Edwards on the axed electoral review

February 16th, 2009 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

Academic Bryce Edwards has a very well researched post on the axed Labour/Greens electoral review. Edwards is no National supporter, having worked for the hard left Alliance for several years – which makes his research and conclusions all the more powerful. I urge people to read the post in full, as it is too long to do justice here – plus he has many apt cartoons to illustrate it. But some key points:

This blog post examines what was behind the review, and why the exercise was always going to be more about window dressing than democracy. Although expert panels and citizens’ forums are not without merit, when compared to similar exercises carried out elsewhere, the planned Labour-Green model for New Zealand was designed to be incredibly weak and undemocratic. What’s more the process by which it was brought about was just as poor as the one that produced the EFA.

Labour and the Greens called its a citizens’ forum – but as you will see it was merely a means to an end – more taxpayer funding.

The Greens strategy on reform entirely backfired in 2007, and the party has had to face up to the public derision – especially because the Greens were complicit in such an appalling and anti-democratic process. For the Greens their advocacy of the review was a cynical attempt to avoid apologizing for the damage done. But worse, the whole Citizens’ Forum was actually also quite a con.

And they still hold out the EFA to be better that its predeccesor!

Second, rather than having any teeth or real power, the review was designed to be purely advisory. For example, the Citizens’ Forum was merely given the task to produce a report for the Expert Panel to read. Such a report ‘may’ then have helped inform the report that the Expert Panel was going to write. And even then, this final report was also merely advisory, and the terms of reference stated that the Minister was then able to choose to accept any elements of it or reject it entirely. (And as we saw with other expert advice tendered to Labour and Greens – such as the Human Rights Commission, Law Commission on the EFA – if it’s not ‘the right advice’ it can be easily brushed aside.)

This part is quite crucial, and I did not even realise it until I read Bryce’s post. The Citizens’ Forum had no power. The main power lay with the hand picked Expert Panel.

Compare this to the British Columbia example where a citizens’ forum was established to look at the voting system. In this case, the established rules of the citizen forum said that ‘If the Assembly recommended a system different from the current system, its recommendation would be placed on the ballot at the next provincial election as a referendum item’ (Snider, 2008). The widely-referred to Ontario citizens’ forum had similar powers.

The Greens kept referring to the Canadian experiences, but as Bryce has detailed what the tried to implement in NZ was a sham with no actual powers at all – it was just political cover.

Essentially, the Citizens’ Forum was to have no role in making recommendations to either the public or the Government. Instead, any outcomes from the Citizens’ Forum would be filtered through the Expert Panel. The official terms of reference made it very clear that it was the Expert Panel body that was to come up with the proposals and options for any change, then educate the Citizens’ Forum on these, and then merely ‘consider the report of the Citizens’ Forum’ while making their own decisions.

I’m kicking myself for not realising how the Greens and Labour had structured this. The lesson for the future is to ignore any names or terms they use, and look at the fine print.

This situation was clearly quite some distance from what the Greens’ Metiria Turei presented it as, when she said in Parliament that the Expert Panel ‘would do a great deal of work preparing information and support systems for the Citizens’ Assembly’.

Much of the Government’s propaganda also tried to obscure the neutered nature of the Citizens’ Forum. The Labour blog ‘08 Wire’ attempted to sell the exercise by incorrectly describing the subservience around the wrong way: ‘the expert panel’s role is basically to do a lot of the (very important) donkey work for the Citizens’ Forum, while the Citizens’ Forum makes all the big decisions’.

But the terms of reference were very clear, and Panel Chair Assoc Prof Andrew Geddis was very unambiguous, saying that the Expert Panel would set the work programme for the Citizens’ Forum. And the Minister, Annette King said the Expert Panel and Citizens’ Forum would only provide an independent, non-political ‘perspective’ on the reform options.

And if either of these groups came up with anything disagreeable, well the public would never get a vote on them.

My concern about the Citizens’ Assembly is that it may be an expensive piece of window dressing, yet another one of those carefully guided sham consultations with the great unwashed public to simply avoid the charge that the public haven’t been consulted.

