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Way clear for courageous first online list

by 15 Aug 2012MMP, Online0 comments

Colin Scrimgeour

Uncle of All Backlashes: When the National Party’s predecessor jammed the Reverent Colin Scrimgeour’s weekly ‘The Man in the Street’ broadcast on 24 November 1935, the resultant outrage helped sweep the Labour Party into power for the first time, three days later. In 1943, in shades of the party’s current divisions, Colin ‘Uncle Scrim’ Scrimgeour was suspended then sacked from his position as controller of the state-owned broadcasting service, by the Labour prime minister, Peter Fraser. In retirement in the early 1970s, Colin and Pam Scrimgeour lived in Waiwera for a number of years. photographer Dorothy Mignon Crombie Alexander Turnbull Library

Labour has just been handed a third potentially pivotal gift.

Eighty years ago, the preoccupation of the United and Reform coalition predecessor of the National Party with balancing the books led to real unemployment reaching 30%, to food riots, and to the election, two years later, of the first Labour government.

Sadly, since the 1970s and Norman Kirk’s staunch support for the welfare state, the party has had little to differentiate itself from National, even leading the neoliberal charge of the 1980s. Three decades further on, Labour is now so completely accustomed to pitching for the politically crowded middle ground, it is missing the historic opportunity for leadership handed to it by global warming and the Second Great Depression.

The other opportunity that has so far eluded Labour is to enlightenedly lead a coalition government. In the 16 years since the introduction of the proportional representation, the dominant party of every government in that time has seen its coalition partners, at best, as support parties. As a direct consequence, every minor party that has supported Labour or National has subsequently suffered a serious falloff in voter support. Possibly because he is not a career politician, Prime Minister John Key, with far fewer ‘natural’ coalition partners, is achieving more with less than did Labour.

A fresh opportunity for Labour arises from Monday’s conservative Electoral Commission 2012 Review of MMP proposals. The commission would leave selection of party lists to the individual parties, believing that the additional complexity involved in opening the lists to electors would outweigh the potential benefits.

In 1985, Labour established the Royal Commission on the Electoral System in response to widespread disillusionment with the two-party system. The commission was specifically required to address the issue of ‘fairness between political parties’, reflecting the unfairness of the first-past-the-post system that had seen parties gaining a majority of seats despite winning fewer votes overall, and third parties—famously, Social Credit—receiving only a fraction of their rightful representation.

Coalition ballot mock-up

Not Recommended: Despite being successfully implemented elsewhere, and being shown a ballot paper that simplifies voters’’ entitlement to choose their list candidates, the electoral commission proposing that lists remain closed on election day. The Mahurangi Magazine’s coalition ballot paper did, however, receive a generic mention. Ballot mock-up Mahurangi Magazine

Since its belated introduction in 1996, Aotearoa has had one of the world’s most proportional systems. A virtually inescapable feature of proportional systems is coalition government, and the difficulty that flows from this is that voters, at best, only indirectly get to determine which coalition gets to govern. At worst, backroom deals result in voters not being represented in government when there was every reasonable expectation they would, as was the case when Prime Minister Helen Clark agreed to exclude natural ally the Green Party as the price for support from Peter Dunne and Winston Peters.

In place of the two-party system, Aotearoa now effectively has a two-coalition system, and one that is not overwhelmingly embraced. Certainly mixed member proportional survived last year’s referendum, but only by a margin of 15.11 percentage points. Not only did more than 41% vote against the system, the election turnout was lowest in Aotearoa’s history—only 73.51% of those enrolled, participated in the referendum.

What neither the royal commission nor the current electoral commission has addressed is the people’s underlying lack of conviction that party-based political systems best serve the public interest. The not unreasonable expectation is that parliament should govern democracies, not power blocks within those parliaments. Because a ban on political parties would simply send them underground, the only option is to require them to be wholly democratically accountable. Aside from the predictable reaction National’s sham sidekick parties, much of criticism of the review proposal that the threshold remains unnecessarily and undemocratically high. As important as that is in allowing new parties sufficient oxygen to gain representation, the feature that affects perhaps a majority of voters is the inability to vote for their representative of choice, from the party list.

Dissatisfaction with the list system dominated submissions, with much of the dissatisfaction focussed on frustration with candidates rejected by an electorate being able to enter Parliament as list members. Correctly, the commission rejected calls for circumscribing the entitlement of rejected candidates to stand on the list. The solution the commissioners should have seen was to turn the problem on its head, and ensure that list candidates obtain their presence and rank on the list, democratically.

