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It might be politicians maintaining the miracle

by 1 Sep 2014Coalition democratisation, MMP0 comments

The Trial of the Cannibal Dog cover

Thirty Years Between Commissions: Although most European countries embraced proportional representation a century ago, following the First World War, Aotearoa caught up in 1996, the first Westminster democracy to do so, following the 1985 royal commission. Dame Anne Salmond’s call for a royal commission of inquiry into government corruption is timely, and must enjoy the widest terms of reference to include, in particular, election funding. Meantime, Dame Anne’s The Trial of the Cannibal Dog is essential to New Zealanders’ first-contact understanding, and deserves all New Zealand Film Commission funding for the foreseeable to be dramatized as a trilogy.

It has happened only once. That the people, rather than the politicians, of an established democracy have led the change to a more proportional system.

In fact, Aotearoa in 1993 elected to change from a sometimes inversely proportional system—the patently undemocratic results of 1978 and 1981—to one that is, potentially at least, scrupulously proportional. In The Politics of Electoral Reform, British academic Alan Renwick documents the miracle of the 1993 change:

New Zealand’s reform was perhaps the most momentous of all.

Dr Renwick also documents the two other instances where elite–mass interaction within established democracies resulted in substantive changes to their houses of representatives: Italy and Japan. However, in those two countries, the change was to less proportional systems, in reaction to major corruption scandals. When the book was written, the National Party had not long won the 2008 election, and all bets were off as to whether Aotearoa’s proportional system would survive. But despite the popular new prime minister, John Key, publicly favouring a system that could fairly be thought of as first-past-the-post in drag, New Zealanders voted to retain its Mercedes-Benz of proportional systems.

What made Aotearoa’s radical electoral reform miraculous is that politicians, universally, are famously averse to changing the systems by which they were elected, unless it is to make it more difficult for their opponents to be elected, such as the many changes to France’s electoral laws, which Dr Renwick also details. Even losing out to the National Party two elections running despite winning a greater share of the votes wasn’t enough to spur the Labour caucus to support the Royal Commission on the Electoral System’s recommendation to change to a proportional system. It took the backlash against the imposition of neoliberal policies by successive Labour and National governments before the politicians were persuaded to allow the people the referendum that the royal commission had recommended, seven years earlier.

The most recent prevarication by politicians, to protect an element of the electoral system seen as favourable to them, was the refusal by National to implement even the timid reforms recommended by the Electoral Commission review it promised—reducing the threshold from 5 to 4%, and removing the coattails provision. The party may rue its cynical obstruction, which it spuriously blamed on a lack of consensus between political parties, come the election in 20 days, if, as is likely, four Internet–Mana Party members are elected on the coattails of Hone Harawira. It is entirely possible, of course, that Internet–Mana will poll higher than 5%, rendering the coattails provision superfluous.

Internet–Mana has promised to help abolish the coattailing and to lower the threshold, possibly significantly. Labour is also thus committed, but only to lower the threshold by 1%. A better option than either party is proposing is to immediately add preference voting, so that those who support minor parties are not at risk of wasting their vote on parties that fail to reach the prevailing threshold—even without an imposed threshold, there is a natural one: about 0.8% for a 120-seat parliament. There is no moral or practicable reason that supporters of a fledgling party or ginger group should not be able to give, for hypothetical example, their first party preference to the Preference Vote Party, and their second, for actual example, to Internet–Mana, and their third preference to Labour, and thus avoid all risk of disenfranchisement.

Alan Renwick chart

Aotearoa the Brave: On average, pre-referendum polling slumps 13-fold more than it rises, in the actual referendum. Aotearoa, in 1992, hugely bucked the trend when 84.72% of New Zealanders voting bravely opted to change the electoral system. Even big business was unable to scuttle the selection of mixed-member proportional, in the subsequent referendum the following year, although on that occasion pre-referendum polling did slump. Two days before New Zealanders go to the polls, Scots will vote on independence—for it to be Scotland the Brave… chart Larry LeDuc and Alan Renwick The Telegraph

Dr Renwick has found that elite–mass electoral reform of established democracies has only occurred where considerable public anger against the government had arisen, and where the system was seen as a significant culprit. In Japan and Italy, it was public disgust at corruption on a grand scale that led to the reforms there. Whether in time to fatally wound him in this election, or whether further into the 2014–2017 term, public anger at Prime Minister John Key’s porkies and pork-barrelling will build relentlessly. He will leave Parliament, within the next three years, as comprehensively discredited as his hero Robert Muldoon. In view of the prime minister’s now terminally tarnished image, Labour’s vacuous Vote Positive campaign is looking particularly ineffectual, just when New Zealanders need sharply reminding of the specifics of National’s egregiousness, including the asset sales the public petitioned against, the blatant featherbedding of casinos and film studios, and the pathetically slow and patently inappropriate responses to Christchurch, Pike River and the Rena. Labour’s leader David Cunliffe was well-placed to go after big business corruption, after terrifying his fellow caucus members with his call for the party to renounce the unbridled neoliberalism it unleashed onto an unsuspecting Aotearoa, in 1984. Vengeance could have been Labour’s, for the Dancing Cossacks election advertisement that put Bill Rowling’s ill-suited stint as leader out of its misery. In 1975, Hanna-Barbera-quality animation was beyond the resources of all but the big-business-backed National Party, even when procured at mates’ rates. In 2014, however, any number of local cartoonists could have had a field day with a commission from Labour to satirise Key’s shameless squandering of the country’s natural capital in blind pursuit of a self-serving and discredited ideology, and likely at less cost than the tedious ‘community hall’ pantomime, if the priceless Jeremy Jones Planet Key video is any indication.

