Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why doesn't New Zealand have open regional lists?

Since the consensus among Ontario electoral reformers now is that closed province-wide lists will not fly here -- as some founding FVC members had warned from the start -- we should examine why New Zealand has closed nation-wide lists for its MMP system. (Open lists require regional lists, since voters need a manageable number to choose from, and most candidates don't have nation-wide reputations.)

This very issue was examined in New Zealand's last review of their MMP model, by Parliament in 2001:

“Survey information shows significant majority support for the principle of open lists, the idea that closed party lists deprive voters of choice has wide currency. Those favouring open lists suggested that MMP would not be fully accepted until voters had the opportunity to exercise some influence over which candidates were to be elected from party lists.

The United party suggested the use of open lists would provide voters with a means to signal to parties how they rated the performance of particular members. The party submitted “there is an understandable adverse reaction [when a member is defeated in an electorate] if an MP defeated in this way returns to Parliament subsequently because of a high place on the list.” The party also submitted list MPs were “effectively beyond public sanction” and, as long as they retained the confidence of their parties, were likely to be re-elected because of their place on the list."

But all parties except the small United Party liked it that way.

The original Royal Commission had considered the issue of open or closed lists at some length. Did subsequent public opinion matter? Apparently not.

"It (the Royal Commission) noted that while the idea of voters having some influence over lists was attractive in principle, there were considerable difficulties in practice with combining open national lists with constituency contests, particularly with dual candidacies. Although supportive in principle of the idea of open regional lists, in the end the Royal Commission recommended that a system of closed national lists be adopted.

The parties that supported the status quo agreed it was good for democracy when political parties had the ability and a strong electoral incentive to present a balanced list.

These parties also saw the ability to control the party lists as an important means to encourage party discipline.

• a national list enables parties to ensure balanced representation among its candidates

• regional lists may lead MPs and electors to concentrate unduly on local or regional issues to the detriment of national issues

• since New Zealand does not have clearly defined regions and is not a federal state, it may be unnecessary and unwise to artificially create such divisions

• with regional lists and each party’s entitlement determined nationally, there is no obvious correlation between list position and the likelihood of election

• in order to make it clear that the party vote is a choice between parties and their leaders, all voters should have the same key names in front of them.

• parties should be able to retain those they regard as talented even if the public did not appreciate these talents to the same degree.

• open lists would undermine the effectiveness and legitimacy of political parties by providing for an outside influence that might rank candidates on a superficial basis."

Good arguments, but hardly democratic ones.

In Scotland surveys also showed significant majority support for the principle of open lists, so their Arbuthnott Commission reviewed the model and recommended a change to the open-list variation of MMP. There is one available for inspection in the German province of Bavaria, with seven regions, that might suit Scotland, and Canada's larger provinces, nicely.

The open list method was also recommended by the Jenkins Commission in the UK. Their colourful explanation accurately predicted why closed lists would be rejected in Canada: additional members locally anchored are “more easily assimilable into the political culture and indeed the Parliamentary system than would be a flock of unattached birds clouding the sky and wheeling under central party directions.”

Does New Zealand have, say, four natural regions? Perhaps not, but Canada's four large provinces certainly have natural regions. As for ensuring balanced representation among parties' candidates, all polls show that most Canadians want more women in parliament, and if parties give us women we can vote for, we'll elect them. Open regional lists will do that. MMP with open regional lists is the Ontario model the Citizens’ Assembly almost chose.

No comments: