Electoral Reform Referendum – the Sensible Kiwi Way

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.

It features:

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 MMPon 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…

This entry was posted in Electoral Reform, Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Electoral Reform Referendum – the Sensible Kiwi Way

  1. James Gilmour says:

    Interesting article, but I have to disagree with you about the multi-option referendum. Question 1 was OK, but Question 2 was appalling. Q2 offered four options with a First-Past-The-Post response. That’s no way to determine what the voters really want.

    Fortunately, if the advance voting results reflect the final tally, that appalling Question 2 won’t matter, because the majority voted for “No change” in Q1. (Only results for the advance votes are available at the time of writing: 11:00 GMT on 28 November.) Interestingly, 34% of the advance votes counted for Q2 were classed as “informal”, which means “invalid and rejected”. It will be interesting to know why such a high proportion of the ballots were “invalid”. It will also be interesting to see whether a similar proportion were “invalid” when the remaining 85% of the ballots are counted.

    Multi-option referendums are fraught with difficulties and should be avoided wherever possible. Certainly this NZ referendum was no model for a “sensible way”.

  2. Maria Pretzler says:

    Interesting observations – thanks, James. I had read the advance result, but hadn’t spotted the appalling rate of ‘informal’ votes. That is worrying.

    Just wondering – would you find it more acceptable if the second part hadn’t been a FPTP type choice? Or is it really the idea that such a referendum is just too complicated to avoid too many invalid votes?

    I am always sceptical about the argument that voters just can’t cope because it’s too complicated. Isn’t it rather a matter of designing the question in the right way?

    There are matters where a simple yes/no doesn’t seem sufficient to find out the will of the electorate…

  3. Daniel says:

    Sounds like the conduct of the debate was ideal but the way the ballot paper was written wasn’t. I’d have had one question “Which electoral system should we use?” and then people pick between the choices preferentially.(either AV or Conduct) Then, if the winner was different to the status quo have a second referendum between the two.

    Also, I disagreed with the info website. It lazily portrayed STV as a more moderate PR rather than recognising it’s unique features in maximizing individual accountability. Still, many good reasons why this referendum was superior to our one, especially the fact checking and the determination to keep the debate honest.

  4. Please can I draw your attention to Direct Party and Representative Voting (DPR Voting)? It is a form of Proportional Representation based on single member constituencies intended as a simple and practical replacement for FPTP.
    Full details and description at http://www.dprvoting.org

    The features that make it particularly suitable as a replacement for FPTP are that the introduction of DPR Voting requires very little change to the election process. Constituency boundaries can remain unchanged. Voting and counting are both simple and quick, and little changed from FPTP.

    A feature of the system is that every vote makes a difference to the election result.
    There are a number of other features that would solve some of the other problems of unfairness associated with FPTP.

    My apologies if you already know of this system. In any case I would be very interested to hear your opinion.

  5. I would favour a two part referenda process
    1st referendum (not binding) ‘Should FPTP be replaced by another system?’

    If yes, then set up a Citizens assembly/commission (or similar) to choose and recommend a replacement

    2nd Referendum (binding) ‘Should we adopt the recommended replacement system or stay with FPTP?’

  6. Maria Pretzler says:

    Stephen – apologies for slow moderating.

    Thanks for this contribution. I’ll have a look at it as soon as I find the time. I think I have heard about ti before, but certainly haven’t thought about it properly: thanks for the invitation to do so. I’ll probably take me a bit, since there are a fw blog posts lined up already – but I look forward to it.

    I think the question of how you might reconcile single-member constituencies with PR is a verty difficult one, but given people’s attachment to small single-member constituencies (whether that’s rational or not is beside the point) it is something that needs consideration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *