Monday, March 29, 2010

Shirtcliffe resumes his anti-MMP campaign

Peter Shirtcliffe (79), the chairman of Telecon NZ in the 1990s, made most news in the early 1990s not for that but for spearheading the Big Business campaign against a change in New Zealand's parliamentary electoral system from first past the post (the British system) to proportional representation (the European system).

At the time Big Business was concerned about the left-wing Alliance led by Jim Anderton forming a permanent coalition government with the Labour Party, although the first election under PR in 1996 actually saw the National Party returned to power in a coalition with the centrist NZ First led by Winston Peters.

Of course Big Business didn't state the obvious reason behind its campaign, instead it came up with a lot of spurious arguments against proportional representation at all (e.g. that FPP was a good old British system and MMP was this dreadful German system). Now the government has decided to put the issue to referendum again at the next election in 2011 at a cost of $28 million and, surprise, surprise, out comes Shirtcliffe and his cronies again.

Among the arguments he now advances are that there are too many MPs in Parliament. Let's have a look at this first. In 1975 the NZ population was 3.1 million and NZ had 87 seats in Parliament. The NZ population is now 4.4 million so in proportion (the word Shirtcliffe hates) we should now have 123 MPs. We actually have 121. So much for that argument.

He claims the existance of a list has reduced local representation. Er, yeah? We still have half the house of representatives being constituency MPs. This frees the list MPs to concentrate on other duties, which for some time included his National Party leader Don Brash.

There is the likelihood, too, that the electorate MP is totally hopeless and/or many constituents don't like him/her. Often lazy MPs in safe seats were guaranteed them for life, as long as they avoided scandals, while good MPs in marginal seats were often at risk of going at the next election.

This doesn't mean that there aren't faults with MMP. In particular the 1-seat rule should go. This means that if a party wins a constituency seat it gets proportionately represented, but if a party doesn't win one, it has to get 5% of the vote to be proportionately represented.

The arguments in favour of the STV system (as used in Ireland and some NZ city councils) as an alternative are compelling, but not all is great with that either. With this people have to put a long list of candidates for multi-member constituencies in order of preference. The temptation for some may be to go the 'donkey vote' way - choose the 3 or 4 belonging to your party and ignore or rank a-z the rest.

In short the objective should be to improve what we have, not return to the bad old days.

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