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Survey Shows Improved Understanding Of MMP

23 August 2002

Survey Shows Improved Understanding Of MMP

The latest post-election research commissioned by the Electoral Commision shows that the public’s understanding of the MMP system has improved since a similar survey taken a few weeks before the election.

The research, conducted by Colmar Brunton, shows that the vast majority (92 percent) of people understand that they have two votes under MMP. This is the result of 25 percentage points since the pre-election survey. The post-election result is also markedly higher than the result following the 1999 general election.

Details of the latest survey were released today by the Commission’s Chief Executive, Dr Paul Harris, during a presentation he gave to a political science conference in Wellington studying last month’s election.

A copy of Dr Harris’s address to the conference is attached.

NOTE: A copy of the Colmar Brunton report on the post-election research can be downloaded as a pdf file from www.elections.org.nz/elections/news/index.html

Broadcasting allocations and voter education at the 2002 general election

Dr Paul Harris
Chief Executive
Electoral Commission

Paper prepared for presentation to the 2002 Post-election Conference, Parliament Buildings, 23 August 2002

I want to talk about two matters this morning – election broadcasting allocations, and the public information campaign the Commission conducted before the general election on the basic elements of MMP.

First, the usual disclaimer: the views I express this morning are personal and are not necessarily those of the Electoral Commission.

On the whole, the early election didn’t cause the Commission too many problems. We were able to bring some items of expenditure forward into the 2001/02 financial year as the speculation about an earlier election increased, and the late passage of amendments to the Electoral Act didn’t impact on Commission the way it did on the Chief Electoral Office and the Electoral Enrolment Centre. There was the usual election-year flurry of activity concerning registration of parties and party logos, and perhaps 2 or 3 parties decided they didn’t have enough time to gain registration before a July election.

We did feel the impact of the announcement of the early election in relation to our election broadcasting responsibilities. In April this year, the law obliged the Commission to begin the process of allocating to eligible political parties free or discounted time provided by broadcasters and $2 million of public money for parties’ election broadcasting. The election announcement in the middle of the allocation process meant that parties were naturally keen to know their allocations as soon as possible so they could plan their campaigns. We were able to shorten the allocation timetable and to issue allocations of money and time for opening and closing addresses on 19 June, the day after we completed the hearings of parties required by law and a week after the announcement of the election.

This year’s election was the third for which the Commission has been responsible for allocating election broadcasting time and money. After the first MMP election in 1996, the Commission said ‘the current system of allocating time and funds to political parties for election broadcasting is unfair and unsatisfactory and the procedures required by the Act are very time-consuming, cumbersome and expensive.’ It recommended a fundamental select committee review of the election broadcasting regime. It repeated that recommendation after the 1999 election.

That review has yet to occur. In my view, it needs to go beyond considering improvements to the current allocation regime. Historically there seems to have been considerable suspicion of the power of broadcasting when used for electoral purposes and an understandable fear that, unless election broadcasting was controlled, the better resourced parties would gain an electoral advantage and could create an arms race in campaign costs.

The result is that the law concerning election broadcasting is contained in two acts of Parliament which are difficult to read together, are highly restrictive and confusing and result in a minefield for parties, candidates and broadcasters. There needs to be a fundamental re-examination of the objectives of regulating election broadcasting given modern communications methods, the changes to election campaigns brought by MMP and the fact that parties’ election expenditure is now limited. The law then needs to be brought together in a single enactment, and the new regime needs to be in place well before the next general election.

The experience of this year’s allocation process has also highlighted another major anomaly in the allocation system. The timing of the election meant that the Progressive Coalition was not eligible for an allocation of time or money, even though it was likely to be in government after the election. Consequently, that party could not participate in the parties’ opening and closing addresses (although it was represented in some leaders’ forums on radio and television). Since the law prevents parties from spending their own funds on buying radio and television time, this party was prevented from doing any radio or television advertising as part of its party election campaign. To my way of thinking, such a restriction is undesirable and undemocratic, since it severely limited the party’s opportunity to choose how to present its policies to the public. Moreover it did so at the most significant point in the democratic process, when free speech and debate about parties’ policies ought to be as open and as unrestricted as possible.

In 1986 the Royal Commission on the Electoral System recommended a transparent but ‘modest’ and limited extension to the public funding of political parties. While the Royal Commission believed that parties should meet most of their costs from their supporters, it recognised that there is a significant public interest in parties’ having the resources to develop sound policies and then to communicate those policies to the public. The Commission said:

Our parties should be able to operate not just as electoral machines, but also as vehicles through which ideas may be discussed and sound policies developed. If and when elected to Government, political parties are expected to implement the policies and programmes developed when in Opposition.… If the parties’ policies and programmes are inappropriate or poorly researched, either the quality of Government will suffer or the people may be denied the implementation of policies for which they voted. In view of the functions they are expected to fulfil, the incomes and expenditures on which our political parties operate are modest in the extreme. While it is no bad thing for them to be lean and hungry, political parties are too important to be left to starve.

