Politics

The trouble with Winston Peters’ referendums

The New Zealand First leader is promising two referendums if his party is in government. One is daft and the other is daft and dangerous, writes Andrew Geddis 

If we believe Winston Peters’ speech to the New Zealand First party conference – admittedly a pretty risky thing to do, given past precedent – any future Government with him as a part would hold a binding referendum on two matters.

First, reducing the number of MPs from the current 120 to 100. Second, whether to retain the Māori seats in Parliament.

Even if you believe that voters generally should get a greater direct say on public policy, these are particularly silly things to promise a vote on.

Take the number of MPs. Asking people if they would like fewer politicians has some immediately obvious appeal. So, it’s little surprise that at a 1999 non-binding citizens initiated referendum, 81.5% of voters approved of reducing the number of MPs to 99.

But a parliamentary backgrounder at the time of that referendum showed that there really was no justification for such a reduction in parliamentary numbers. That message then was echoed by Parliament’s Justice and Electoral Committee in a 2006 report on a members’ bill proposing to cut MP numbers in line with the referendum result:

“The current number of 120 members ensures proportionality and diversity in Parliament and thus contributes to its effectiveness; and we consider it essential that these benefits are not compromised. We do not consider that New Zealand is over-represented compared with other countries, especially given that it is a unicameral system.”

And the proposal is even dafter now than when it was when mooted at the end of the 1990s. Parliament last had 99 MPs back in 1993, prior to MMP’s introduction. At that point New Zealand’s population was 3.6 million, meaning we had one MP for every 36,363 people.

Today, our population is 4.8 million. If we want to use the apparently halcyon pre-MMP days as our baseline, today’s Parliament actually should have 132 MPs on a straight population growth basis.

But instead Peters is promising voters the chance to make a decision that would have demonstrably bad consequences for Parliament as an institution and would result in a far worse form of political representation than presently exists. That makes holding the Brexit referendum look wise by comparison.

Similarly, his call to allow voters to decide the future of the Māori seats is superficially attractive. However, it ignores the fact that the five-yearly Māori electoral option already provides a de-facto referendum on this question.

During this option period, every voter of Māori descent can choose whether to be on the Maori or General electoral roll. If enough Māori voters decide to switch from the Māori to the General roll, then the Māori seats automatically will cease to exist.

Instead, 55% of all Māori voters prefer to be on the Māori roll. That point really needs emphasising; a majority of those Māori enrolled to vote consciously have chosen that the Māori seats should continue.

Winston Peters leaves the New Zealand First Convention. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

Peters now is proposing the non-Māori majority will get to decide the future of these seats for Māori. That is just a really, really bad idea. Putting aside the sheer injustice of the proposal, it is a recipe for divisive social conflict.

And so, the Constitutional Review Panel charged with examining New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements concluded in 2013:

Although the Panel received a large number of submissions supporting the removal of the Māori seats this option is not recommended. It is inappropriate for longstanding rights of a minority to be taken away simply because that minority is outnumbered. The existence of the Māori seats does not impede or limit the rights of other New Zealanders to exercise their vote.

For the same reason the Panel does not support the view it heard that a general referendum should be held on the retention or abolition of the Māori seats. The question about options for the Māori seats and Māori representation requires a more nuanced decision-making tool that takes account of minority views. The Panel agrees that the decision about the future of Māori seats should remain in the hands of Māori.

That conclusion was right then, and it remains right today. Peter’s attempt to stir up some Don-Brash-Orewa-speech-era poll magic is a mad, bad and dangerous one.

Finally, if Winston Peters is going around promising referendums on electoral matters, why not focus on the issues that the public have said they actually care about? In 2012, the Electoral Commission asked people what changes they wanted to the MMP voting system.

The overwhelming response it received was for an end to the “electorate lifeboat” rule that enables an electorate MP from a micro-party to bring more colleagues into the House. Alongside this, a majority of respondents also indicated they would prefer a reduction in the 5% party vote threshold.

The government subsequently consigned the public’s voice on these issues to the dustbin of history. So, if Winston Peters really intends giving us the electoral system we want, why not let us vote on actually putting them into place?


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