Dame Anne Salmond’s call a week ago for a royal commission on governance to clean up the dirty politics exposed so fearlessly by Nicky Hagar now seems a certainty, with the release of yet another damning email, finally crushing the career of widely reviled justice minister, Judith Collins. But this should be an even higher-level inquiry than Dame Anne is calling for, because whatever the election outcome, New Zealanders will ascribe fault to their mixed-member proportional system, particularly if Winston Peters is seen as enjoying power highly disproportionate to his New Zealand First Party’s share of the party vote. Despite 18 years of coalition government, much political behaviour reflects the two-party mentality that many New Zealanders still perceive as normal, such as Peters’ resolutely held belief that his party should back the highest-polling party, as opposed to the highest-polling bloc.

Hone Harawira

Bravely Changing the World: Regardless of David Cunliffe ruling out ministerial rolls for Hone Harawira and Laila Harré, they and Annette Sykes and John Minto will ensure that blaming-poverty-on-the-poor has had its day. The only remarkable thing about Hone Harawira’s statement that Internet–Mana’s intention is to change the world, is that it is not a resolve shared by all politicians, given the suicidal path capitalism currently has civilization careering down. image David White/Fairfax NZ

A royal commission on governance must tackle the root of corruption: commercially funded election campaigns. When asked by Kathryn Ryan as to what could be done about issues such as the routine use of the deadly dispersant Corexit to hide the extent of oil spills such as that from the Rena, United States Environmental Protection Agency senior policy analyst Hugh Kaufman said:

…make sure that your campaign finance laws are such that it is not so expensive to get elected to office… If it is too expensive, so that only the oil companies or the financial firms can make the contributions necessary to get people elected, then you are in trouble.

Democracy in Aotearoa clearly is in trouble, but, along with the rest of the world, the country is heading into trouble the magnitude of which has never been experienced by any civilisation and is impossible to exaggerate. Anthropogenic global warming will test society in ways that have barely begun to be imagined. Allowing governments to be bought and sold by big business is madness at the very time business has to accept that the planet is no longer its plaything. Too many people burning too much fossil fuel is the market-driven road to runaway global warming that must be brought to a shuddering halt—immediately would be ideal, but with all urgency short of wilful sacrifice of life. Every week of delay will be paid back, and not merely in double, in the decades to come, particularly by the very young, the elderly, and the poor, of which Aotearoa now has an unconscionably large proportion.

The 1985–1986 royal commission produced its momentous recommendations thanks to being given, by its initiator Geoffrey Palmer, extremely wide terms of reference, and commissioners chosen for their independence and absence of entrenched positions on electoral reform. None were politicians. Small wonder the Labour Party caucus spurned the result. But the blame for Labour’s prevarication can’t be laid at Sir Geoffrey’s feet, despite him then not sharing the commissioners’ recommendation that West Germany’s mixed-member proportional system was the best model for Aotearoa. Addressing the corruption laid bare by Dirty Politics can best be served by the 2014–2015 royal commission being given the widest conceivable brief. For example, state-funded election campaigns could be paid for by the savings made by holding local body and general elections concurrently. Turnout, additionally, would also markedly improve, particularly for the local body contests. And because it essential to begin voting habits at an early age, the voting age should be lowered to 15, meaning that one cohort would not have to wait until being nearly 21 to vote for the first time. Further, enrolment and shadow-voting for under-15-year-olds should begin at college, the results of which would be displayed, but would not count in election results. It is instructive that Internet–Mana, in a matter of months, has done more to interest young people in voting than have three decades of misguided Electoral Commission advertisements.

The minor miracle that saw Aotearoa become the first Westminster democracy to adopt an almost fully proportional electoral system—mixed-member proportional—must be maintained and nurtured, until transparent coalition politics, and preferably grand coalition politics, becomes second nature to all New Zealanders.

And Aotearoa’s era of self-serving neoliberal politics vanquished, and only forgotten at her peril.

Update Winston Peters has since made the holding of a wide-ranging royal commission a bottom line for New Zealand First supporting National, or any other party, after the election—Labour had already committed to such an inquiry.

Evidence-based voter-turnout-decline interventions

Ordered by urgency of deployment 
  1. Year-7–15 voting as curtain-raiser
  2. Universal year-7–15 voting in schools—extended Kids Voting
  3. Election Day enrol-and-vote
  4. Concurrent elections, which will quickly recoup the costs of 1–3, and pay for 4–11
  5. Lifetime licence to vote
  6. Pre-enfranchisement voting
  7. Pre-enfranchisement enrolment
  8. Lowering the age of enfranchisement—currently some turn 21 before being allowed to vote
  9. Fixed, holidayised, Mondayised, and festivalised Election Day
  10. Online voting
  11. Anytime voting*

*If not strictly evidence-based, then at least, strongly evidence-suggested.


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