Indeed, it was to allow Labour and Greens to vote themselves increased taxpayer funding, and claim the public have been consulted on it.

Clearly, since 2005 the Labour and Green parties have taken the vital issue of political finance and electoral law and tried to politicize it for partisan advantage. By arrogantly assuming that they possessed the moral high ground, these parties claimed the right to change the electoral rules. This is fine – essentially it’s ‘victor’s law’ – the baubles of power. But they shouldn’t have turned around and pretended otherwise. And they shouldn’t have pretended that this is a basis on which to build enduring and robust policy and law.

Labour at least appear to have recognised the danger of continuing down this road.

It was therefore not surprising that the Greens tried to fast track the review process to start and be set up before the election, so that National wouldn’t be able to influence it. It was reported that ‘Russel Norman said the party wanted the [Citizens’ Forum] assembly running before the election so it was harder to derail if there was a change of government’ (Trevett, 5 June 2008).

Oh yes, can’t let an election change anything.

In appointing the so-called Expert Panel, the Government and Greens showed that they learnt nothing from the awful EFA process. Obviously, the question of ‘Who gets to appoint the independent panel and set the terms of reference’ would be vital, yet it was stitched up behind closed doors. There were no calls for nominations from the public, and no discussions with other political parties (although the Greens had a strong backroom role in determining who to appoint).

I made this point at the time – it was vital all parties be consulted over the composition of the panel. But again – all done in a private deal.

There should be no doubt that the selection of Associate Professor Andrew Geddis as the chair of the Expert Panel was a very sensible one. Geddis is the number one expert in electoral law. But there also shouldn’t be any doubt that they chose someone with a bias in favour of direct state funding – Geddis had often written supportively of state funding.

Indeed. You would be stupid not to have Geddis on the panel, as he is an expert in this area. But the panel should have been balanced with one or more people who are more sceptical of state funding.

In fact one of the biggest cons of the sham process was the fine print in the terms of reference, which specifically excluded the Citizens’ Forum from examining the current parliamentary funding of political parties. This is, of course, exactly the area of political finance in New Zealand that is most obscured, most influential on the parties, and most negative for the party system. Yet it is precisely this area that Labour and the Greens don’t want the public (or even the experts) sticking their noses into.

Indeed. The advantages of being an incumbent party is huge. Only the ACT Party has managed (since MMP) to enter Parliament without already having an incumbent MP or MPs.

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14 Responses to “Edwards on the axed electoral review”

  1. getstaffed (9,186 comments) says:

    But worse, the whole Citizens’ Forum was actually also quite a con

    The Greens involved in a con? Who would have thought…

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  2. getstaffed (9,186 comments) says:

    A very interesting post DPF. The extent to which the NZ public have been lied to, and manipulated is quite astounding.

    I take issue with the Edwards’s following statement though:

    By arrogantly assuming that they possessed the moral high ground, these parties claimed the right to change the electoral rules. This is fine – essentially it’s ‘victor’s law’ – the baubles of power.

    This is not fine at all. Elected officials do not have the right to change the democratic landscape to their perpetual advantage. We need a constitution in which this protection is unambiguously set in stone.

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  3. CraigM (694 comments) says:

    Excellent post. What a very scary bunch of socialists we had running the country. The extent of their lies and deceipt appears to have known very few boundaries.

    I don’t think DISGUSTING is too harsh a description of their behaviour.

    Will the Kiwiblog resident greens and other assorted socialists rush to the defense of their heroes? I would truly love to see how such a defense would be put forward. The actions of the greens seem indefensible from where I sit.

    Sadly, the subject is too boring and the issues too technical for many to comprehend. Especially for most Green party supporters. They will carry on voting Green, thinking they are saving a tree or something equally as useful.

    The few “intelligent” ( I know, oxymoron) Green supporters must surely distance themselves from the party now.

