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Posts tagged ‘referendum’

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.

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.


On STV and proportionality

STV is not the proportional system many think it is

It is often asserted that there are two proportional systems on offer at this year’s referendum on New Zealand’s voting system. The statement makes me shudder every time I hear it. It’s true the single transferable vote (STV) normally gives minor parties some representation. But to call it proportional, in the way that the mixed member proportional (MMP) system is proportional, is not telling the whole story.

Starting at the beginning (skip this part if you’re a geek)
It is a mundane start, but it will help to establish what we mean by “proportional”. Proportionality is the idea that a political party’s representation in parliament should be proportional to their share of electors’ support. If a party receives 27 per cent of votes, they should, in principle, be entitled to about 27 per cent of the seats in parliament. Needless to say, proportionality has its advocates and opponents, but that debate’s for elsewhere. This is about whether STV fits that category.

STV is quite a complicated system, but the gist of it is this: Candidates stand for election to fill several (typically up to seven) vacancies. To be elected, a candidate needs to reach a number of votes known as the quota. On their ballot papers, electors rank candidates from first to last (though they don’t have to rank everyone). Each elector gets one vote. It goes to their first preference, unless that candidate has more votes than the quota or (if no candidate has an excess) they are coming last, in which case it goes to their next preference, and so on. The quota works so that just enough candidates are elected to fill the vacancies available.

If that was a bit over your head, the New Zealand Electoral Commission has a short video explaining the system. The Australian Electoral Commission also has a video (they use STV to elect their Senate), which I think gives a better (and longer) explanation, though our version would be a little different from the one they use. The AEC one is excellent; I know it’s Australian but I recommend that you watch it anyway.

Is STV proportional?
The first thing to note is that STV doesn’t even try to be proportional. The Sainte-Laguë method, which is used to allocate seats under MMP, is expressly designed to grant parties a share of seats in parliament proportional to their share of votes. The quota system of STV is designed to minimise wasted candidate votes and discourage tactical voting—admirable ends in themselves, but not the same as proportionality.

A case might then be made that STV has the effect of being proportional, even if it is a side effect. But note, first, that in STV electors vote for candidates, not parties. And, further, note that they vote not just for one candidate as in first-past-the-post (FPP), but they rank them in order from first to last. In FPP we can say an elector “voted” for the party their candidate stood for (though technically they didn’t). But the ranking in STV complicates that definition. If a voter ranked all of Party X’s candidates above all the rest, then we can easily say that he voted for Party X. But what if he ranked a Party X candidate first, then a Party Y one second, then another from Party Y, then Party Z, Party Y, Party X and finally Party W?

The ability not just to vote for a “party” when you like some of its candidates but dislike others is, indeed, an important advantage of STV. But it throws murkiness on to the concept of voting for a “party” that underlies the notion of proportionality.

The case where it is
There is a special case that is, in effect, proportional. This is the case where all electors cast their rankings to conform to a “party ticket”. For example, a Party X ticket would require a voter to rank all Party X candidates above all others and rank them all in the same order (X1, X2, X3, …). There are no deviations from party tickets, i.e. no-one chooses their own rankings, so they effectively just vote for a party.

Consider this basic example. There are five vacancies in an electorate. There are 400 who vote with the Party X ticket, 400 with the Party Y ticket and 200 with the Party Z ticket:

Number of voters
400 voters
400 voters
200 voters
Preference 1

Preference 2

Preference 3

Preference 4 etc.



Z1 etc.



X1 etc.



Y1 etc.

If we use the Hare quota, which is 200, then X1, Y1 and Z1 are elected in the first round. The excess votes from X1 and Y1, 200 each, go to X2 and Y2 respectively, who are elected. So the elected candidates are X1, X2, Y1, Y2 and Z1—each party picks up seats in proportion to the number of votes. If we use the Droop quota, we get the same result, except that the quota is 168, so X2 and Y2 pick up 232 transferred votes, not just 200.

We can generalise this. Say there are N vacancies. The Party X ticket gets v_x votes, the Party Y ticket v_y votes, and so on. Everyone votes on a party ticket. We’ll call the quota q. Then if the Party X ticket just gets the quota, v_x=q, they’ll get one seat. If they get just over n_x times the quota, v_x = n_xqthen (n_x-1)q votes are transferred to the second candidate, (n_x-2)q to the third, and so on until n_x candidates from Party X are elected. (There might be a few votes left over, but short of the quota.) Since q is determined so that the number meeting the quota is the number of vacancies, that is, n_x+n_y+n_z+\dots = N, and since roughly speaking n_P is proportional to v_P for each party P (since v_P \approx n_Pq), the effect is that the N seats are divided in proportion to the number who voted by each party ticket.

