New Zealand to have referendum questions on 2020 ballot, potentially including “tweaks” to MMP

Earlier in December, the Justice Minister of New Zealand, Andrew Little (Labour) announced that there would be a binding referendum on recreational cannabis use concurrent with the 2020 general election. There may also be a question on euthanasia, and–of core interest to this blog–electoral reform.

Earlier, Little had said:

It has been floating around that if we’re going to do a bunch of referenda, why wouldn’t we put this question about whether we want to make those final tweaks to MMP, reduce that 5 per cent threshold to 4 per cent, get rid of the one-seat coat-tailing provision.

These proposals were part of the Electoral Commission’s MMP Review, but the government at the time (National-led) did not act on them.

The multiparty nature of the New Zealand political system that MMP has institutionalized is apparent in these issues being on the table. Having a referendum on cannabis use was a provision of the confidence and supply agreement that Labour signed with the Green Party after the 2017 election. In addition, Labour’s other current governing partner, New Zealand First, has indicated support for a bill on euthanasia sponsored by the leader of ACT, another of the smaller parties (a right-wing partner to opposition National).

Both provisions that the MMP Review recommended changing have had past impacts on current parties. The ACT has depended for its representation in parliament on the so-called coat-tailing provision (a term I do not like for the alternative threshold) in several elections. The New Zealand First once was left out of parliament for having a vote share between 3.5% and 5%, despite other parties (including ACT) being represented, due to winning a single district (electorate) plurality. (Obviously, 4% would not have helped NZF in 2008, as it had only 3.65%. But the point is that the current provisions produce potential anomalies; I have suggested before that the two thresholds should be brought closer to one another.)

Also of note: Little said that the cabinet had discussed, but decided against, having a citizen’s assembly to deliberate issues related to cannabis (and perhaps also euthanasia).

14 thoughts on “New Zealand to have referendum questions on 2020 ballot, potentially including “tweaks” to MMP

  1. “The New Zealand First once was left out of parliament for having a seat share between 3.5% and 5%”

    NZF had a vote share between 3.5% and 5% at that election. Their seat share was, of course, zero. An even better example would be the Conservatives at the 2014 election. They received more party votes than ACT, United Future and the Māori party combined, but failed to achieve representation when the other 3 smaller parties all managed to do so. That said, they got 3.99% of the vote on that occasion so even a 4% threshold would not have saved them.

    Oh, and a Happy New Year to you and to all those who follow this blog!

    • I don’t actuality think it is a better example, aside from being more recent, but it is certainly another good one. However, the Conservatives are not around (in parliament) to be involved in any decisions to “tweak” MMP, as NZF is.

      (Obviously, I mean to say “vote share”; thanks for calling my attention to that.)

      Also, I’d have to think that there’s a good chance that, had the threshold been 4%, the Conservatives would have made it in 2014.

      Happy new Gregorian year to you and all readers, too!

      • Indeed. Perhaps ‘better’ example wasn’t the right turn of phrase. It was certainly more striking at the time, but less relevant to the current situation since the 2017 result suggests the Conservatives are no longer a significant party.

        (You’re most welcome.)

        You are almost certainly correct about the difference a 4% threshold would’ve made in 2014 too.

  2. If they get rid of the alternative threshold, something I would vote against if I could, what happens to parties that can win a seat but fall short of the threshold? Surely they wouldn’t forfeit the seat(s) they already won?

    • No, I assume they would hold that seat but, like the Party of Democratic Socialism at the 2002 German election (which won 2 districts and 4% of the vote), would not be allocated list seats in proportion to their party vote as if they had crossed the threshold.

      • Right, such a party would keep the seat. It just would not be in a position to qualify its party list for any further seats, in the event the list vote was below the main threshold. This was explicit in the MMP Review document, so I assume the referendum proposal would follow that recommendation.

    • “[W]hat happens to parties that can win a seat but fall short of the threshold? Surely they wouldn’t forfeit the seat(s) they already won?”

      As has been pointed out, this is not proposed for NZ, but it does form part of the electoral law in Bavaria… though I don’t think it’s ever actually had to be applied in practice there.

  3. A referendum on tweaks recommended by the MMP review? That’s disappointing. At the time of the MMP review, it was promised that, if the referendum kept MMP, there would be a review to recommend improvements. No one promised a second referendum. They should just do it.

    • There may be the political angle of not everyone wanting to vote to change the thresholds. There may also be the angle, shared by at least me and myself, that changing the threshold has the possibility of altering the system enough that it could be referred to the people. If they simply abolished the single seat threshold, campaigning around the threshold (whatever the percentage) becomes very different.

    • Yes, that is correct. The suggestion was that parliament could enact the “improvements” if MMP were kept. But as we know, governments can be reluctant for one reason or another to make changes to electoral systems they might benefit from without having a referendum.

  4. I can’t help but wonder if there will be any movement on the recommendation that “consideration should be given to fixing the ratio of electorate seats to list seats at 60:40 to help maintain the diversity of representation and proportionality in Parliament obtained through the list seats.” At the present time the ratio stands at 71:49, or approximately 59:41, but implementing said recommendation could entail future increases in the size of Parliament – an issue generally regarded as a hot potato.

  5. Could New Zealand try to pull off a double 5% threshold in both district votes and party votes? When I hear tweaking of electoral thresholds, I get jittery that the major parties want to try and gerrymander the seat allocation, maybe a new term will pop up? Kiwimander?

    • The Kiwimander would be to lower the threshold to 4%, for fear the Greens and/or NZF might drop below 5%. In last year’s election the extent of Jacindamania got the Greens very worried.

  6. “If the two countries are both vulnerable to gridlock, that is partly for historic reasons. As two of the world’s oldest democracies, they spring from the same, centuries-old model: the electoral system known as first-past-the post or winner-take-all. Democracies that developed later, like Sweden and Finland, introduced proportional representation, which allows for smaller parties to enter Parliament.”

    To summarize the NY Times article on gridlock in the UK and USA, they talk about the FPTP system. I don’t know if this applies to NZ. Funny that they believe that Sweden and Finland developed later whenever they embraced PR forgetting that Belgium was the first country to use PR in 1899.

    They also forget to include Canada using FPTP and it is next when it comes to populism. Ireland, NZ, and Australia using some form of PR.

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