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Local Elections (Single Transferable Vote Option)

First Reading Speech,
Rod Donald MP, Green Party Co-Leader,
5 July 2000

I move that the Local Elections (Single Transferable Vote Option) Bill be now read a first time.

Mr Speaker, The purpose of this Bill is to provide an alternative voting system to First Past the Post at local body level. A crucial word in the Bill’s title is ‘option’. This bill will not require councils to adopt STV, but it will give territorial authorities, regional councils, licensing trusts and their communities the choice to do so.

STV was described as the thinking person’s proportional representation in the 1992 electoral referendum. Although it scored only 17% compared MMP’s 70% it still beat First Past the Post, which rated only 15%. While I firmly believe that MMP is the best voting system for parliament, STV is obviously my preference for local bodies.

I am therefore delighted to introduce this Bill but I’m still very disappointed that its predecessor was not passed back in 1996. If this Bill passes its first reading, and I am hopeful that it will, it is my intention for it to be referred to the Justice and Electoral Select Committee.

I would like to pay tribute to Stephen Todd who has worked long and hard drafting both this Bill and its predecessor. It is a very comprehensive piece of legislation reflecting the precise nature of its purpose.

I would also like to acknowledge former Labour MP Richard Northey who introduced a Bill of the same name in July 1995. Richard and Hon David Caygill thoroughly developed that original Bill to the point where the National-dominated Electoral Law Committee recommended that it be passed.

Unfortunately it was carried over at the 1996 General Election and for reasons that still remain a mystery to me the National-NZ First coalition government killed it off in 1998, denying voters an important democratic choice in the process.

I said then that if the Bill was lost I was determined to see a better version introduced and I believe the Bill we are debating tonight achieves that goal.

While this Bill is substantially the same as the Northey-Caygill Bill, it contains one significant advance and a number of smaller changes which enhance its value. Before talking about the features of the Bill, I would like to outline the benefits of STV.

STV is a voting system which is undoubtedly fairer than First Past the Post, STV is designed to ensure that all significant viewpoints are represented in proportion to their level of popular support. It works equally well where there are organised parties or opinion groups, where all the candidates are independents or where there is a combination of both.

In contrast to First Past the Post, where the largest voting bloc can often win all the seats with a minority of votes at the exclusion of other groups or opinions, STV gives significant minorities, whether ethnic, geographic or issue based, a fair go. It also reduces the level of wasted votes because more elector’s count and, because voters get what they voted for, it encourages higher turn-outs.

You know you can vote positively with STV because under no circumstances can a second preference reduce the chances of your first choice winning. In contrast, under the present multi-member ward system, you are faced with tactical voting choices because it is quite possible that the vote you cast for your second choice could be the vote which defeats your first choice.

With STV you can also vote for a person you would really like to get elected even though you think their chances may not be good because your subsequent preferences will ensure your vote will still count. [Who knows, you might find a whole lot of other people feel the same way and the person you want does make it onto your council.]

Best of all, STV is simple to use. The directions to voters are clear and straightforward. All you have to do is rank the candidates in order of preference on the ballot paper. As the voting instructions in Schedule I of the Bill explain, you vote by placing a ‘1’ beside the name of the candidate who is your first preference, a ‘2’ beside your second preference, a ‘3’ beside your third preference and so on. You should continue to express preferences only as long as you are able to place successive candidates in order. You may express as many or as few preferences as you wish.

And that’s it for the voters! It’s not difficult or scary. What happens after you voted is more complicated but that’s the returning officer’s problem and these days with computers, a lot of the hard work has even been taken out of the STV count.

The most significant new feature of this Bill is the use of a computer counting system known as the “Meek Rules”. The essential difference between Meek’s computer programme and traditional hand-counting rules is that the computer can re-calculate and transfer preferences simultaneously, giving a more refined result.