This is basically how “above the line” voting in the Australian Senate elections works: electors choose a party and their vote is then assumed to conform to that party ticket. Since over 95% of voters vote “above the line”, the effect is proportional. In fact, given that so few voters vote below the line, it’s hard to believe that voters who put more thought into their rankings than a party name have any substantial influence, which sort of renders the added complexity a bit pointless.

Disproportionality from small electorates
I doctored the numbers of that example to make the result neat. Obviously, the more seats there are in a single electorate, the closer we get to proportionality. Conversely, where there are only a few vacancies, the “margin of error” can be quite high. In the above case, if 499 voters had voted with the Party X ticket and 301 voters with the Party Y ticket, the result would have been the same (with either quota). So Parties X and Y get the same number of seats, despite having 49.9% and 30.1% respectively of votes—a difference in support of 19.8 percentage points. This distortion is unavoidable with low numbers of seats.

This can seem like a small issue, but when you aggregate this effect over dozens of electorates, each running separate contests, it can be a substantial effect. Sometimes, the “errors” in different electorates will cancel out. But other times, they will add up and all favour the same party.

That’s what happened in the Maltese general election of 1981. The Nationalist Party got a majority of votes (50.9%), but the Labour Party won a majority of seats and hence formed the government. This would have happened again in 1987, 1996 and 2008, but for the introduction of “bonus seats” after the 1981 crisis. So if you think STV’s “proportionality” will protect New Zealand from repeats of the infamous 1978 and 1981 (FPP) elections—where Labour got more votes than National, but National formed the government—you should think again. The only system on offer this referendum that protects against this anomaly is MMP.

Where proportionality gets murky
Even without the “errors” induced by a smaller number of vacancies, though, proportionality can still be murky. Consider this case. There are five vacancies, and at least three parties. The 1000 voters are divided as follows (for simplicity, we assume there are no other combinations):

Number of voters
400 voters
400 voters
200 voters
Preference 1

Preference 2

Preference 3

Preference 4 etc.



X3 etc.



Y3 etc.



X1 etc.

If we use the Hare quota, which is 200, then X1, Y1 and Z1 reach the quota in the first round. X1 has 200 excess votes, which are all transferred to Z2, who now reaches the quota and is elected. Y2 also has 200 excess votes, which are transferred to Z3, who is elected. So the elected candidates are X1, Y1, Z1, Z2 and Z3. If we use the Droop quota (168), we get the same result, with Z2 and Z3 being elected on 264 and 232 transferred votes respectively. Note that Party Z has three of the five seats.

Whether this is proportional depends on how you look at it. If we say that a elector “voted” for the party of their first-choice candidate, then Parties X and Y should have won two seats each—but only won one. At the same time, Party X supporters clearly preferred Candidate Z2 over Party X’s own X2, and similarly for Party Y with respect to Z3. This is how STV’s supposed to work: voters choose candidates, not parties. But it seems contrary to proportionality that a party that had just 20% of the first-preference vote gained a majority (three of five) of vacancies for this electorate.

You could argue that this is really what the electorate asked for when everyone gave Party Z their second-preference vote. You could also argue that, if Party X supporters liked Z2 that much, it probably says something about Z2. This lack of proportionality could be, and for some is, an argument for STV. But we must conclude that either (a) STV is not proportional, or (b) the concept of proportionality makes no sense when looking at STV.

It’s not like MMP
In some ways, I like STV. I like the idea of minimising vote wastage, and in some contexts (mainly professional societies), the added complexity can be useful.

But STV offers no guarantee of proportionality between the parties on which national politics is based. There’s not even a guarantee that a party with a majority of votes will form the government. The Sainte-Laguë method of MMP, on the other hand, will never give fewer seats to a party with more votes.

There is, of course, more to voting systems than just proportionality. But if proportionality is a top priority for you, you should not view MMP and STV as on equal ground. The only truly proportional system in this referendum is MMP.

Success for referendum proponents

There are two days left, but in a sense, those behind the smacking referendum have already succeeded. There won’t be a law change, and I’m not making a premature call on the result. In the wake of the referendum, public debate has shifted. The question I hear on the radio, in the news, in columns and from both sides’ campaigns is no longer whether the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act is working, to the question referendum proponents want New Zealand to answer: should we be allowed to smack our children?

