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Peter Wilson: Electoral Law And MMP Are Both In The Balance

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson

Electoral law is on Parliament's agenda and the search for consensus on legislation to replace the Electoral Finance Act has started.

The Act, arguably the last government's worst blunder, was repealed in one of the first bills passed after National won last year's election.

Even Labour was glad to see the back of it after all the problems it had caused.

Justice Minister Simon Power is in charge of putting together a bill that avoids, as much as possible, the controversies and inter-party accusations that have been going on for years.

If anyone can achieve consensus, Power can. He has remarkable cross-party abilities and opposition parties appreciate the open attitude he has adopted in the past.

But it won't be easy. While some of the details of the new legislation will probably be quickly dealt with, the issue of donation disclosure appears to be as difficult to resolve now as it has been in the past.

The problem is setting the threshold at which the source of donations have to be disclosed.

Power's discussion paper, which contains a set of proposals, leaves the threshold at its current level of $10,000. Any donations under that remain anonymous.

This threshold doesn't reveal very much about where parties get their campaign cash from.

Labour's electoral reform spokesman, David Parker, points out that after the last election National disclosed the source of $130,000 in donations and Labour $420,000.

Both parties spent more than $2 million each.

Labour wants a lower threshold and so does the Green Party.

Russel Norman, the Green's co-leader, is arguing for a threshold of $1000.

Voters, says Norman, have a right to know where the money comes from so they can see whether campaign funding influences the policies of parties.

He is voicing a suspicion that has always existed -- that big money from big business might buy favours from an incoming government.

Power's discussion paper is out there so the public can have a say on it. He will consider submissions, it is up to voters to have their say in the process.

National and Labour are likely to agree, in the end, on a way around another contentious issue.

It was the definition of election advertising the caused the most problems with the Electoral Finance Act.

Its highly prescriptive and muddled set of rules were drafted by the previous government to stop the sort of covert campaign which was run by the Exclusive Brethren against Labour and the Greens in the 2005 election.

As it turned out, the campaign wasn't covert for long and when it was flushed out it did National no good at all.

Some party members still think that without it, National could have won in 2005.

In this regard, the principle of the Electoral Finance Act was sound. It was the way to do it that caused the problems and the legislation was so obscure and ambiguous that the Electoral Commission, responsible for making the decisions, found its job was almost impossible.

But with those lessons learned, a workable version should come out of the cross-party discussions.

All this is, however, a prelude to a much bigger question voters will face, probably at the same time as the next election, when the future of proportional representation is opened up through a referendum.

It will ask whether they want to change from MMP to another system.

If a majority do want to change, a second referendum will put forward options including the old first-past-the-post and alternative systems of proportional representation.

The Government is already working on how it will hold the referendum and whether two are necessary. It would be possible to have both questions in one referendum -- do you want to change, if you do which alternative do you prefer.

That would be a quicker way of doing it but it would also be as lot more complicated. All the alternatives would have to be fully explained, at the same time as campaigns were running for and against MMP.

An opinion poll last month showed 45 percent of those questioned favoured retaining MMP against 42 percent who wanted a change. The other 13 percent weren't sure.

The referendum is the result of a National Party campaign pledge and it is binding, unlike a citizens-initiated referendum.

Prime Minister John Key feels there is no great groundswell for change but after five elections under MMP it is time to give voters the chance to "kick the tyres".

This is something many voters thought was going to happen anyway. After MMP was introduced there was a widespread belief that there would be another referendum after it had been tried out.

There was no basis for this belief but it took hold and some people still insist it was a commitment made at the time, which it never was.

The deal was that it would be reviewed by a parliamentary select committee. This happened but didn't produce an opinion on the system.

There will be many opinions expressed when the referendum campaign begins.

There will be those who want to go back to first-past-the-post, those who want to keep MMP as it is and those who favour an alternative proportional system.

Generally, as Key says, there doesn't seem to be a strong feeling among voters that proportional representation should be dumped.

But there are concerns about the way parts of it work. One of MMP's most disliked aspects is the way MPs who are dumped from their electorate seats find their way back into Parliament on the list.

That would be difficult to fix because sitting MPs demand places on lists that safeguard their political existence, and are often considered by their parties to be valuable members.

There is also the provision that a party which wins an electorate seat doesn't have to pass the 5 percent threshold of the party vote to get more MPs into Parliament.

Voters will be able to take all these issues into account when they make their choices and it isn't going to be a simple matter.

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