Does MMP just need tweaking?
19 October 2011
A University of Canterbury political scientist is calling on New Zealand politicians not to "throw the baby out with the bath water" when the results come in from November's voting system referendum.
A University of Canterbury political scientist is calling on New Zealand politicians not to “throw the baby out with the bath water” when the results come in from November’s voting system referendum.
Associate Professor Alex Tan (Social and Political Sciences) has been studying various electoral systems with his postgraduate students and how a few “tweaks” here and there can make a significant difference to election outcomes.
The paper was borne out of discussions in Professor Tan’s honours class last year and two of his co-authors are postgraduate students from that class – Stephanie Borthwick and Monique Eade.
The researchers conducted a simulation analysis of changes to theNew Zealandelectoral system, comparing the current MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) and the Supplementary Member system (or SM, also known as Mixed Member Majoritarian overseas) against a few new variables.
One of the scenarios they looked at was to change MMP’s 56-44% split between electorate and list seats to a 70-30 ratio.
The second scenario was to see what changing the threshold would do. Instead of the current 5% minimum threshold in order to gain seat allocation researchers looked at what effect raising the bar to 8% would have.
Using data from the NZ Electoral Commission website for the 1999, 2002, 2005 and 2008 general elections researchers threw these new numbers into the mix and analysed what happened.
“What we found in this particular study was that tweaking the system can result in certain outcomes both opponents and proponents of MMP want,” said Professor Tan.
“Proponents’ argument is that a diverseNew Zealand society needs to be represented while opponents say MMP is too complex and lowers the level of accountability.
“What many people want most from the government is to hold that government accountable but in a coalition who do you actually blame? You’ll have some voters saying ‘I didn’t vote for that small party so how come they have become the King-maker’ and they see the tail wagging the dog.”
Professor Tan said it is very evident that the MMP system as it currently stands does create more multi-party governments. The study revealed that changing the balance of seats between districts and lists did have some effect on reducing the number of parties in parliament but not substantially.
“You will start to see difference once you change the threshold,” said Professor Tan. “Increase in the threshold level reduces the number of parliamentary parties and increases the likelihood of one-party majority government.”
Professor Tan said looking at the previous four elections, for example, under SM a one-party majority government would have resulted in all but the 2005 elections and with MMP the 2002 and 2008 election could have resulted in some scenarios in a single party majority.
Professor Tan said the study revealed another caveat not in the current electoral system debate.
“One important factor is how close the election is. The more competitive the election, the less likely a single party government can win majority. This means that if accountability and single-party majority government is preferred by the electorate, the easiest way to reform the system is to simply increase the minimum threshold level without changing the two-vote MMP system.”
As New Zealand only switched from First Past the Post (FFP) to MMP in 1996 Professor Tan said it was “still young and learning”, compared to veteran MMP countries such as Germany who have had the system since 1957.
“Our conclusion from the study was should we throw the baby out with the bath water or should we just tweak the system instead? We might not necessarily need to make wholesale change.”
Professor Tan said his study might be taken as contentious but it was just “an experiment toying around with scenarios and counterintuitive things such as the assumption that MMP is always multi-party and SM always majority” and he hoped it added to the debate.
“Both sides of the debate – the opponents and proponents – are both right and wrong.
“However, the big question to ask is ‘what do we actually want out of our government?’ Do we want representation or efficient accountable governments? The relationship between representation and accountability is inversely related and you can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
Professor Tan believes coalition “by and of itself” is not a problem but the problem lies in having “too many cooks in the kitchen”, something a lower threshold tends to promote but something that is easily fixed.
For further information contact:
Maria De Cort
Communications & External Relations
DDI: +64 3 364 2072
Mobile: +64 27 299 0741
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