NZ’s electorate seats are important

Every once in a while I hear people suggest that New Zealand should move to a fully proportional system, with no electorates and only one nationwide vote. New Zealand’s national elections are fought over national issues, and for local issues there are the local government elections.

I must confess to having had some sympathy with this view in the past, but now I can’t help thinking that New Zealand’s democracy would be a lot less representative and effective, without them.

Usually such arguments, especially the ‘representative’ one, are used in favour of straight proportional representation. In electorate races, so the theory goes, the more marginal minority candidates, such as those  of Maori/Pacific Island descent, often lose to more middle of the road candidates favoured  by the majority. This is true, and a good argument against a fully electorate-based electoral system, but it is not the whole story.

Regional differences matter too, and electorate seats are the only reliable way of making sure that different regional voices and faces have a say in the running of government. What electorate seats do, is allow neglected regions to insert their own people into the political process. Creating a link between the national parliament and these communities.

If pure proportionality were to be the norm then only community would really matter: Auckland. With half the population, and a ready-made media market, it would be worth more of a party’s time to campaign in Auckland for a small percentage of a large vote, than setup a costly voter outreach operation to reach a few voters located in a more remote province.

This would result in several unjust outcomes. In New Zealand, production largely originates in the provinces, and consumption takes place in main urban centre of Auckland. In 1999, for example, Auckland was almost solely responsible for New Zealand’s trade deficit(Auckland ran a trade deficit of $2.2 billion, whereas the rest of NZ turned over a surplus of $1.8bn).  The reverse of what happens overseas, where financial industries in cities like New York typically make a disproportionate export contribution to the national economy.

This unique situation is unlikely to change in the medium-term, and probably not in the long-term either. So in a purely proportional system we would likely have a democracy overly skewed towards consumers rather than producers.

Not only this though, but I suspect we might actually see whole regions disengage from the political process.

The current system of mixed proportional and electorate seats, merely results in the ‘localisation’ of the party list. The national executive of a party ranks the members it wants to see in Parliament. If a candidate in that party wins an electorate seat, that candidates takes the place of somebody ranked on the list. It doesn’t change the proportion of seats they hold in parliament (unless, as in the case of the Maori Party, the party wins more electorate seats than party votes). So, if the electorate system is abolished it stands to reason that we will see a Parliament that looks a lot more like a party’s list. And if you look at the history of list-only candidates they have largely been technocrats based in the main centres of Auckland or Wellington. This is no coincidence, some of New Zealand’s most important educational, corporate, and governmental institutions are located in these two centres. And national executives of parties tend to favour people who have experience in one of these three areas. Not just because they are more useful in government, but because these three areas lend themselves towards better performance in a mass-media market.

Meanwhile, those MPs with a great ability to connect to their local community-i.e. natural electorate MPs-would see the value of their connections and skills diminish. Leaving less of a direct link between these communities and Parliament.

You can already see the effects of such a strategy in the recent performance of the Labour Party. Huge swathes of New Zealand’s electorate seats have turned blue. And that isn’t just because of a nationwide swing towards National, but because National has fielded appealing electorate candidates with long-established roots in their local communities. This seems to have thrust the Labour party into a negative feedback loop where less appealing local electorate candidates have lead to a less engaged local political organisation, resulting in lower quality of electorate candidates putting their hat in the ring next cycle. In the end, leaving the party with a smaller number of truly personable candidates who can really connect.

I don’t believe the extension of such a development would be fairer or more representative.The nation’s political conversations are already far too dominated by Auckland-centric issues such as housing (un)affordability,  rail, and so on. Issues that are largely irrelevant to huge chunks of New Zealand’s non-Auckland-based population.  So whilst a fully proportional system might result in greater levels of racial diversity, it would sacrifice regional diversity. And this form of diversity matters too.

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