Nigel Roberts: We should do away with by-elections

The Mana by-election in 2010, prompted by the resignation of Winnie Laban. Kris Faafoi held it for Labour but the ...

The Mana by-election in 2010, prompted by the resignation of Winnie Laban. Kris Faafoi held it for Labour but the party's majority was severely reduced.

OPINION: Just over two months ago there was a by-election in Mt Roskill, where – despite huffing and puffing from National – Labour's house was not blown down. Far from it: Labour's candidate, Michael Wood, won 66.5 per cent of the votes, fully 10 per cent higher than Phil Goff's share of the votes in Mt Roskill during the 2014 general election.

Now, in less than two weeks, there's going to be another by-election in a Labour stronghold. David Shearer's resignation from Parliament shortly before Christmas means a by-election will be held in Mt Albert on February 25.

The electorate has long been one of Labour's safest seats: Shearer's predecessors were a former Labour prime minister, Helen Clark (MP from 1981 till 2009), and a former third Labour government Cabinet minister, Warren Freer (MP from 1947 to 1981).

The result of the by-election in Mt Albert – where National is not even fielding a candidate and where Labour's candidate is Jacinda Ardern, who is already a high-ranking incumbent list MP – is likely to be as "boringly predictable" (to use a phrase favoured by former prime minister David Lange) as was the outcome in Mt Roskill.

However, the by-elections in the two neighbouring Mounts – Albert and Roskill – raise an important question: do we really need to hold by-elections in New Zealand?

More than 40 years ago, when I was a young political scientist teaching at the University of Canterbury, I spent a semester at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. I went there specifically to examine the government and politics of the Scandinavian states. Like New Zealand, they were (and still are) prime examples of small, stable democracies.

Before going to Aarhus, I also thought that an allied research project would be to write an article about by-elections in Denmark. Imagine my surprise when I learned that it would have been akin to writing an article about snakes in New Zealand!

There are no parliamentary by-elections in Denmark. Nor are there by-elections in Norway or Sweden. Indeed, a significant number of other European democracies also don't hold by-elections to fill vacancies in their Parliaments. These countries include Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Israel, the Netherlands, and Portugal.

In the five Nordic states – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden – parliamentary vacancies are filled by people who were candidates both from the same political party and from the same multi-member electorate as the departing (or dearly departed) MP.

Unlike the Scandinavian states, however, New Zealand does not have multi-member parliamentary electorates. We have single-member districts. So too does Germany (which – like New Zealand – has a mixed-member proportional, MMP, parliamentary electoral system), and significantly – as the New Zealand Electoral Commission's review of MMP pointed out – any vacant seat (electorate or list) in the German Bundestag "is filled by the 'next-in-line' candidate of the same party".

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To avoid the unnecessary expense of by-elections, New Zealand could do what the Germans do: we could simply fill parliamentary vacancies by appointing the "next-in-line" list candidate from the same party to the position for the remainder of the parliamentary term.

But whereas Germany's party lists are state lists – German parties have separate lists for each of the 16 states in which they field candidates – here in New Zealand our parties have only one nationwide list apiece. If there's a vacancy in an electorate seat in the German Parliament, then voters know that the departing MP's replacement will at least be from the same state.

New Zealand is not a federal country. We do not have states; we do not have state lists. As a result, had Phil Goff's departure from Parliament led to the temporary appointment as MP for Mt Roskill of the next available candidate on Labour's list, the central Auckland seat would likely have been filled by Nelson resident Maryan Street.

There are ways round this problem (if having Maryan Street represent an Auckland electorate for 10 months really is a problem). Many organisations divide New Zealand into five regions. For example, the National Party does with its Northern, Central North Island, Lower North Island, Canterbury-Westland, and Southern regions. New Zealand rugby reflects a similar structure, as fans of the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders, and Highlanders well know.

New Zealand's political parties could simply be required to indicate which of, say, five regions the candidates on their official lists are from, and then replacements for electorate MPs could be taken from the same party and same region as the departing member.

Of course, there was a reasonably recent by-election in New Zealand that didn't have an utterly foreseeable outcome. Two years ago, NZ First leader Winston Peters won the Northland by-election, and gave the National Party – which had held the seat since the late 1960s – a bloody nose. The overall number of National seats in Parliament dropped from 60 to 59, but the National-led government had a majority in Parliament before the by-election and it had one afterwards too.

The question needs to be asked, though, what if losing one seat in a by-election had caused the Government to lose its parliamentary majority? The Government has a majority in the House of Representatives as a result of the primacy of the party votes – not the electorate votes – that were cast in the 2014 general election. Should voters in one small part of the country casting electorate votes in a by-election have the right to bring down a government?

Under MMP, voters cast their party votes in one large electorate – namely, the country as a whole. Party votes cast in general elections should make or break governments – not electorate votes cast in by-elections. This is especially important because New Zealand's constitutional structure has very few safeguards that help ensure government stability.

To dismiss a German government, for instance, there must be a constructive vote of no confidence: the Bundestag can withdraw confidence from a government only if it can, at the same time, give a positive majority to a potential successor. The Spanish constitution has a similar clause.

Once a government has been installed in office in New Zealand after an MMP election, it really is debatable whether voters in one electorate – representing less than one-seventieth of the country's population – should have the potential ability to bring down a government by changing parties in a by-election.

To enhance government stability, to avoid unnecessary expenditure, and to end electoral contests that are often little more than meaningless charades, New Zealand should give serious consideration to following in the footsteps of many other nations with proportional representation voting systems.

We should discard the dubious pleasure of holding parliamentary by-elections.

Nigel S. Roberts, an international electoral systems expert, is an emeritus professor of political science at the Victoria University of Wellington.

 - The Dominion Post


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