Last week, a Members' Bill submitted by Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway proposing to lower the threshold for minor parties to enter Parliament was drawn from the ballot. Specifically, the Bill proposes to implement the main recommendations of the Electoral Commission review of MMP prior to the 2014 election.
The Electoral Commission conducted a review of MMP, as required by the Electoral Referendum Act 2010, the final report for which was presented to the Minister of Justice in October 2012. This followed the referendum vote to retain the current voting system in 2011. A summary of the recommendations made in the report can be found in this edition of Watching Brief from 2012.
Amongst other changes to MMP, The Electoral Commission recommended lowering the party vote threshold for entry into Parliament from 5% to 4%, which would make it easier for small parties to enter Parliament than under current conditions. As another recommendation, and a complementary one at that, the Commission recommended abolishing the one-seat threshold for the allocation of list seats and, with that, the provision for overhanging seats. This recommendation, if adopted in the future, was seen as being a likely end to small parties' preoccupation with particular seats and associated deal-making with major parties.
In the explanatory note which accompanies the Bill, Lees-Galloway highlights some consequences that can and do eventuate under MMP, which have been described as unfair and unintentional. The example raised is that of the 2008 election, when the then ACT Leader Rodney Hide won the Epsom seat, and brought four ACT MPs into Parliament with him for a total of five seats, despite only winning 3.6% of the total party vote. On the other hand, New Zealand First won 4.1% of the party vote, but, as it did not win an electorate seat and did attain enough votes to cross the 5% party vote threshold, was not represented in Parliament that term.
Were that same situation to have played out under the changes proposed by the Bill, ACT would have brought one MP into Parliament (the Epsom electorate seat), but would not have brought in any list MPs, having failed to reach the 4% party vote threshold by 0.4%. Thus, ACT would not have been permitted to bring extra members into Parliament as list MPs on the 'coat-tails' of an electorate seat victory. New Zealand First, however, would have crossed the reduced threshold by 0.1%, and thus would have brought five MPs into Parliament for the term (five seats roughly representing 4.1% of the total seats in Parliament for the term).
In its review of MMP, the Electoral Commission concluded that the changes recommended by it did not need to go to a referendum, but rather, could be incorporated in a Bill introduced by the Government, or indeed as has eventuated, by a member of the House.
The drawing of the Bill comes at a time when political party manoeuvring and accusations of electoral system manipulation are attracting a significant degree of public interest and divided opinion. An example of this is the speculated negotiations between the Conservative Party and National to establish Colin Craig in the new Upper Harbour seat in Auckland at the 2013 election. The changes to MMP proposed by this Bill would bring Craig's Conservative Party, currently polling at 2.7% of the party vote, that much closer to the threshold, making entry into Parliament without a National deal more achievable. But at the same time, the removal of the one-seat threshold would render a deal with the Conservative Party far less attractive to National.
Under current MMP law, the benefit National would receive from aiding Craig into the new Upper Harbour seat is Craig's ability to bring in list MPs on his 'coat-tails', those MPs being likely supporters of National and a potential coalition with the Conservative Party. However, under the changes proposed by the Bill and based on its current polling, even if it were to win the Upper Harbour seat, the Conservative Party would not be able to do this and Craig, as the winner of electorate seat, would be the only Conservative Party member in Parliament.
Although supporters of the Bill would ideally like to see it progress through Parliament and enacted in time for next year's general election, this is highly unlikely for a number of reasons. First, a number of other Member's Bills, which must be addressed before consideration of the Bill, currently precede it on Parliament's Order Paper. Second, the Bill is unlikely to receive a first reading before the end of the 2013 parliamentary year. Finally, Members' Bills, as opposed to Government Bills, are only considered once a fortnight, meaning their passage through the House is generally slower.