Tuesday, November 29, 2011

New Zealand and proportional representation

New Zealand had a national election on the weekend (one is required there every three years).  Turnout was the lowest since 1887, indicating once again that declining voter turnout is a global phenomenon among mature democracies,  not something to be fixed simply by adoption of proportional representation or some other panacea.

PR, which New Zealand has had since 1996, was itself on the ballot, through a referendum asking whether voters wished to keep the mixed-member proportional system or to consider alternatives.  Results will not be known for a couple of weeks, but the existing system seems likely to survive.  Oddly, despite a profusion of small parties, most of which seem to be mouthpieces for charismatic kooky leaders, New Zealand seems to be returning to a two-party system, in which the National (conservative) party and the Labour party share 80% of the vote.  National, indeed, will hold 60 seats in a 121 seat legislature, a virtual single-party majority.

The most notable change in NZ politics since MMP has been the consolidation of power in the hands of party leaders, to the detriment of backbenchers.  Under MMP, fifty-one of 121 NZ MPs are now appointed by their parties, rather than elected by constituents, and have no authority to disagree with their party's instructions.  In a country that used to have a lively tradition of intra-caucus debate and frequent removal by caucus vote of unsuccessful party leaders (even prime ministers), the loss of leadership accountability and backbencher power is striking.
Follow @CmedMoore