Has NZ electoral reform been bipartisan?

A very interesting and useful paper from Joshua Ferrer.

It is commonly believed that a norm of consensus-based election reform exists in New Zealand. However, this belief has yet to be tested with systematic study of changes to the democratic rules of the game. This article empirically analyzes the extent to which partisan and restrictive election rules have been proposed and enacted since passage of the Electoral Act 1956. Using a novel matrix of election lawmaking, a wealth of primary textual sources, and interviews with key actors, the data show clear evidence that election reforms are routinely partisan and have occasionally curtailed democratic participation. An analysis of election lawmaking by political party reveals that Labour is responsible for most partisan election reforms, whereas National has passed most demobilising enactments.

The detailed data is very interesting.

A US podcast I was listening to remarked that in democratic countries, Governments are not expected to use their power to stop their opponents from replacing them at the next election. Changes to electoral legislation though can in fact tilt an election.

New Zealand’s record of election reform reveals partisan changes to be common. As detailed in Table 3, 22 of the 82 election enactments passed since 1957 were partisan. This means that over one quarter of all election reforms have passed with only government support. Considering that the binary measure of partisanship is conservative, these figures are a clear sign that partisan election lawmaking is a routine occurrence in New Zealand.

Having one in four changes made without bipartisan support is concerning. I would make the point though that there is a difference between the type of changes, in terms of significance for electoral outcomes.

Take the prisoner voting change. Whether or not prisoners vote is incredibly unlikely to impact an election outcome. In Ireland the prisoner voting rate is 1.5% so the number of prisoners who vote in NZ is probably say 200. The law change is more about parties positioning themselves on a law and order abnd human rights spectrum.

But a change which abolished the one electorate seat threshold would have had a massive impact on elections. In 2008 it could have seen Labour retain power.

Labour governments have passed 18 partisan election reforms and 19 non-partisan reforms, while National governments have passed four partisan reforms and 41 non-partisan changes. Nearly half of Labour’s election reforms have been partisan, compared with only 9% of National’s

That’s an astonishing statistic, and it suggests that possibly National are being played for suckers. They generally do respect the “convention” of not doing partisan election reforms, while Labour bulldozes through favourable changes whenever they can.

National is responsible for eight of the 12 demobilising enactments – a record that reflects poorly on them.

National does need to be careful that it isn’t seen to be like the GOP in the US, and actively trying to disenfranchise people. The more qualified adults who can vote the better.

Surprisingly, National is also responsible for more mobilising election laws – 17 versus Labour’s 11.

That’s good.

One of two election enactments in the Third Labour government, four of 11 in the Fourth Labour government, and eight of 12 in the Fifth Labour government were partisan. 

So the 5th Labour Government was appallingly partisan on electoral law issues. This will be no surprise to long-term readers of Kiwiblog who recall the disgusting Electoral Finance Bill. Also amending the Electoral Act under urgency to prevent a by-election as a Minister had become ineligible to remain an MP.

The current Labour government has continued this trend, with four of six election reforms enacted on a party-line basis.

So again it is time for National to wise up and stop being suckers.

The Second Labour, Third National, and Fifth Labour governments have all passed substantially more problematic election reforms than desirable ones. On the other hand, the Third Labour, Fourth National, and Fifth National governments have all enacted substantially more desirable election reforms than problematic ones.

I’m not too focused on the FPP era. So let’s look at the record under MMP.

Both the Bolger/Shipley and Key/English Governments are assessed as having passed overall desirable reforms while the Clark Government changes were problematic and the Ardern Government looks to be heading the same way.

So what should National do in the light of this evidence that Labour continually pushes through partisan election reforms, while National does not?

My preferred solution is simple. Entrench the entire Electoral Act, not just a few clauses. Make it (near) impossible for Governments to change it without a 75% majority. The Electoral Act is not perfect but it is perfectly adequate and a super majority requirement will protect it from future partisan changes, and also from any attempts at demobilisation (unless widely supported for good public policy reasons).

I’d like to see National put forward a members’ bill entrenching the entire Electoral Act.

In the absence of such a change, I think National should draw a red line. Labour has declared they wish to remove the one electorate seat threshold for List MPs. National, ACT and the Maori Party are opposed. If Labour proceeds with such a change without bipartisan support, then National should declare that the era of presumed bipartisan consensus on such changes is dead, and National reserves the right when next in power to do what Labour does, and make significant changes without bipartisan support.

This could include barring non natural persons (ie unions) from having voting rights in parties.

Now again this is not my preferred option. My preferred option is to entrench the entire Electoral Act and my next preferred option is Labour doesn’t push through any partisan changes. But if Labour does persist, then National has to wise up and say all bets are off.

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