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On SM and the “middle ground”

The “sensible compromise” promoted by Vote for Change is the worst of everything and best of nothing

There is no myth more bizarre than the promotion of supplementary member (SM) as the “middle ground” or “sensible compromise” in New Zealand’s upcoming referendum on the voting system. It is true that SM combines features of both mixed member proportional (MMP) and first-past-the-post (FPP), but it is hardly a compromise and certainly not win-win. It brings out the worst of both MMP and FPP—and the best of neither.

Proportionality and the “balance of power”
SM isn’t proportional. It doesn’t try to be and it doesn’t turn out to be. Anyone who claims it to be is wrong, though to be fair, Vote for Change isn’t guilty of that.

Vote for Change obviously doesn’t like pure proportionality. It advocates SM as a “less proportional” system. Voting systems can’t really be “less” proportional—they’re either proportional or they’re not. But the idea is that minor parties would still be represented under MMP, just without the “balance of power” that some believe allows the “tail to wag the dog”.

Would SM prevent this “balance of power”? Under SM it’s more likely that a single party will win a majority of seats, but by no means guaranteed. Any inclusion of minor parties decreases the likelihood of a single-party majority and increases that of needing a coalition.

It would happen fairly often. If the 2005 election had been played under SM, assuming that parties won the same share of electorate seats and party votes each, by my calculations (update: see my spreadsheet in Excel format) Labour and National would have won 53 seats each, both short of a 61-seat majority. They still would have needed minor party support to govern.

Even the 1996 election—the one with the bitterest memories for MMP opponents, where the NZ First leader held out for several weeks before deciding with whom to enter a coalition—would have seen National with just 53 seats under SM. NZ First would have got 13 seats and would have been kingmaker, just like he was (famously) under MMP.

Of course, no system can completely prevent coalitions. Not even FPP—just ask Britain. But under SM, we’ll expect to need minor party support a fair amount of the time and with it the consequential dog-wagging that MMP opponents dislike. If this is Vote for Change’s concern, one wonders why they don’t support a system that actually does minimise the risk, i.e. FPP. If you want to include minor parties you have to put up with a substantial risk of coalitions (if it is a bad thing). You can’t have it both ways.

Accountability
The main advantage of FPP is that it encourages direct accountability to the local electorate. I could go on for ages about why this notion of accountability is problematic, but here let’s just accept that the ability to vote an individual out is important.

Under MMP, an incumbent MP who loses his electorate seat can and often does re-enter parliament from the party list, if he had a sufficiently high ranking. The saying goes, “out on Saturday, in on Sunday”. Says Vote for Change spokesman Jordan Williams, “marginal MPs… look to their party to be ‘protected’ on a list rather than standing up for… their local constituency.” The discontent is understandable.

The problem is that SM won’t prevent this. Under SM, a sufficiently-high ranked MP who loses his electorate seat can, if their party wins enough of the supplementary seats, re-enter from his party list. Say his party gets 40% of the vote (this normally happens in major parties), then he just needs to be ranked in the top 12, counting only those who don’t win an electorate. It’s just like MMP.

The problem is common to both SM and MMP. The solution is also common: you can use “open party lists” or you can require that candidates be either on a list or for an electorate but not both. That idea applies equally well under MMP. Noting the concern, there’ll be a discussion about it: this dual candidacy is explicitly in the scope for the Electoral Commission review if MMP wins the first round.

And everything else…
The main advantage of MMP is proportionality and the main advantage of FPP is direct accountability. SM has neither. Also, the “balance of power” problem that exists under MMP (if that is a problem) still would exist under SM.

Things aren’t looking too good for SM so far. The problem is that there’s no real argument for SM, because it’s not based on a core principle like proportionality or direct accountability. It’s just some sort of “compromise” between the two. So once we establish that SM does nothing to uphold either of those, SM’s got nothing left to stand on.

Unfortunately, though, SM brings with it all the problems of both MMP and FPP. Because electorate seats always affect the final seat count, you get all the issues associated with it. Voters in a marginal electorate have more power with their vote than voters in “safe seats”. Parties consequently pay more attention to those electorates, which leads to “pork barrel politics”, where parties will pander to local interests of that electorate more than the rest of the country. And because there are list MPs, there are MPs who aren’t formally associated with electorates and need to spend time with their constituents (though almost all choose to).

If Vote for Change actually believed everything they said about MMP, the system they should be supporting is FPP. It is perhaps a credit to them that they realise just how nonsensical FPP is in our modern society. But their alternative does nothing to alleviate perceived issues with MMP, isn’t proportional (the main advantage of MMP), lacks the main advantage of FPP (direct accountability) and brings in the nasty side-effects of both. No sane individual could support it.

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