December 1, 2000
Canada’s 2000 federal election produced a result which has renewed calls for an end to the present "first past the post" voting system. Historian Michael Bassett highlights the problems with his country's shift away from a "first past the post" voting system to one where seats in parliament are allocated partially by proportional representation called "mixed member proportion" or MMP.
Canada Should Keep "First Past The Post" Voting System
There are as many electoral engineers in this world as there are social engineers. They want to devise ingenious systems to advance vague concepts such as "inclusiveness", while failing to define adequately what that means. Nor do they explore whether the people they want to "help" really want to be helped. How do the electoral engineers know that most of the people who voted for third, fourth or fifth parties were not consciously making a statement in the full knowledge that their votes in the end were unlikely to influence the outcome?
All the studies that have been done in New Zealand show that the sentiment, "a plague on both your houses", motivated the majority who voted for MMP in New Zealand's 1993 referendum. There is virtually no evidence that the people shared the electoral engineers' beliefs about "inclusiveness". The more the two main parties declared their support for First Past the Post, the more the public suspected something unpleasant in the woodpile. No sooner did the new MMP system begin to operate than a clamour arose to return to the old.
In practice, MMP in New Zealand has mainstreamed oddballs and institutionalised minorities that were unable to gain traction under the former rules. Monetary reformers with cranky ideas that had been subjected to careful scrutiny by royal commissions, but who refused to accept the findings, have found their way out of obscurity and into Parliament. Ex-Trotskyists, old communists, and the sorts of ideas that the world has been discarding over the last two decades have all been given a new lease of life in New Zealand. No wonder that overseas investors have slowly lost interest in New Zealand for which they once held such high hopes. MMP has the capacity to turn a country into a living museum of failed Twentieth Century nostrums.
Perhaps the most practical drawback to MMP is the fact that, by its very nature, the system diminishes voters' legitimate political expectations. In New Zealand's two elections under MMP, large numbers voted for a set of policies and the parties advancing those ideas have won, but, in the post-election manoeuvring between factions, saw many key policies which were the subject of their choices jettisoned. MMP has empowered the politicians at the expense of the voters. And the calibre of the politicians empowered by the new system has also declined measurably. Few New Zealanders think that MMP has produced a Parliament of equal intellectual calibre to the system it replaced.
On a day-to-day basis, MMP makes legislation difficult. The NZ Parliament has before it right now a major Health and Disability Bill. It restructures much of the health system. When it first appeared before the House, the bill contained a few blemishes which were tidied by a select committee. However, all the parties in Parliament have different views about health and the government's role in its provision. Since the Labour Party, which is the biggest single party in the House, doesn't have an overall majority, and together with its coalition partner falls one short of 50%, the factions are busily horse-trading over individual clauses as the legislation is in its penultimate stage of debate. New fads are being inserted at the behest of small minorities. What began life as a late model automobile with the potential to be a champion roadster is beginning to look like a clapboard jalopy which might not make it to the nearest gas pump.
Fifteen years ago New Zealand was being watched because of the systematic, carefully staged series of reforms it put in place to salvage an ailing economy. The programme was enacted under FPP. After three years of radical reform, the voters re-elected the Government with an increased majority. Today New Zealand's economic progress has slowed, and those countries wanting a peep at a future under proportional representation should take careful note. MMP has played a big part. The same people whom the electoral engineers want to "include" possess a capacity to shoot themselves and everyone else in the foot.
is a Historian and author. He was the Minister of Health and the Minister of Local Government in New Zealand's Labour Government between 1984 and 1990. Dr. Bassett was responsible for promoting the dramatic reform of local government carried out between 1987 and 1990. He resides in Auckland, New Zealand. His most recent book is "The State in New Zealand 1840-1984: Socialism without Doctrines?" published in 1998 by Auckland University Press.