Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘MMP review’

A quick note on overhang in Lees-Galloway’s bill

The MP for Palmerston North’s bill is laudable in intent, but really needs to have the overhang thing sussed out.

Iain Lees-Galloway had his bill drawn from the ballot today. The bill seeks to implement the recommendations of the Electoral Commission’s MMP review, which the National-led government discarded, citing a “lack of political consensus”. I didn’t write about it at the time, but as you might have guessed, I thought the Commission’s recommendations were excellent and was outraged when the government gave an excuse that was almost certainly caused by itself. (There’s also all the hours I spent writing my submission and follow-up submission, which now just seem like a waste of time.)

Mr Lees-Galloway’s Electoral (Adjustment of Thresholds) Amendment Bill is pretty short, and pretty clear. Lower the threshold to 4%, and do away with the electorate seat threshold (popularly known as the “coat-tail” rule).

The problem that, if you just do that, you open up potential for a lot of overhang seats. Every party that gets below 4% wouldn’t get any list seats, which is great*, but if they won any electoral seats, they still get to keep them. Under current rules, these are overhang seats. If applied to the 2011 election results, that would be a whopping six overhangs, increasing Parliament’s size to 126. Because the sub-threshold parties no longer have a party allocation to fill, every electorate they win is an overhang seat.

Assuming you think this is a problem, there are a number of ways you could fix this. I won’t analyse them all (I did in my submission), but in my opinion the second-best way—and the way the Commission proposed—is to abolish overhang, full stop. So for every sub-threshold party (and party that would otherwise get overhang seats), you set aside their seats, then forget about them and allocate the remaining seats proportionally.

Of course, Mr Lees-Galloway might have decided that he didn’t want to do this. But given that he wanted to implement the Electoral Commission recommendations, I’m guessing this should be a part of it too.

* Okay, not so great. I actually support abolishing the threshold, but that’s another matter.

My predictions for the MMP review proposal paper

Apart from the thresholds, the MMP review will probably propose sticking to the status quo.

Submissions closed last week and the Electoral Commission’s now busy digesting them and writing its own proposal paper to release in August.  I haven’t perused the MMP submissions in detail, though I’ve read a few of them and a few “summaries” and I’ve submitted my own.  But here’s my guess for what will come out of the Electoral Commission:

I think the thresholds have generated the most public discussion.  While opinions on the threshold vary wildly, with abolishing, reducing, retaining and increasing all having advocates, I think more people want to lower (or abolish) it than raise it.  There are indeed strong arguments for lowering it.  But I suspect the Commission (contrary to my pleas) will still be inclined to cite government stability and extremist parties as reasons not to push it too low.  I predict that they’ll pick a four per cent threshold as the compromise, the same as was recommended by the 1986 Royal Commission.

What’s more predictable, though, is that the one-electorate threshold is likely to go.  Public anger over the “electorate lifeboat” has been pretty clear, with only a minority (including the National Party) supporting its retention.  Also, the 1986 Royal Commission didn’t really elaborate on why the electorate seat threshold was necessary, leaving only reasons given by a minority of submitters to retain it.

By-election candidates, dual candidacy and party list order
Opinion is relatively divided on these issues, though I think most pro-MMP advocates support the status quo on all these matters.  There hasn’t been any real experience that the 1986 Royal Commission got their analysis wrong on these, though, so I predict that the paper won’t be recommend any changes.

The Electoral Commission listed three possible alternatives for overhang.  The “additional balance” seats idea won’t get anywhere—there is enough opposition as it is to increasing the size of Parliament.  Some submitters prefer to reduce the number of list seats so that the total is always 120.  This has a very small negative effect on proportionality, so for this to be proposed, the Commission would have to be satisfied that there is a real problem with having a few extra MPs.  I don’t think they’ll buy this.

The only other possibility is if the Commission likes a proposal that isn’t one of those three alternatives.  But submitters who did make any such suggestion (like myself) are few and far in between, and realistically any of these suggestions would be small technicalities.  So it’s most likely that the status quo will come through here too.

Ratio of electorate to list seats
A number of submitters propose fixing the number of electorate seats to avoid a high risk of overhang.  But the Department of Statistics’ projections in 2000 were that proportionality won’t be affected until at least 2051.  So the only way for the Commission to accept a need for change is if they’re satisfied that we should be fixing this now, before we get there.  This is unlikely.  I doubt we’ll be seeing a proposed change here.

So on the whole, I’m picking a fairly unexciting set of proposals in the Electoral Commission’s paper in August.  That said, the thresholds have the biggest impact of the issues included in the review—particularly abolishing the electorate seat threshold.  If this happens, and if it survives Parliament, there could well be a change in the dynamic of future elections.

