Deborah Hart has urged those attacking the panel’s integrity to engage on the substance.
“It pretty much looks like what a heavily left leaning group would drum up,” was the assessment of Mike Hosking. In the eyes of NZ First leader Winston Peters, it was “more dangerous woke nonsense”. Act leader David Seymour made it personal, calling Deborah Hart, who has led the review into New Zealand electoral rules, a “totally politicised and partial chair”. He said: “She’s trotting out slogans like a populist politician masquerading as a sober independent chair.”
“Well, it’s great that people are interested,” said Hart, refusing to take the bait. “And I’ll tell you another thing, if you’re going to do work like this, you do have to be prepared to have your ideas tested.”
Hart, a former lawyer and member of the Human Rights Review Tribunal, said she relished both the process and the response – she “literally danced a wee jig” when she was offered the role of chairing the panel. She added: “I would like to hear from all of those people. Tell us what it is that you’re concerned about, and what could be done better.”
The panel had been motivated in no way by trying to advantage one side of the political spectrum or the other other, she said. “I’m more interested in people telling us, look, that part of the report is wrong, or this is not quite right … Those kinds of conversations are going to ensure that we really test our ideas.”
Speaking to The Spinoff for a bonus episode of politics podcast Gone By Lunchtime, Hart said the panel had been selected at arm’s length from the government. She said: “We’re trying to be incredibly principled about this, and not to be involved in the politics. That’s for others.”
Wide-ranging recommendations from the independent panel included a substantial tightening of the size and source of political donations, a reduction in the voting age to 16, reducing the party vote threshold to 3.5% and ditching the coat-tail rule. The panel called for a referendum on increasing the parliamentary term to four years, giving all prisoners the right to vote, and rewriting the Electoral Act to incorporate treaty principles and drag it into the 21st century as far as accessibility and clarity is concerned.
Alongside Hart, the review group includes academics Maria Bargh, Andrew Geddis and Lara Greaves, as well as co-president of the National Disabled Students’ Association Alice Mander and former chief electoral officer Robert Peden.
There were no accusations of bias from the leaders of Labour and National, but they were at best muted; aside from the Greens, who cheered the review’s ideas and called for cross-party cooperation, there was little in the way of enthusiasm.
Hart said she was not disheartened by the response, nor by politicians’ tendency to shrug and shelve earlier recommendations, including the 2012 Electoral Commission review of MMP, noting that back in the 1980s there had been plenty of scepticism about whether the Royal Commission into Electoral Reform would come to anything, and it ultimately led to a fundamental change in the electoral system and the adoption of proportional representation in the form of MMP.
She said: “We will do everything that we can possibly do as a panel to understand what it is that New Zealanders are telling us in their submissions, to look at the international evidence to understand the research that has gone on, and to feed it all into the final report. And I think that any government should be interested in that kind of comprehensive, holistic and independent view.”
Public submissions on the review are open until mid-July, with the panel’s final report due in November.