Improving the Electoral System

This is a submission to the select committee considering the Electoral (Reduction in Number of Members of Parliament) Amendment Bill

Keywords: Governance; Political Economy & History;

1. I wish to make a submission on the Electoral (Reduction in Number of Members of Parliament) Amendment Bill. I do so because my book The Whimpering of the State: Policy After MMP, raised some matters which are pertinent to the deliberations of the committee.

2. In particular the Bill does not address the quantum of electorate seats. I shall propose the case for increasing their number.. I will also add, the proposal – not strictly relevant to the bill, but I useful development nonetheless – that the tolerances for electorate size should be reviewed.

3. I do not make a submission on the direct purpose of the Bill, which proposes to reduce the numbers of MPs in parliament from 120 to 100 (overhangs aside). I do not have the expertise to make an informed assessment on this matter. It seems to me to depend upon whether the current number of MPs are under-worked, or whether a smaller number could do the same tasks satisfactorily, without serious overload.

The Number of Electorates

4. However the bill does not address the number of electorate seats. There are currently 69, but the numbers are likely to increase following the Representation Commissions’s review. Because I do not want to pre-judge the Commission’s decisions, this submission is based on the existing number and configurations of electorate seats.

5. In which case the bill offers a choice between 69 electorate seats and 51 list seats in 120 member parliament, or 69 electorate seats and 31 list seats in a 100 member parliament.

6. This is clearly not an appropriate comparison. In once case 57.5 percent of the seats would be electorate ones, in the other it would be 69.0 percent. A better comparison would be a parliament of 120 seats with 83 which were electorate seats, with a parliament of 100 in which 69 were electorate seats. (I am not considering the alternative of comparing a parliament of 120 seats with 69 electorate seats with a parliament of 100 in which 58 were electorate seats because the larger electorates would become even more unwieldy to service by an MP.)

7. In the following I shall largely ignore the problem of electoral overhang, when the number of members exceeds the set number because some party wins more seats than to which it is proportionally entitled by its list vote. This will happen the more electorate seats there are as a proportion of the total quota of members. I can make a separate submission on this matter if the Select Committee requests.

8. The number of electorates in parliament is determined by the requirement that there be 16 general seats in the South Island. This sets the population size of the North Island and Maori seats, and by division into the toal population, the number of electorates. Were there 19 South Island seats then the current (i.e. based on the 2001 census) number of electorate seats in a 120 member parliament would be approximately 82, with 52 (rather than 46) North Island seats, and 8 (rather than 7) Maori seats. (If the South Island number of seats were set at 18, there would be 52 North Island seats and 8 Maori seats. This would number would reduce the probability of a overhang.)

9. I have looked at how this will change the existing electorate boundaries, although because of the changes that will arise as a result of the post-2006 revision, and given also my second recommendation below to change the tolerances the exercise would be largely academic. As a rough rule without a change of tolerances there would be an additional seat in every cluster of six or seven seats if the South Island quota was 19, (or an additional seat in each cluster of eight seats if the South Island quota was 18).

10. A consequential change would be there would be fewer list Members of Parliament. This would largely impact upon the larger parties, who would thereby have more electorate MPs. The smaller parties would remain largely list parties, although given the greater number of and more homogeneous seats they may also have a greater chance of winning electorate seats.

11. The benefit to the population at large and the electorate MPs is that the electorates would be smaller and easier to service (although list MPs also do constituency work).

12. In my judgement that public support for 100 MPs partly arises because of an uncertainty of the role of the list MPs and an affection for electorate MPs. I should not be surprised if there was a considerable public support for more electorate MPs and smaller electorates in a 120 member parliament compared with fewer electorate MPs and larger electorates in a 100 member house.

13. I recommend as a first step towards clarification of the choice between 100 or 120 seats in parliament , that the number of electorate seats be changed so that each option has the same proportion of electorate seats. My preference would be for more electorate seats in the 120 seat option, rather than fewer electorate seats in the 100 seat option.

The Electorate Tolerances

14. The electoral law currently does not require each electorate to have exactly the same population, allowing some variation from the exact population quota. The margin – the tolerance – is that an individual electorate may be up to 5 percent above or below the quota. The Representation Commission is required to take into consideration such factors in community of interest, communications facilities and topographical features when it is setting the electorate boundaries within the range.

15. The existing tolerances predate the MMP era when it was important to avoid gerrymandering because it could affect the balance of parliament. In a MMP system such gerrymandering is less important since the balance of parliament is largely set by the list vote rather than the electorate vote. Since I am suggesting we should review the numbers of electorates, it is also appropriate to consider the size of the tolerances.

16. The narrowness of the tolerances results in some geographically large general electorates. The worst is surely West Coast-Tasman which has a length close to that of the entire North Island, and must be a very difficult to service. Other large electorates include Clutha-Southland, Otago, Aoraki, Rakaia, Kaikoura, Wairarapa, East Cost, Rangitikei, Taupo, Taranaki-King-Country, and Northland. While they may diminish in size with the proposed increase in the number of electorates (if the 120 option is maintained), they will remain large, and perhaps increasingly so, with the shift to urban centres.

17. Not only are these electorates difficult to service by an MP, but unlike many urban electorates there is neither a list MP active in them, nor can a constituent go to easily an MP in adjacent electorate.

18. In principle the Representation Commission could be given total freedom so that it there were no specified limits on deviations from the average. At this stage this may be too permissive. On the other hand, increasing the tolerances slightly and uniformly (say to 6.5 percent) would not address the problem of the West Coast-Tasman electorate and some of the other cumbersome ones.

19. I have thought of various formula of various levels of sophistication. However for the purpose of public debate I want to propose that the Representation Commission be allowed to in the case of up to 10 percent of electorates, that the actual population size may be up to 20 percent less than the average quota where topographical and communications circumstances make a larger electorate difficult to service.

20. I make no proposal for the Maori Electorates which by their nature are going to be large. In any case, the 20 percent toleration would not apply because there are less than 10 Maori electorates. One possibility would be to increase the tolerances for all Maori electorates to 6.5 percent which would be about the average for the General Electorates if my proposal was adopted. (This would not, of course, increase the number of electorates, but might giver the Representation Commission a little more freedom.)

21. I recommended that the current allowances for deviations from population quotas for electorate sizes be reviewed, with the aim of reducing the geographic size of difficult to service electorates.

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