MMP proposals need referendum

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Last updated 08:26 16/05/2013

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OPINION: There was always an inevitability about Justice Minister Judith Collins' decision to seek consensus, find none and declare the Electoral Commission's recommended changes to MMP dead in the water.

It was the tried and true method used by Labour courtesy of associate justice minister Margaret Wilson in 2001.

What was surprising were the derisory attempts Ms Collins made to find consensus.

Towards the end of March, she was still telling other parties she hoped "to progress a collaborative process for considering and responding to the commission's recommendations".

Since then, it appears nothing meaningful was done and no process was even mooted.

Many who voted in favour of MMP did so in full knowledge of its faults and in the expectation that they would be examined and changed.

A respectful approach to the commission's findings and to the thousands of submissions and the wishes expressed in the referendum at the very least required a bill setting out the draft changes.

Kicking those around in a select committee, with public input, should have been a minimum, even if change in the end stuck in the craw of National and the one-seat parties - ACT, UnitedFuture and Mana - which have the most to lose.

Instead, Ms Collins has declared there is no consensus (something which was already blindingly obvious and was the reason the review was needed in the first place) and that without a majority for change, there is no point in pressing on.

The unacceptable upshot is that the status quo wins without further exploration.

It smacks of self-interest on National's part - keeping ACT and UnitedFuture alive for future deals - even though that may be too simplistic. Lowering the threshold to make it easier for Colin Craig's Conservatives and, as a fall-back option, NZ First to survive may actually improve its prospects of forming a government after a tight race in 2014.

Ms Collins' approach may be an acceptable way to handle a piece of legislation revamping some minor law, but this is a fundamental pillar of the electoral system. It invites an incoming Labour-Green government to willy-nilly use its majority to cherry pick and implement recommendations from the commission's report without further ado. That would be equally unacceptable, but it would at least carry the moral weight of the commission's findings.

Labour and the Greens could decide to take a joint stance at the next election on the issue, although David Shearer may be wary of too many energy-policy- style tandem announcements.

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Lowering the threshold from 5 per cent to 4 per cent is unlikely to arouse too much anger among voters, but the coat-tail provision, which allows parties that fall short of the threshold but win an electorate seat to bring in extra MPs, is widely despised.

It could be a potent weapon at the 2014 election, especially if National again does a deal with ACT and John Banks in Epsom, to highlight the "gerrymander" and promise to ditch it.

But in the end, that approach, like Ms Collins' method, is divisive and there is really only one clear path ahead now.

Since it is a truth universally acknowledged that politicians cannot be trusted with control of the rules that determine their own perks, let alone their own elections, the only way through the stalemate is a referendum.

It could set up the status quo against the commission's recommendations.

That could throw into the pot not only the headline changes to the threshold and the one-seat rule, but also a requirement to review the 4 per cent threshold after three elections, abolish the overhang provision and set the ratio of electorate seats to list seats at 60:40.

Such a referendum is now the only way to take the issue out of the dead hand of politicians' self-interest and set the electoral system above the petty bickering of the parties. If they can't agree, we the voters should be given the chance to decide for them. So is there a politician out there brave enough to campaign for a binding referendum?

- Stuff

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