MMP New Zealand Style: A Self-Eliminating Electoral System?
by Keith Rankin
In New Zealand politics, there is an opportunity for the rejected FPP electoral system to creep back in through the back door.
Extrapolating from past elections, we can expect a 12-15% increase in the number of parliamentary electorates each decade. Under present rules, each new electorate MP means one fewer list MP.
MMP literally disappears when list seats disappear. MMP in New Zealand will cease for practical purposes once fewer than 25 percent of our MPs are list MPs.
By past trends, in 2020 or 2023 we can expect to be down to 30 list MPs. The last list MP will be elected in 2038.
Thanks to the South Island quota of 16 seats, if 200,000 South Islanders move to the North Island this decade, MMP could be ruined by 2011.
The number of Maori electorates is determined by both the proportion of New Zealanders with some Maori descent, and the proportion of Maori that opt to vote on the Maori electoral role.
Given the genetic drift that takes place each generation, there will be an acceleration of the growth of potential Maori voters. Further, as this century unfolds, there can be expected to be real or perceived Treaty advantages in identifying as Maori. The result will be a disproportionate increase in Maori voters and hence of Maori electorates.
There are three obvious ways out of this predicament arising from the growth of electorates. Each solution will have significant political cost to any government that attempts to implement it. We could: (i) remove the South Island electorate quota; (ii) abolish the Maori electorates (as Don Brash has recently suggested); (iii) increase the total size of Parliament after each population census (as we used to do).
There is a fourth possibility, superficially attractive to Labour given its desire to implement the Treaty and its disinterest in a return to FPP voting. We could make the size of Parliament 120 general and list seats, and then add the Maori seats as a permanent overhang. In other words, Maori electorate MPs would operate outside of the Pakeha party system. Indeed such a move could be the first step in creating a Maori Upper House.
Such separation of Maori representation could happen without the government taking any political action.
What if the existing Maori electorate MPs (all Labour) were to stand in 2005 as "Independent Labour"? They could justify such an action as a way of distancing themselves from the government's 'Foreshore and Seabed' proposals.
Assuming that the Maori electorate MPs all get re-elected, almost certain under the FPP system that we still use, then they would become 'overhang' MPs, creating a 2005-2008 Parliament of 127 or more MPs. Further, with the overhang Maori MPs remaining aligned with Labour on matters of confidence and supply, Labour would gain a disproportionate electoral advantage over National.
If the Maori electorate MPs form a Maori party, the result will be the same as if they become Independent. The nationwide list vote for such a party would be small. Most Maori voters would continue to vote Labour, while also voting for their sitting "Maori Party" MP.
In other words, an act of rebellion by Labour Maori MPs could become entrenched in a way that gives both Maori and Labour additional parliamentary clout, while also slowing the degradation of MMP that arises from reduced numbers of list MPs.
In 1993 we adopted a proportional electoral system that becomes unstable as time passes. This instability can lead to convenient rather than principled outcomes. The futures of both MMP and special Maori representation are more uncertain than most of us realise.
Keith Rankin © 2004 [ email@example.com]