The state of democracy in NZ

Speaking of the state of democracy, Colin James’s thoughtful piece in yesterday’s Granny deserves more attention on the blogosphere.

James suggests:

“Here’s a democratic promise John Key could make: that if Prime Minister he will promote a fixed term for Parliament. Republican Helen Clark has clung to the vestige of monarchical power that allows her in effect to set the election date.”

Good point. The setting of the election date to gain (perceived) electoral advantage is in no way democratic. Also, there are arguments for and against a longer term, but I think that the benefits for economic management are compelling. It’s worth serious consideration.”

More interesting are James’s musings on the “self-interested” promise of a binding referendum on the voting system:

“Any less proportional alternative [to MMP] – certainly the supplementary member system he favours – would advantage the two big old parties. In this election it would have smoothed National’s bid for power.”

James does the math to demonstrate this. In particular, the smaller parties miss out. But — and here’s a point that is often overlooked — the voters have been busy adapting MMP “without waiting for the politicians.” James calls this a “two-phase clean-up.”

“First, (the electorate) has been steadily whittling down the ‘wasted’ vote for parties which get party votes but not seats: from 7.5 per cent in 1996 to 6 per cent in 1999, 4.9 per cent in 2002 and 1.3 per cent in 2005.”

In phase 2 the voters will start whittling down the number of small parties represented in Parliament. Peters, Dunne and Anderton are all really relics of the old FFP system. When they go, their parties go too, most likely. James even speculates that when Hide goes, so too does ACT.

And I’d argue that NZ voters have demonstrated a very sharp sense of how to operate MMP to reflect the popular will. In 1999 and 2002, they wanted fairness and moderation, but they weren’t prepared to give Labour unfettered power. The precision with which they achieved this outcome was remarkable.

I agree with James. If Key is serious about democracy, then he could look at giving up the opportunistic use of election date setting and an extended term. Leave the voting system to the “punters”, we’re already fine-tuning it.


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