A surprise appearance from Winston Peters at the MMP hearings

There were two television cameras, half a dozen journalists and few spare seats in the hearings room when I arrived at quarter to four.  My nerves redoubled—I wasn’t exactly expecting media to be at the MMP submission hearings.  Surely they’d be too boring for journalists?

A staff member apologetically met me outside the room.  She had rung me earlier to ask me to be there half an hour earlier than my scheduled 4:30 p.m., since they were miles ahead of time.  Now, Winston Peters had turned up and decided he was going to present his submission then.  So it looked like I would be presenting around half past four in the end anyway.

That would explain the small army of journalists.  NZ First’s party secretary was supposed to present at 12:15 p.m.  Perhaps Mr Peters wanted the publicity stunt, so told media representatives to be at the hearing room at half past three, displacing whoever was scheduled at the time.  I later learned that his party secretary hadn’t shown up.

Still, the commissioners and political scientists didn’t seem upset about the chance to question Mr Peters.  NZ First is unique in proposing that a party winning one electorate must get 4% of the party vote before getting any lists seats.  Chief Electoral Officer Robert Peden asked the obvious question: why not just make it 5%, in effect abolishing the one-seat rule entirely?  Mr Peters didn’t have a real principled answer, other than that they were “reasonable people”, though he appeared (at least to me) to concede that they would probably prefer just to abolish the one-seat rule but for their reasonableness.

But imagine my relief when, as soon as Mr Peters finished and left the room, the journalists in the front row left with him, the cameramen started packing up and each of the five media-labelled microphones at the submitter’s stand disappeared one by one.  By the time the next submitter was seated, the public seating was almost empty again.  The room was not nearly so nerve-racking by the time I took the stand at 4:40 p.m.

Such is to be expected from Mr Peters, I guess.  The Commission staff member was apologetic and thanked me for waiting; I was just mildly amused.

Oddities in MMP submissions

I’ve just been flicking through submissions received to date by the Electoral Commission on the MMP voting system.  Most suggestions are quite sensible—even ones I disagree with—but there are some bizarre claims made by a few:
(I’m only picking on political parties in this post.)

National Party: electorate seat threshold
The National Party is one of few to support retaining the one electorate seat threshold.  They say that abolishing it would be “unworkable in practice”, since it would necessitate “greatly increasing the risk of overhangs or reducing the list allocations of other parties”.

Neither is necessary: we can just say that a party missing the 5% threshold should get its electorate seats, as currently, but what would have been its list seats now just go to the parties next in line to get a seat.  The details are non-trivial but possible.  (I explain how it would work in my submission.)  Compared to the status quo, overhang is the same and the list allocations of other parties increase.  Workable, easily.

The Conservative Party also made this mistake, saying that if the one electorate seat threshold is abolished, we would have an overhang of 6 seats.  We could design the system like that, but it’s not hard to just keep Parliament the same size while reallocating “coat-tailers” to other parties.  (In 2011, there were actually no coat-tailers, so it would have made no difference.)

NZ First: the overhang anomaly
NZ First advocates introducing a 4% threshold for parties who win one electorate to gain additional list MPs.  (The status quo is no threshold.)  That’s all well and good, except when they say “this threshold… would go a long way to eliminating the likelihood of the overhang anomaly”.

This was probably just a proofreading oversight.  But their proposal wouldn’t have any impact on overhang.  Overhang parties never have list MPs (since electorate winners took all their seats), so the question of receiving additional list MPs doesn’t really bother them.

ALCP: representing cannabis users
The Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party criticises the 5% threshold as leading to the people “not being properly represented”, which is well and fine.  But their evidence is that “not one single MP is standing up for the cannabis consumers who represent 16% of the adult population”.  Given that 16% is greater than 5%, this seems odd.  Maybe these cannabis users just decided they had more important ways in which to spend their vote?

ACT: the thresholds
The ACT Party supports the 5% threshold to “limit and rationalise voter choice” and “assist with government formation”.  It’s unclear how, but presumably by preventing too many minor parties from messing things up.  But they go on to say that the one electorate seat threshold should be retained because it “allows more votes to count”.  It’s unclear how this reconciles with their support of the 5% threshold, which renders many votes useless.  It’s also unclear why they think waiving the threshold for electorate-winning parties has “contributed towards stable government formation”, while waiving the threshold for other parties would detract from it.

The ACT Party goes on to say that most advocates for abolishing the one-seat threshold do so for partisan reasons.  The ACT Party, which in both 2005 and 2008 had “coat-tailers” on their Epsom victory, has more incentive than any other party to advocate its retention.  They were also scant on reasoning of their own, largely conceding that the thresholds are arguable, “arbitrary” or “subjective” judgements and deferring to the 1986 Royal Commission, which didn’t actually explain why they proposed for the threshold to be waived for parties winning a constituency seat.


Impressively, both the Greens and the Labour Party managed to avoid any internal inconsistencies in their submissions, or at least ones that I could pick up.