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Prendergast loss somehow pinned on preferential

by 10 Oct 2010Cartoons, MMP, STV0 comments

Shucks Shirty cartoon

Unsafe at Any Speed: ‘Shucks Shirty, that thing hasn’t had a warrant since 1996—there’s a limit to what even I can palm that off to my adorning and gullible public. At least it’s got to look as though it’s an improvement.’ cartoon Majorlook Productions/Mahurangi Magazine

As mayoral majorities go, it’s one of the slimmest.

Because the democratic world is so inured to the deficiencies of first-past-the-post, it mostly goes unnoticed that mayors are typically elected by a minority vote, often a tiny minority.

Whereas Celia Wade-Brown won Wellington by an actual majority of votes cast. Which is why the incumbent’s reported blaming of preferential voting is reflects, as best, a tragic ignorance of electoral principals:

Ms Prendergast said before today’s result was known that the single transferable vote (STV) system could cost her the election.

Clearly Kerry Prendergast feels cheated because she wasn’t conferred an advantage by first-past-the-post, a system famous for electing other-than the most preferred candidate. Mind, Ms Prendergast would probably consider herself in good company since the Auckland governance royal commissioners were similarly oblivious of the flaws of first-past-the-post.

Fortunately for Makaurau, its first mayor, Len Brown, enjoyed such massive electoral success that it can’t be diminished by being a first-past-the-post win. And although the pro-smacking candidate’s supporters might have been expected to give their second preferences to conservative John Banks, a percentage presumably was voting against him. What the two elections do have in common is that they were won by proponents of public transport. This should send a message to the National-led government that voters no longer see motorway building as the solution to congestion. Worryingly, the motivation for public transport should primarily be the atmosphere, but anthropogenic global warming barely makes it to the top ten concerns for voters. Mayor-elect Wade-Brown, as a Green Party member certainly knows the sky is falling, as does Makaurau deputy-mayor-elect, Penny Hulse.

Ironically, the same government minister who would spend $2.3 billion on a commuter motorway, about the most cost-effective means yet devised of generating greenhouse gases, is simultaneously saving the planet by boldly pushing out fibre optic cable. Telecom, predictably, is appalled at the prospect of losing its dominance of telecommunications. The once all-powerful monopoly is now staring at marginalisation, thanks to Skype: Telephone with pictures, and no toll bill—the territory Telecom could have occupied if it had not become hooked on life as a latter-day highway robber.

Telecom’s competition, for title of contemporary highway outlaw is Aotearoa’s transport agency. Despite being sent a crystal clear rail-not-road message from the electorate, the agency is being allowed to advance its disastrous vision of tolled motorways—at least for now. The mayor-elect of the Makaurau region might have decided not to buy an immediate fight with prime minister Key, but the New Zealand Herald’s headline Brown Accepts ‘Holiday Highway’ is unlikely to characterise the longer-term response of the incoming council. The proposed Pūhoi–Wellsford motorway is entirely within the territory of the new council. Maligned as the ‘holiday highway’, ‘Mangawhai motorway’ may be a more accurate moniker. If built, the motorway would serve in significant part as a commuter road to that coastal settlement. Just north of the region’s northern boundary, Mangawhai is a land developers’ El Dorado reflecting lax Northland regional planning. It would be deeply ironic if the newly-consolidated city failed to rein in the transport agency, and new infrastructure was build to fuel urban growth immediately beyond the vast green belt controlled by city hall.

Bar chart of Wellington mayoralty preferences, 2010

A Few More Preferred Wade-Brown: Although more gave their first preference to Prendergast, the bulk of subsequent preferences of three eliminated candidates went to Wade-Brown, particularly those of Pepperell. chart Mahurangi Magazine

Meantime, Wellington City’s thrilling come-from-behind preference voting election result is not possible in national elections. This because electorate members are elected by first-past-the-post. Had the competition been for the Wellington Central seat, as opposed to the mayoralty, the less preferred Prendergast would have been successful.

Because the election was all but a draw, it could be argued that had Prendergast had the benefit of a first-past-the-post, and won a fourth term as mayor, no grave injustice would have occurred. But with a comfortable first-past-the-post majority of more than 3000, the mayor was unlikely to have behaved in the inclusive manner that Celia Wade-Brown now signals

Although Wellington has spoken for a change, it’s a very close call, so it’s doubly important to involve people and consult, as was my intention anyway.

Some voting systems, including for the French presidency, involve runoff elections. With robust online polling in place, runoff elections could occur over say a weekend, which would add to the drama and help motivate citizens to participate. Local government voter turnout is generally lamentably low. Although the national average was boosted 3.5%, to 47.5%, this year thanks to interest generated by the first Makaurau election. It is clear that the high profile Banks–Brown race to head a region of 1.4 million was responsible for the above average turnout of 50.5%. In comparison to Aucklanders, only 40.2 Wellingtonians voted.

The reason runoff elections are not used universally, of course, is time and money—time can be critical, in an unstable state. Be that as it may, single transferable voting is in effect an instant runoff system. It allows voters to express their preferences in a straightforward way. Tactical voting is unnecessary. In Wellington, for example, the supporters of blogger and campaigner against water privatisation, Bryan Pepperell, overwhelmingly preferred Wade-Brown to Prendergast. Under first-past-the-post, had those people persisted in supporting for Pepperell, their votes would have been wasted. In Wellington, under preferential voting, they were key to voting out Kerry Prendergast, something the vast majority of Bryan Pepperell supporters wanted.

Ironically, next year’s referendum on mixed member proportional is a runoff referendum, potentially. The first referendum decides if mixed member proportional should be replaced, and if so, by a selection of four other systems. If New Zealanders vote to change from mixed member proportional, the runoff referendum would be held between it and the other system favoured attracting the most support. While the provision for the runoff is preferable to the prospect of mixed member proportional being ditched in 2011, there are three glaring deficiencies in the referendum programme. The first is the option of tuning up mixed member proportional has been omitted, although justice minister Simon Power has promised that the system, if retained, will be ‘reviewed’. The clear message is, tick the option:

I vote to retain the MMP voting system.

If the Mahurangi Magazine had its druthers, a fifth option would have read:

I would choose a tuned-up MMP system.

Aside from that omission, the greatest flaw in the options listed is that two preferential voting systems are included. This means that supporters of preferential voting will have their vote fatality split between the two options:

  1. I would choose the Preferential Voting system.
  2. I would choose the Single Transferable Vote system.

The difference between the two, as defined by the referendum, is principally the former has single-member electorates and latter multi-member electorates.

Voters hugely prefer single member electorates, but unfortunately the system penalises small parties almost as savagely as first-past-the-post—Australia has only just elected its first Green federal parliament member. It is fundamentally as non-proportional as first-past-the-post. Whether deliberate or not, the inclusion of two preferential voting gives first-past-the-post the front running, despite prime minister John Key said to be favouring the supplementary member system, which is first-past-the-post with a few extra members thrown in to make ever so slightly proportional. The deep irony is that overlapping options would have not been problematic, if voters were being asked to rank their preferences.

Given that the referendum is cast in stone, voters valuing a system that best reflects voters’ preferences should heed Simon Power’s steer should chose:

  1. I vote to retain the MMP voting system.
  2. I would choose the Single Transferable Vote system.

If the vote in 2011 is to change the system, the runoff in 2014 will almost certainly be between first-past-the-post and mixed member proportional.

Peter Shirtcliffe and others will throw their millions at attempting to resurrect first-past-the-post.

As much as the Mahurangi Magazine deplores waste…

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