There are many ways in which present public funding of parties could be changed or extended. The Royal Commission proposed that parties should receive funding based on the number of votes each receives. In my view, the current fund Parliament provides for allocation to parties for election broadcasting should be converted to the wider purposes identified by the Royal Commission. A party should then be free to buy time for election broadcasting, subject only to a modest increase in the current limit on its election expenses, and perhaps also to a secondary limit on its election broadcasting expenditure.

Whatever the details of a new arrangement, it is my fervent hope that we will have a fairer and more realistic election broadcasting regime by the time of the next general election.

I now turn to my second topic, the Commission’s pre-election public information campaign on MMP.

This was the third such campaign the Commission has conducted, and as before it took place in parallel with the information campaigns conducted by the Chief Electoral Office and the Electoral Enrolment Centre. Experience of the previous campaigns in 1996 and 1999 coupled with periodic research into public understanding of MMP allowed us to refine the aims and methods of a pre-election campaign to complement our ongoing educational activities.

Our objective in 2002 was the same as in 1996 and 1999: to assist New Zealand electors to be sufficiently informed about their electoral system and parliamentary democracy to be able to cast an effective vote at an election. As in 1999, we concentrated on reminding voters of the three basic messages about the number of votes under MMP, the importance of the Party Vote in deciding parties’ shares of all the seats in Parliament, and the threshold. We had a short 3-4 week campaign aimed at general population 18+ and at the 4 particular target groups we have consistently identified since our first research monitor in 1994: youth (18-24), women, Maori and Pacific Island people. Our brief to our advertising agency (Frameworks) for the design of the media advertisements and basic pamphlets emphasised the need for simplicity, accessibility, and appealing design and promotion of sources of more information (principally a toll-free number and the electoral website) for those who wanted more information about how MMP works.

The Commission’s brief to its media placement agency (Carat Communications) was to ensure placements of advertisements to reach all voters but with particular emphasis on the Commission’s target groups. This year we were also able to take advantage of the Chief Electoral Office’s EasyVote Pack to get MMP information mailed to every registered elector before the election – a very cost-effective communication from our perspective.

Other education and information activities run in parallel with the media advertising. As you might expect, the number of public enquiries we receive increases markedly during the election period; in July the Commission’s office received just over 1,800 telephone and written enquiries about electoral matters, an average of almost 79 per working day and twice the number we received in June (those figures do not include 6,448 enquiries to the Commission’s 0800 number in July.) Many of the enquires received in the Commission’s office concerned the responsibilities of the other two electoral agencies and had to be referred to them for reply.

I said earlier that the Commission has conducted monitoring research on public understanding of MMP since it began operations in 1994. There are two phases to that research at time of general election – the first occurs before the Commission’s public information campaign begins and the second begins on the day after election day. The Commission received the results of Colmar Brunton’s 2002 post-election research earlier this week, and they are being released today to the media and on the electoral website. The main findings for the 2002 post-election survey are as follows: (OHPs)

- Levels of understanding of the number of votes and the threshold in 2002 were similar to those reached in 1999 (counting ‘4 votes’ as correct).

- Understanding of the function of the Party Vote at 79% exceeded that in 1999 (70%) and was slightly higher than in 1996 (77%). No doubt the Commission’s information campaign was assisted by parties’ election advertising, since most of them now seem to realise that Party Votes are worth campaigning for.

- Although there was no apparent difference between men and women and their overall interest in politics in 2002, there are still conspicuous gaps between males’ and females’ understanding on all 3 of the basic MMP messages, although (as in 1996 and 1999) the gaps narrowed during the campaign.

- There has been a steady decline in interest in politics among 18-24 year olds since the 1999 post-election survey (18-24 – 79%, overall 81%; 2002 18-24 – 53%, overall 78%), although interest among young people did increase from the pre-election measure (39%). 2002 knowledge levels among 18-24 year olds of the number of votes (79%) and the function of the Party Vote (71%) were higher than those interested in politics (53%).

- Although interest in politics among Maori declined during the campaign (73% down to 66%), the change is not statistically significant. Knowledge of the number of votes increased (48% to 82%), as did knowledge of the function of the Party Vote (34% to 63%) and knowledge of both parts of the threshold (11% to 26%).

- Interest in politics among Pacific people increased during the campaign (51% to 69%). The research found increases in knowledge of all 3 aspects of MMP, especially the number of votes (23% to 70%) and the function of the Party Vote (19% to 58%).

These results are encouraging, particularly when considered alongside the overall turnout of 72.5% of the estimated voting age population (a decline of 4.5% compared to 1999). There were lower levels of informal voting in 2002 (0.4% for Party Votes and 1.3% for Electorate Votes; 1999 – 1% and 1.8% respectively) and what appears to be a high level of split voting (the Chief Electoral Office is expected to release these and other statistics next month). All this suggests to me that most of those who did vote and many of those who did not were likely to have a pretty good grasp of the fundamentals of the MMP voting system by the time of the election – even if they didn’t appear to do so a mere 4 weeks before election day.

© Scoop Media

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