A central tenant of representative democracy is the right of citizens to elect their representatives. The current closed list system is inherently undemocratic—the right to elect list candidates has been usurped by the parties. The contention that voters, should they wish to exercise their right to elect a list representative can join a party is disingenuous—not only are the parties’ list selection processes almost uniformly undemocratic, party membership has slumped from about 25% of voters to just 2%, since the 1960s. Besides, many voters are effectively disqualified from party membership, by nature of their work. This includes the people who man the polling booths and count the ballots.

The proposals, by 31 October, become the commission’s recommendations. Between now and 7 September anybody can comment on the proposed recommendations, but it highly unlikely that substantive changes will occur. This shouldn’t mute the call for opening the party lists, for implementing Stephen Todd’s elegant graduated threshold, or indeed for removing the threshold altogether. Or for layering preferential voting on the system, which would greatly simplify the challenge for voters remembering, from one election to the next, how to best support their candidates and parties of choice.

While the electoral commission has failed to comprehend the need to democratise the list system, there is nothing to stop parties themselves addressing this deficiency. The opportunity is available to all parties, but the Mahurangi Magazine focuses on Labour here for three reasons. The first is that Labour was responsible for the 1985–86 royal commission, which tackled its historic opportunity with great courage and vision. Secondly, it is the only major party with a frontbencher championing climate action. Thirdly, Labour has a responsibility to redeem itself for practicing patch protection by attempting, for a decade, to prevent the implementation of the royal commission’s recommendations.

The electoral commission’s failure to ‘recommend’ the democratisation of party lists is a gift to Labour’s membership drive—Labour’s just-completed organisational review is thought to have netted the party an additional thousand members. By putting its list ranking process online, potential members could participate in producing an indicative party list, which would display alongside the actual list. Then, to influence the actual party list, these potential members would be encouraged to apply for membership online.

The Labour lists would remain open between elections, and only be locked down from the cut-off for candidate registrations to election day. Non-members informally engaging in the list ranking process would be warned of the impending lock-down of the list and invited to become members to participate.

Most party functionaries will be appalled by the suggestion that the great unwashed should have the power to determine Labour’s list, and will claim that women and minorities will miss out if the list becomes a popularity contest. But to borrow a Dr Bryce Edwards characterisation of other aspects of the review:

…these arguments were always anti-democratic and without any intellectual validity.

Elections are popularity contests—that is the essence of democracy. The answer, as always, is more democracy. Voters are entitled to vote for a popular leader and against an unpopular policy—for example, to vote for John Key as prime minister, separately from voting for the National Party, separately from voting for state asset privatisation.

The paper-based list-ranking ballot paper submitted by the Mahurangi Magazine, and others, is acknowledged in the review recommendations:

A few submitters devised ballot papers that would have enabled voters to rank candidates, parties and vote on preferred coalition arrangements. The Commission was not persuaded that any of these proposals would produce sufficient benefit to warrant the additional complexity they would introduce to the voting system.

That which is dismissed as being of insufficient benefit, is the democratic right to directly elect representatives—which until 1996 was a core democratic right of New Zealanders. Regarding the perceived complexity trade-off, this entirely evaporates with an insightfully designed online system. There is surely no shortage of slick young smartphone and tablet application designers motivated to help save the planet by facilitating a grassroots re-engagement of other young people in the political system. A virtuous involvement and feedback cycle is key to, in time, enticing many more young people to register and to vote. Of course, online participation shouldn’t begin and end with the party list—candidate selection through to policy development all begs to be facilitated online, to recreate an authentic people’s party. But democratising the list is the singular failure of the review recommendations that Labour can remedy unilaterally, in a heartbeat.

Without radical reform of the Labour Party, National will cruise into a third term with Aotearoa drilling and mining, with the rest of the world, into the narrowing canyon of climate catastrophe. It was Labour’s prerogative to lead New Zealanders out of the Great Depression. It now has the responsibility of leading New Zealanders out of the Second Great Depression, by preparing Aotearoa to run the increasingly wild global warming rapids ahead. A conservative electoral review has potentially gifted a courageous Waka Labour a fresh brace of strong young democratic paddlers.

In the vernacular of rapid runners worldwide: Read the rapids and head for the ‘v’!

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