The “Yes” Vote campaign has not, as I expected, sought to correct the misinformation their opponents have spread. Supporters of the misnomered “anti-smacking” bill once contended that it would outlaw child abuse and not the odd inconsequential smack. Now, though, the main message of the bill’s supporters and the “Yes” Vote appears to be that parents shouldn’t smack, and all parental physical correction, no matter how light or heavy, should be eradicated from our society.

The “No” Vote must be ecstatic at this level of engagement. Because few campaigners have drawn the line between the law and the referendum, the idea that the two are the same question has become cemented in the public. That is exactly what the “No” Vote wants. The question on everyone’s minds is now, "should parents be smacking children?”, and it has become inextricably linked to the 2007 amended Bradford bill.

If this is a good thing, then those who supported the amended Bradford bill believing it wouldn’t criminalise smacking are becoming forced to reconsider their position. For the record, I’m not reconsidering mine. But now that the bill’s original supporters have revealed that they do indeed believe that smacking is wrong and that it should outlawed, there are grounds to believe that there might, just might, have been a hidden agenda to all of this. If the “Yes” Vote wanted a victory, then this was a poor tactic to take. If they wanted to nobly challenge social values, then why weren’t they upfront about it in 2007?

For their part, the “No” Vote has had an incredibly weak case and cannot deserve any credit. They, including Family First and the Kiwi Party, have presented no convincing examples that good parents were being affected by this new law. Their best poster-boy to date, Jimmy Mason who was convicted of assault, became a failure after it was revealed that he has not just ear-flicked but punched his child in the face—something the movement was quick to condemn. All the evidence is that the law is working as intended.

The standard arguments levied against abstainers and whatever “disrespect for democracy” do not apply to this referendum. In any indicative vote, as opposed to a decision-making one, the strength of the result is as important as the direction. The Government must take the margin and turnout into account. In this particular one, the question is leading and irrelevant. Refusing to take part achieves more than asking a silly question, and is a more “positive” response than engaging with it.

With 1.3 million votes already sent in last Thursday, the turnout looks set to be reasonably high. People on both sides are asking whether smacking is okay, and the new law remains misunderstood by most Even if the result is predictable, it won’t matter. In a far more significant way, the “No” Vote campaign has already won.

Technorati Tags: smacking,referendum,section 59

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Smacking, referenda, flaws, wordings and (gulp) abstentions…

The upcoming referendum on smacking is fatally flawed, but I disagree with critics who argue that the question is ambiguous.

The way I see it, it couldn’t be clearer. “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?” It’s so unambiguous that it’s a leading question. It’s not beating up we’re talking about, but smacking. Not just any smacking, but smacking as part of good parental correction. And this wouldn’t result in some misdemeanour and fines, but in a criminal offence—the most serious category in our justice system. No-one in their right minds could possibly answer “yes”.

It doesn’t actually matter how you interpret “good”, because the fundamental question remains the same. If you ask me, the clarifier “good parental correction” limits it to smacks that are relatively light and physically inconsequential—a narrow range indeed. But regardless of whether you broaden or narrow what counts as “good”, whatever you consider to be good you won’t consider to be criminal. The only exception is if you don’t believe there’s any such thing as a “smack as part of good parental correction”, in which case it’s a bit of a null question, not a “yes”, because it can’t be an offence if it doesn’t exist, can it?

The referendum bears no relation to the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act at all. That law’s fourth subsection clearly allows an exception for inconsequential occurrences. That’s why Parliament passed it by 113 votes to 8. It prevents the misuse of the old Section 59 as a defence for people who beat up their children, while ensuring good parents aren’t criminalised for just a smack here and there. Supporters of the new law could just as easily answer to the referendum, “no”.

Taking the question word for word, then, the referendum is meaningless. Understandably, it motivated Green MP Sue Bradford to propose a bill to disallow questions that are ambiguous, complex, leading or misleading. It can sound like a nice quick-fix, but I doubt it would help. The applicability of those four words—even as they are defined in the bill—is by its very nature subjective. One side or the other is bound to disagree with every decision the Clerk makes—which does nothing for the credibility of a process that is supposed to enhance democracy. In any case, the Clerk of the House of Representatives is already supposed to vet questions so that they have a clear purpose and effect, and so that there are only two possibilities (ref). Evidently, it hasn’t worked.

