Edwards on the axed electoral review

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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