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  4. wreck1080 (3,924 comments) says:

    >>Labour at least appear to have recognised the danger of continuing down this road.

    What do you mean? Labour never recognised any danger at all, as evidenced by their ramrodding of the EFB.

    Now that Labour have lost the election, their tune has changed. Perhaps this is because the EFA gives the encumbent government more power?

    I strongly disagree with the ‘victors law’. If that were accepted practise, then National should just pass a law to outlaw the labour party.

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  5. lofty (1,316 comments) says:

    Wreck1080 “I strongly disagree with the ‘victors law’. If that were accepted practise, then National should just pass a law to outlaw the labour party”.

    Quite so wreck, and while they are at it, if they wouldn’t mind passing a law that makes my company the only one in NZ that can do our type of business, if they do, I promise to throw a litttle squeeze at every NAT MP. Properly disguised of course.

    “Victors Law” indeed

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  6. gd (2,286 comments) says:

    And this is why pollies should have no part to play in the matter. It must be the citizens who decide if and how they are funded.

    Its a total conflict of interest just like it would be for them to decide their salaries.

    In a real democracy a binding referendum would be held to decide first if parties should receive public funding or not.

    If the answer was YES then a 2nd referendum to decide the quantum.

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  7. Crampton (215 comments) says:

    Perhaps they ought to have somebody on with at least a passing familiarity with the international evidence on the effects of state funding on competitiveness of elections.

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  8. David in Chch (519 comments) says:

    CraigM (and others).

    I would note that many of us who consider ourselves on the left of the political spectrum did post (here and elsewhere) on the folly of the EFB (and later the EFA). And it was one of the many reasons that, for the first time since arriving in NZ almost 18 years ago, I did not vote for Labour in any way, shape or form. It was an interesting link you provided, David, and I appreciated it.

    Cheers
    D in CHC

    P.S. And I also note that more than one “left” commentator has commented positively on JK and National’s beginnings. I am not alone in wondering if left and right are labels that are rapidly becoming useless and even misleading.

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  9. bwakile (757 comments) says:

    Thats right David in ChCh
    Those left and right labels are too kind to Labour
    I would suggest
    Lying scumbag for Labour/Green/United future side of the coin
    and Hard working honest NZers for the rest.

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  10. AG (1,827 comments) says:

    gd:
    “In a real democracy a binding referendum would be held to decide first if parties should receive public funding or not.
    If the answer was YES then a 2nd referendum to decide the quantum.”

    And then a 3rd referendum to decide the threshold at which parties receive such funding. And then a 4th referendum to decide if it should be by direct payment, or reimbursement of expense, or tax credits (actually, we’d need a 2 step referendum here, too). And then another referendum to decide if it would be paid annually, or just in election year.

    Everyone happy to give over the next year of their life to voting in gd’s endless series of referenda on election funding issues?

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  11. bwakile (757 comments) says:

    Actually on second thoughts

    Lying Thieving scumbag

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  12. side show bob (3,660 comments) says:

    All this is of little relevance. Whatever shitty little conspiracry Liarbore and the Melons attempted to pull over the people of New Zealand was bound to fail. The lefts greatest mistake was their own arrogance and deeply held belief that the peasants would swallow any crock of shit handed down to them. The left thought the people stupid and indeed many were, for over nine years but as they say “you can fool some of the people some of the time but not all the people all the time”. This time they fooled only the very stupid.

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  13. Paul (1,315 comments) says:

    Yawn, democracy saved blah blah blah, but under National even more basic freedoms have been removed. No longer are you innocent until proved innocent under s92a you will be guilty until proven innocent – but just don’t use your internet connection to mount a defence.

    So decrying the death of freedom of speech and the world as we know it where in the world is the likes of John Boscawen now?

    Fits the pattern though, viva big business, tough on crime, remove presumption of innocence…

    Oh the outrage and moral indignation, that is until it’s a glorious National law.

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  14. LUCY (359 comments) says:

    I read Andrew Geddis response to Bryce Edwards Blog. Not a happy chappy poor dear didums.

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