Electoral debate, Jonathan Boston

Taking it to the People? The New Zealand Electoral Referendum Debate,
Alan McRobie (ed),
Hazard Press, $29.95

This book is about the continuing debate over electoral reform in New Zealand. It brings together a wide array of material (all of it written since the mid 1980s) by academics, politicians, editorial writers, and political activists, together with sections of the 1986 report of the Royal Commission on the Electoral System (Towards a Better Democracy) and the subsequent 1988 report by Parliament’s Electoral Law Select Committee. Most of the material in the volume has been published previously, much of it in the form of short articles in New Zealand’s major daily newspapers. There are, however, some lengthier unpublished articles, most notably a background piece on electoral referendums by Keith Jackson, a scholarly analysis of the 1992 referendum results by Stephen Levine and Nigel Roberts, reviews of the referendum campaign by Alan McRobie and Jim Tully, and an excellent analysis of the Electoral Reform Bill (1992) by Alan McRobie.

The editor is to be commended for bringing together all this material in a single volume. It will almost certainly be much used and oft-quoted in the months leading up to the 1993 referendum. Without doubt, it should help to enhance the quality of the debate and hopefully ensure that at least some voters are better informed about the issues. It is to be hoped, too, that the book will be read and inwardly digested by MPs, especially those serving on the Electoral Law Select Committee which is currently considering the Electoral Reform Bill.

McRobie has struck a good balance in his selection of articles and editorials, ensuring that all sides of the debate are fairly represented. Defenders of the current first-past-the-post (FPP) system, such as Helen Clark and Simon Upton, are set against equally determined proponents of the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system preferential voting, the supplementary member system, and the single transferable vote system (STV). Overall, the material has been organized in a coherent and accessible fashion though the inclusion of an index would not have gone amiss.

Unavoidably there is a great deal of repetition. The same standard, well rehearsed arguments for and against changing the electoral system are trotted out again and again by the different authors, with varying degrees of flair, sophistication, cogency, prejudice and good humour. Two particularly controversial issues appropriately receive more detailed attention: the question of whether the number of MPs should be increased, and the even more vexing matter concerning the future of separate Maori representation in Parliament. It is a pity that on the latter issue McRobie did not include a number of contributions from Maori (and perhaps other ethnic minorities).

Other deficiencies can also be identified. Given that much of the focus of the forthcoming referendum will be on the relative advantages and disadvantages of MMP, and given that Germany is the only country with a MMP system, it is surprising that the editor did not see fit to include a more detailed and systematic analysis of the way it actually works in Germany (e.g. in terms of how the parties operate at the constituency and national level, the procedures that are used for selecting list candidates, the relationship between constituency and list candidates, the relative merits of being a constituency versus a list MP, the extent to which voters use their two votes in a strategic fashion, etc.).

The evidence suggests that the details of the German political and electoral system are poorly understood by the New Zealand electorate, not to mention some of the contributors to this volume. It is regrettable that McRobie missed an ideal opportunity to assist in rectifying this situation.

Another crucial issue which receives insufficient attention is the nature and implications of coalition government – which, of course, is highly likely under MMP. Admittedly, the pros and cons of coalition government are touched upon in many of the contributions. But the volume lacks a measured and relatively detailed account of how coalitions work in other democratic countries (including Germany), and their implications, amongst other things, for the role of the Governor‑General, the operation of Parliament, the role of backbench MPs, the process of policy making, and the doctrines of collective and individual ministerial responsibility. Critics of coalition government, for example, need to be reminded that such arrangements have been virtually the norm in many democracies, and a regular feature of many others (e.g. Australia). Furthermore, coalition government does not generally produce the political instability, corruption, and immobilism that business leaders, such as Peter Shirtcliffe, rightly fear. If New Zealand embraces MMP, as seems likely, there is no reason to expect that it will have a change of government every year (like Italy), or even after every general election. In fact, it is possible that governments may change less, rather than more, frequently than has been the norm in New Zealand.

A further gap lies in the lack of any specific attention to the implications of electoral reform for the role and structure of the bureaucracy, particularly the central agencies. Nor is any mention made of the possible impact on the relationship between ministers and their senior public service advisers. Indeed hardly any of the contributions included in the volume even mention such issues. Yet, if the recent analysis by Paul Carpinter (a high-ranking official in the State Services Commission) is correct (see Public Sector, Vol 16, No 1, March 1993), MMP could bring some significant changes for the bureaucracy. These might include a further expansion of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the division of the Treasury into two separate ministries, and a greater reliance on political advisors. Carpinter may, of course, be wrong, but his views deserve careful scrutiny.

Even more surprising is the dearth of material dealing with the merits or otherwise of establishing a Senate (which is a central component of the forthcoming referendum and a constitutional reform advocated by Jim Bolger). To be sure, the editor addresses some of the issues concerning the proposed Senate in his concluding chapter. But this provides only one perspective – unlike the range of views which have been included on MMP (and most of the other options for electoral reform).

Reading the various articles and editorials in this volume reminds one that the level of political debate in New Zealand, although frequently maligned, is not without rigour and sophistication. It also reminds one, however, that some members of our political and business élites are poorly informed about how democratic systems work elsewhere. If the electorate endorses MMP later in the year, this may have to change.


Jonathan Boston is a senior lecturer in Public Policy at Victoria University of Wellington.



Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review, Sociology
Search the archive
Search by category