues paper due out in February. In anticipation of that, I'm doing a series of posts on the review questions. This one will focus on the third question:

Whether list MPs should be able to stand as candidates in a by-election
The reason for this is because of the 2009 Mt Albert by-election, in which three of the top four candidates were sitting list MPs. The result was that voters were in a sense not really voting for these candidates to enter Parliament, but for the next person on their respective party lists. This seems a little odd, and led to calls to ban sitting list MPs from standing (or rather, force them to resign in order to stand, which would effectively be the same thing). But I think this oddity disappears when you stop to think about what an electorate vote means under MMP.

Under MMP, as we keep being told, we have two votes. The party vote you give to the party you want to represent you in Parliament. The electorate vote you give to the person you want to be your local representative. And that latter bit is the key here. In MMP by-elections, we're no longer voting for who we want to see in Parliament, any more than we are in electorate contests in general elections. We're voting for who we want to represent us, locally. Whether that person is currently a list MP, and whether their victory will see them joined by the next person on the list is strictly irrelevant to that question.

Backing this up is the culture which has emerged under MMP of list MPs adopting local electorates. These list MPs are the natural candidates in any by-election. They already have an established relationship with their local constituents, and may be regarded by some of them as a preferred choice. Prohibiting them from contesting by-elections denies voters that choice. It does mean that it doesn't really matter which of them wins - they're fighting over the right to call themselves MP for X rather than MP from X - but that's largely true of general elections as well. MMP was meant to make electorates meaningless, and turn them into pure competitions about local representation. And dual candidacy in by-elections lets that happen.

OTOH, its not the most important issue in the world. If the review comes back with a recommendation to prohibit list MPs from contesting by-elections, its not going to distort our democracy or cause anyone to lose any sleep. But to some extent, I think its a non-issue anyway; the initial grumpiness seems to have been driven by the spectre of Judith Tizard, and was entirely absent during the subsequent Mana and Te Tai Tokerau by-elections, despite both being contested by list MPs.