What is it about New Zealand and the debate about electoral reform? Why are they so sensible when we in the UK don’t seem to manage to conduct constitutional debates properly? New Zealand has just conducted a referendum on its electoral system, but serious debate has a longer history there.
Back in the early 1990s, the New Zealand Labour party, which was in government at the time, decided to hold a referendum on the electoral system. An indicative referendum in 1992 , with a very large majority (84.7%) voting in favour of abandoning Forst-Past-the-Post, was followed by a binding referendum in 1993 which offered a decision between FPTP and MMP (Mixed Member Proportional); the latter was then adopted by a margin of c. 54% for MMP to 46% for FPTP.
As we saw in the UK just last spring, keeping the status quo is easier than achieving change by referendum, but in New Zealand, the circumstances, following two election results where the party with the most votes did not win the most seats, were quite convincing. The process that led to the two referendums in the 1990s was conducted carefully and a reform was achieved by popular consent. No wonder that New Zealand was considered as a possible template for the UK Yes-to-AV campaign in 2010/11.
And now, just two days ago, New Zealand has indeed held another constitutional referendum in order to determine whether the voters wanted another change or whether they are still happy with the MMP system they adopted in the 1990s. Even the NZ general election on the same day was hardly noticed in the British media, and the referendum even less so. Final results won’t be out before 10th December, but it seems that about 55% have voted to retain the status quo. So, has New Zealand just reverted to the norm, where people stick to what they know unless they are very angry indeed?
But even this less eventful NZ referendum was still remarkable for the way in whch it was conducted. Just look at the sensible information campaign by the New Zealand Electoral Commission. To anybody who went through the 2011 UK referendum campaign, the New Zealand referendum 2011 website at referendum.org.nz is a thing of beauty – and an object of considerable envy.
- Information about the voting systems in play - making sure that they are easy to compare.
- A simple interactive test to match people’s priorities with voting systems (seems to have been taken down, unfortunately)
What is more, New Zealand voters were trusted with a referendum which gave them multiple options, with one vote between the status quo and change, and a choice of four options to replace the current system.
Moreover, the debate seems to have been more measured and more informed, with at least some in the media taking the options seriously. Look at the NZ Herald’s information on MMP, on FPTP , on preferential voting (AV), on STV, and the supplementary member system. And here is an article from the news website scoop.co.nz.
But what is most remarkable is that the NZ Electoral Commission felt able and obliged to correct misinformation from referendum campaign groups. The campaign seems to have been rather mild-mannered, since there is only one correction on the elections website, and that concerns an inaccurate claim which looks tame compared to what we saw in the UK referendum campaign back in May. Nevertheless, in the UK there was nobody to intervene or arbitrate even when the most outrageous lies were presented as fact by the media and by the main campaign teams.
With the General Election and Referendum on the Voting System only eight days away, the Electoral Commission wants to ensure that voters are not misled by factually incorrect advertising about the content of the referendum.The Electoral Commission has received a complaint about material issued by the Vote for Change organisation that states MMP “requires 120 MPs”, while the alternative voting systems to be considered in Part B of the referendum “could work with 99 MPs”.“The Electoral Commission has no interest in stifling legitimate debate, but does have a direct interest in ensuring voters are provided with factually correct information,” says Robert Peden, Chief Electoral Officer.The Electoral Referendum Act 2010 specifies that each voting system to be considered in the referendum will have 120 MPs.
It seems pretty straightforward. Why didn’t it happen in the UK, at least once it was clear that the media was not going to serve the referendum debate well? Let’s follow the kiwis more closely if we ever get to do this kind of thing again…