You are welcome to read Schedule II of the Bill or the 1987 UK Computer Journal, Vol. 30 No III if you want to understand how it works. For my part, in the same way people’s enjoyment of Lotto is not constrained by not knowing how the Lotteries Commission computer works. I suspect the same will apply to voters wishing to make the most of STV.

Equally, the people who sold you the Lotto ticket can operate the system without knowing how it’s programmed, I’m sure returning officers would be more than happy to apply the Meek rules without needing a mathematics degree.

In practice, the outcome using Meek is unlikely to be any different from using the more traditional method but my view is that we may as well use the most up-to-date computer programme available. However, I would be interested in submissions on whether the Bill should be amended to allow smaller local authorities and licensing trusts to use hand-counting because of the relatively small number of votes involved.

If we do adopt the Meek Rules, we will be the first country in the world to do so. STV is used widely in Australia – by Tasmania for local bodies and their lower house, by Australian Capital Territories for their lower house, by other Australian States for their Upper houses and for the Federal Senate, but they all use more traditional counting methods. STV is also used for all public elections in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and STV has just been recommended for local body elections in Scotland.

The procedure for adopting STV is as straight forward as voting. The Bill sets out the procedure for this. In the year prior to a local body election a council can adopt STV or a community can petition to hold a referendum on its adoption.

Deciding who wins seats under STV is also straightforward. Voters rank the candidates in order of preference. A quota is calculated to determine the minimum number of votes needed by a candidate to win a seat. If you are electing a mayor or someone in a single-member district, that quota is just over 50% of the votes. In a two-seat ward it is just over 33% of the votes, in a 3 seat ward just over 25% and so on. If the votes for a candidate equal or exceed the quota then they are elected. In the case of a single seat or a mayoralty contest, if no candidate reaches the quota, then the lowest polling candidate is eliminated and the second preferences of those who voted for that candidate are counted. This continues until there is an absolute majority support for one candidate.

A similar procedure applies in multi-member wards. The extra feature is that if an elected candidate wins more votes than they need then the surplus is transferred to other candidates in accordance with the later preferences of the voters. A share of every later preference of the surplus votes is re-allocated rather than arbitrarily selecting the last votes to be counted.

It’s this process of re-allocating surplus votes and eliminating the lowest polling candidates which ensures that everyone’s vote carries an equal value.

Some of you may be thinking “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. I would argue that the present system is very definitely broke. All too often we wind up with minority mayors and unrepresentative councils.

As Graham Bush, former Associate political science professor at Auckland University says “if there is one voting system worse than single member first past the post it is multi member first past the post. There is plenty of evidence to back this up and my colleague Sue Kedgley will outline some examples when she takes the call later in this debate.

The introduction of this bill is timely. While it is too late to apply it as it stands for next years local body elections I would hope that the select committee, when it seeks submissions, will ask councils and communities if any wish to adopt it for next year’s elections. If there is a demand it would be quite feasible to put in place the procedures allowing either a Council or a community to initiate a change in voting system after the Ward boundaries have been finalised later this year.

Even if Councils decide there is insufficient time to adopt STV for next year’s elections I am very pleased that the Government has signalled that STV will be an option in its new Local Election and Polls Act which will be introduced later this year. I am also delighted that Local Government New Zealand is endorsing STV as a viable option for local authorities. This bill would dovetail nicely with the Government bill as its details of the voting method could be incorporated in the Government bill’s regulations.

Another option I know the Government is considering is to introduce optional Maori constituencies for councils. While I support the intention of this move I would strongly suggest that STV offers a better way to improve Maori representation at local body level without some of the drawbacks which establishing specific Maori Wards would create. STV of course also offers improved representation opportunities for other significant ethnic minorities such as people of Pacific Island decent which the Maori Constituency Empowering Bill doesn’t.

I look forward to support from all sides of the house for this Bill. Anyone who is committed to voter choice, fair representation and enhancing democracy ought to support it.

ENDS

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