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Saturday, 16 May 2015

Proportional Representation and New Zealand

Politics is about vision. Every single person has their own particular vision, even if they cannot articulate it. This is the same as how everyone has a philosophy, a world view or a favourite film... in general, people are much better at talking about what they like about something someone has said than they are about their own positions/beliefs/visions. This is one aspect of why direct democracy is a bad idea. While it would theoretically capture an individual's vision most perfectly, it doesn't have the same prompt that representative democracy does. However, representative democracy does have what I term the vision gap.

The vision gap is a way of thinking about the fact that no-one is able to vote for someone who perfectly represents their (usually incompletely articulated) vision... there are always differences of opinion, often these are substantial. It follows, then, that a good electoral system is one that reduces the aggregate (i.e. national) vision gap as much as possible, whilst not being a direct democracy (which is impracticable and undesirable, although this is another argument). The only way to do this is through proportional representation (PRep).

The principle behind PRep is that the end outcome in the election should match, as closely as possible, the actual vote. If, say, 10,000 people vote for Party A across four electorates with the split 2000, 4000, 2000, and 2000 while only 8,000 people for Party B then Party A should have 5 seats for every 4 that Party B does. However, a system like First Past the Post (FPP) could allow Party B to win this imaginary election with the split: 2200, 1400, 2200 and 2200. That would be three seats to Party A's one. To my mind, Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) is the best way to improve this. 

Under MMP, as adopted in NZ, an individual voter has 2 votes. The first is for their electorate MP (for instance, Judith Collins, Phil Goff or, most recently, Winston Peters) who will represent their "local" area. The second is the party vote (e.g. Greens, National or ACT). Electorates are won by a simple majority system and the party votes are used to determine the popular vote (what we determined, above, was 10,000 for Party A and 8,000 for Party B). This popular vote is then used to determine  how many list seats each party should get. Imagine that in our example, the allocations are identical for the electorate seats and we get 10,000 party votes for A and 8,000 for B. Also imagine that there are 10 seats in total now. As B has 44% of the vote they should get one list Member of Parliament (MP). A's 56% of the vote means that they should get 4 list MPs so that each party has roughly as many seats as share of the party (or popular) vote. 

This is an improvement on FPP but we are still left with this idea of the vision gap as the PRep example we have here has simply reduced the tension that existed between the popular vote and the electoral outcome. The vision gap is reduced more through reducing the "risk" of voting for a minor party. That is, people are afraid to waste their vote on candidates or parties that haven't got a chance to win. Because this fear is evaluated, we get the vision gap because people compromise even more than usual. The cost of voting is the voter's opinion of the chance that an option won't make it into parliament... PRep reduces this cost and, thus, minimises the vision gap (and, so, the wasted vote). The trouble is that New Zealand has a 5% threshold.

The Threshold is a very troublesome concept. 5% of 121 is 6.05, or 6 seats, which is more than National's current partners (all three of them) managed individually or collectively. That is absolutely insane. Especially given the Conservatives got just a touch under 4% in the last election. The threshold's current size is more than sufficient to reintroduce significant risk: especially for parties which have no prior experience as parties inside parliament. Essentially, the threshold scares people into voting for two large parties, two medium-sized ones and the electorate scam parties (Maori, ACT and United Future). However, reducing the threshold to 0% would imply that .826% would be enough to enter parliament. I think that this is a bit too low for the interests of stability so I suggest that 2 or 1.5% be used instead.

I suppose we should now touch on the aforementioned electorate scam parties. Those  three parties have been in coalition arrangements with Nation since the 2008 election and their entire rationale is that National will either not seriously contest certain electorates (in other words, the likes of Epsom are currently Rotten Boroughs) or take advantage of the fact that only Labour and Maori (and a non-Dotcommed Hone Harawira) can win the Maori seats.* I used the term "take advantage" due to the coat-tail provision whereby a party with an electorate seat can bypass the threshold (this is another issue with the threshold), and could, as such, theoretically bring in more MPs. However, as Maori would only get 1.6 seats with no threshold and no electorate and the other two performed even worse in terms of the party vote, this didn't happen this time around. The coat-tail provision is a distortion of democracy in a similar fashion to the threshold. It really needs to go and it needs to be replaced with a lower threshold. 

Finally, we should just mention that coalitions are a very powerful tool. One of the issues that people bring up when trying to criticise democracy is the idea of the tyranny of the majority. This cannot happen if people are able to express their values (as opposed to their risk assessments) and, as a result, major parties must consider the values of the smaller ones. It gets a bit dubious when you have a party like Thatcher's Conservatives (despite being from a non PRep system) or Key's National which are going to win and everyone knows it, in part because of disarray among the opposition. In such circumstances, the coalition parties are robbed of any real power to induce thoughts from the big party. And you will also get policies like Charter Schools sprung on you. That was something Key's lot wanted, ACT was never going to disagree with and it was always going to be unpopular, thus it was attributed to ACT to shift the risk... that's moral hazard. But this is more likely to happen when you have a system that is distorting what should be a good democratic outcome such as NZ's thresholds and rotten boroughs.

New Zealand is in a much better place, in terms of democracy, than the largest two English speaking nations. I would also argue that we are in a better place than the closest one that isn't us. However, we should be even better and the only thing stopping us is a government more interested in Brand Key and flag change than fixing some of the issues that have helped them storm home (even though they were always going to win the last two elections). We have gone very far but we still need to get rid of our Rotten Boroughs and reduce that damn threshold.

*Maori seats probably shouldn't exist given that: they were intended to be temporary; Maori achieve representation in the same way that everyone else does; and even if you insist that the sum total of Maori is that they are Maori and thus can only be represented by Maori, there are Maori MPs who aren't in parliament due to Maori seats. In short, Maori seats are anachronistic and paternalistic (unlike, say, NZ's being a constitutional monarchy although they are like the arguments for NZ's being a republic which argue, falsely, that NZ is not independent).

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