Why I’ll be voting for STV

I wasn’t planning to post on the voting system, since my intention is to promote classical liberalism and the voting system is somewhat peripheral.

But I was a bit disappointed by the Vote for Change movement’s decision to plump for Supplementary Member, so I thought I’d put up a short not-quite-so-short-as-I’d-intended post in support of my preferred system: Single Transferable Vote.

My primary reason for supporting STV is that I object to having foisted on me a local MP with whose politics I strongly disagree. If I have a local issue that I feel demands the attention of an MP, I would like to be able to speak to an MP whose views I felt at least somewhat aligned with my own. Moreover, if, like Grant Robertson, my local MP is someone who will happily sell his constituents’ down the river in the interests of some petty party-political scrap, then I would like an alternative.

By creating multi-member constituencies, STV provides those alternatives.

Secondly, I have never been a big fan of party lists. I can’t think how one would go about creating an objective measure for the quality of MPs, but I suspect that the lists allow a lot of decidedly average candidates to enter parliament. Under STV, all MPs would need to win election on their own merits, and this, on the whole, ought to result in a better class of MP.

Moreover, because list MPs end up being accountable only to their party hierarchy debate within parties is stifled, or at least kept behind closed doors. No electoral system in which endorsement by a party is crucial to a candidate’s election is going to allow for completely open debate between a party’s MPs. But a system in which all MPs need to convince local electors to support them is more likely to allow MPs some dissent. And with STV, major parties would stand multiple candidates in most if not all electorates, and those candidates would in effect be competing with each other. This would mean that they would each need to identify some personal point of difference to promote themselves.

Undermining party cohesion has been cited by some as a potential downside of STV, but I see it as a positive. I would like to see more debate within parties moved out into the open. STV is the only system likely to promote this.

My only concern is that STV could increase the importance of local issues in deciding national elections. Both FPP and SM would do likewise. This strikes me as a fundamental tension in our Westminster-style Parliament. In the early days of the Westminster system, MPs were very much local representatives whose function was to secure crown funding for swamp drainage or bridge building in their electorate. Under FPP in a modern Westminster system, the vote for one’s local representative in the legislature is in effect a proxy vote for who you want to see form the executive.

MMP offers the opportunity for a more direct vote for the executive (albeit by giving them a majority in the legislature), but it does make the process of electing a local MP somewhat redundant, unless of course one or more of the parties is trying to game the system to circumvent the threshold requirement or to cause an overhang.

Yes you can choose an MP you like even if they’re not from a party you want to see in government, but what for? As Grant Robertson demonstrated, the primary importance of the party vote means that where an electorate MP has a decent list position, their constituents’ concerns are secondary. In a previous post I mentioned Grant Robertson, in his role as a local MP, using a letter from a constituent concerned about state sector redundancies to attack the PM. Would Wellington business owners be able to count on Grant to advocate so publicly their concerns about Labour’s industrial relations policy? I doubt it.

If we are going to maintain the concept of the ‘local MP’ instead of having a parliament elected solely from party lists, then STV is a much better system. No longer would constituencies be represented each term by a single voice, with their MP picking and choosing constituents’ concerns to advocate based on their party’s interests.

To be fair, MMP has a slightly bastardised version of this, in which defeated electorate MPs who make it into Parliament on the list hang around in the electorate pretending to be the “Labour list MP for Otaki” or the National list MP for Ohariu or some such, when in fact they are nothing of the sort. This is the reason many object to MMP – it’s not because MPs defeated in the electorates still end up in Parliament, it’s because they hang around pretending that they still represent the electorate somehow. This only applies to electorates where the defeated electorate MP makes it in on the list, and as such it even becomes a feature of local electorate campaigns. Hone Harawira made this point in the by-election for Te Tai Tokoro, noting that Kelvin Davis would be in Parliament anyway and that the voters would thus have two MPs if they elected Hone. Quite how the MMP advocates square the fact of some electorates effectively having more MPs than others with “all votes being equal” is beyond me.

The most common objection I hear to STV is that it’s too complicated. I don’t buy this at all. All voters have to do is rank the candidates in order of preference. What 5-year-old can’t do that with ice-cream flavours, or even their classmates?

STV won’t be without its problems, but:
· SM doesn’t get rid of list MPs, and still means everybody has but one local MP like them or lump them;
· FPP would return us to a two-party parliament, which I don’t think is desirable; and
· MMP just isn’t what its supporters make it out to be.

NB: I just noticed that David Farrar has also come out in favour of STV for similar reasons. He’s a good sort, that Farrar fellow.

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