But should it even matter? The biggest losers from having such a silly question are going to be the referendum’s proponents. The referendum will undoubtedly give the result they want. It’ll be a big “no”, and then lawmakers will do exactly what their mandate from the referendum is: absolutely nothing. The proponents will wonder why, and will probably start screaming and hollering about a government that “ignores the wishes of its citizens” or words to that effect—but it’s their own fault, by proposing a question that bore no relation to the law change they want.

How to vote, then, in a referendum as flawed as this? Supporters of the new law have argued that we should vote “yes’ to send a message that the law is working. I support the new law and I think it’s working, but I’m not sure that I’m prepared to lie in my response to some other question, just to make some political statement. Simply, I don’t believe that a smack as part of good parental correction should be a criminal offence. To vote “yes” would be to imply that the law needs to be changed. But I would oppose any such law change, so how could I vote “yes”?

The obvious answer, of course, is “no”, but therein lies the other dilemma. To vote “no” would be an implicit endorsement of the views of “no” vote campaigners, that the new law should be repealed. Sure, we might agree on the answer to the referendum itself, but I don’t want to add weight to their campaign. I don’t want to look like my views are aligned with theirs, or, worse, like I’m as uninformed about the law as them. So I can’t vote “no”, either.

I’m not a big fan of mass abstentions. The Youth MPs representing Green MPs at the 2007 Youth Parliament tried to stage one on the mock bill we were debating, and I didn’t think anything could’ve been more retarded. What they succeeded in doing astounded me: they united both sides of the (non-partisan) House against them. If it wasn’t unified disgust aimed at them, it was probably the next best thing. I reasoned at the time that mass-abstaining defeated the purpose of the exercise—people in any vote should just answer the question for what it is. If you support it, support it, and if you don’t, don’t. Abstaining is for those too indecisive or too weak to pick a side.

But I’m left with no other choice. There’s no way around it—the referendum is pointless. It was never going to be able to canvass the views of voters. It was never going to change the law. Those who support the new law while opposing the criminalisation of smacking must know this. A low turnout’s normally a bad thing, but here, it would show that the nation’s citizens aren’t willing to let our intelligence be insulted.

I never thought I’d ever do this.

Technorati Tags: referendum,smacking,section 59,citizens' initiated referenda

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Referendum asks an irrelevant question

If you asked me, “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?”, I would say no, of course.

And of New Zealand’s 4,268,206 people, I figure approximately 4,268,205 people would say the same; the lone exception being a certain Sue Bradford, for whom “smacking” and “assault” are synonyms.  That’s 4,268,205, I say, not 4,268,093.  The other 112 politicians who voted for the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Bill last year are not exceptions.  I bet you anything they would say no too.

This was reiterated by every speaker, by every party that supported that bill in its third reading (except Ms Bradford).  Smacking would not be a crime.  Smacking should not be a crime.  The bill is not about smacking.  It is about the sheer abuse of children that goes on in some places, hidden behind the old Section 59.  This quote of National’s Chester Borrows is not an isolated example:

Those parents who are worried that this legislation will criminalise lightly smacking a child can rest assured that Parliament’s intention is that this should not be the case, and if at some future time they find themselves on such a charge, they should advise counsel to research Hansard and cite these comments in their defence.

Why on earth, then, do Family First and more than 300,000 voters want a referendum that asks about smacking?  A negative response to that question, which is an almost-certainty, would have no effect on the status quo.  It would merely reaffirm the stance of virtually every member of the Parliament that enacted the law.

Family First and its petition’s supporters have yet to realise this.  Perhaps they are in denial: who could have thought a bill that was originally so absurd could end up being an Act of Parliament that actually means something?  I wrote once in this blog in strong opposition to Ms Bradford’s bill, but much changed between then and its final reading.  The amendment I once opposed had four words, not four sections.

A read of Family First’s case studies might feel emotionally provoking at first, but upon closer study they have little substance.  Not one of the cases resulted even in prosecution, let alone conviction; the single case that even touched the courts was dismissed as soon as it got there.  The cases are largely isolated and the only evidence that they might not have happened under previous legislation is that they are largely the result of people’s misconceptions of the law, which were probably gained through media campaigns by Family First themselves, and which will probably be corrected as the new law settles in properly.

I wonder, if the question began, “Should beating violently with whips, belts or sticks…”, if the matter would be so controversial.  It is this question that the legislation, designed to let go of matters “so inconsequential that there is no public interest in proceeding with a prosecution” (read: smacking), was addressing.  That’s why, if you ask me now, “Should the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007 be part of New Zealand law?”, I would say yes, even when my answer to that pointless smacking question remains a clear no.