Time for MMP referendum
By Peter Dunne
Thursday, 13 March 2008
It’s time for another referendum on MMP.
Even though there was no provision for another referendum following the change to the electoral system in 1996, most
people still think there was, and are aggrieved it has never happened.
When MMP was reviewed in 2001 I was one of the minority of MPs on the review committee who voted for another referendum.
As the system was established by the people by referendum in 1993, its confirmation or otherwise should similarly be
determined by the people in another referendum, and not by the politicians.
Recent events have thrust the issue into prominence once again.
We have seen MPs defeated in their electorates returning to Parliament via the party list. There has been the list MP,
elected solely on the basis of his party crossing the threshold by virtue of winning an electorate seat, claiming to
remain in Parliament after deserting his party.
Then there was Richard Long’s column (10 March) arguing that Labour stood to gain most from any abolition of the Maori
seats. This followed on from National’s apparent unwillingness to confirm its 2005 policy of abolishing those seats by
2014 and the extraordinary threats to civil order from the Maori Party should any government even consider doing so.
Yet the question of the future of the Maori seats has been on the table ever since the Royal Commission on the electoral
system recommended their abolition way back in 1986. Instead, we have almost doubled the number since then.
Issues like these are examples of MMP working out in practice to be a little different from what was intended. But there
is another issue looming that has the potential to be the greatest manipulation of MMP yet.
The premise behind MMP is that parties get representation in Parliament in proportion to the party votes they receive –
10% of the party vote means 10% of the seats in Parliament. If a party wins more electorate seats than its party vote
entitles it to, then it keeps those electorate seats, creating what is called the “overhang.” (At the last election the
Maori Party won four electorate seats, but its party vote was equivalent to three seats, so the size of Parliament
increased by one.)
If all the current polls are right, at this year’s election, the Maori Party could win all seven Maori seats, but its
party vote is running at about the level of three seats, thus Parliament’s overhang might increase to four.
In that event, the number of seats required to form a government would jump from 61 at present to 63, thus manipulating
the election outcome. To take the current polls at their word, National could end up as the largest party, with possibly
more than 50% of the party vote.
With support partners it may well be able to cross the 61 seat barrier, but could fall short of crossing the higher
barrier 63 seat the substantial overhang causes, because it cannot come to a deal with the Maori Party.
Therefore it is unable to govern.
That bizarre outcome would be both contrary to the expressed will of the public and completely undemocratic.
I do not criticise Maori for their astuteness in adapting well to MMP but I do question whether those who voted for MMP
really expected the Maori seats to end up being used this way, as a potential permanent veto on who governs, regardless
of the public will.
Surely, it is another reason for a fresh referendum on MMP, including the future of the Maori seats? Such a referendum
could occur as early as 2010, with its results implemented for the 2014 General Election.