Despite finding increasing comfort that the current system is working, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key says he will honour a promise to hold a referendum into the country’s MMP (mixed-member proportional) electoral system. The National Party went to the last election promising a choice between retaining MMP and having a second referendum, at which the choice would be between MMP and another electoral system or systems. However, the options currently under discussion include one to resolve the matter in one go by asking both whether MMP should be abolished, and what if anything should replace it. Key earlier said he favoured replacing MMP with a single-member supplementary system that would tilt the playing field in the major parties’ favour. Where currently the 50 top-up members are added to the 70 constituency seats in such a way as to produce a proportional result, single-member supplementary would simply add a proportional 50 to a non-proportional, major party-dominated 70. By my reckoning, that would have cut non-major party representation in the MMP era by about 30 per cent, producing majority Labour government after the 1999 election and majority National government in 2008, but hung parliaments in 1996, 2002 and 2005.
Closer to home, a bill for a referendum to reform the South Australian Legislative Council is currently before the chamber itself. As Dean Jaensch writes in The Advertiser, the referendum would offer four proposals: changing Council terms from a staggered eight years to an unstaggered four; a double dissolution mechanism to resolve legislative deadlocks; cutting Council numbers from 22 to 16; and a deliberative rather than casting vote for the President. However, it proposes to offer them on an all-or-nothing basis, which would certainly be a recipe for defeat at a federal referendum. The first and third would be popular enough in their own right, although a term reduction would mean a lower quota for election and an entree to micro-parties, and 16 members would make it impossible to sustain a satisfactory committee system. In any event, the bill will first have to negotiate the Council itself, which is unlikely to be accommodating. The cut in numbers offers nothing to the minor parties, which stand to win fewer seats, or to the Liberals, who would be more likely to face a Labor-Greens majority.
What is not proposed is that the Council be abolished, which has long been advocated by The Advertiser. The paper’s editorial yesterday begrudgingly acknowledged the upper house’s value as the primary, although not exclusive, means by which minor parties and independents have had a democratic voice, which it said might be accommodated by changes to the lower house electoral system. Presumably such changes would have to be minor: in 2005 the paper argued that advocates of checks and balances, particularly in the form of minor parties and independents were suffering a fundamental misunderstanding of the strength of our democratic system (i.e. the staging of regular elections, which in South Australia as in New South Wales are held at fixed four-year intervals). That would leave some kind of mixed system, perhaps along the lines proposed in New Zealand.
UPDATE: Embarrassment for the Rann government as its upper house reform bill fails to pass the lower house. As a constitutional amendment, the bill requires the support of an absolute majority of all sitting members, and the conjunction of a parliamentary wine club meeting and an apparent error by the Speaker in neglecting to call for the bill to be read a second time meant it could only muster 23. Significantly, Karlene Maywald (Nationals member for Chaffey and Rann cabinet member) and Rory McEwen (independent member for Mount Gambier and former Rann cabinet member) both voted against. The Opposition reportedly says the bill cannot be reintroduced before the next election, though I can’t imagine why that might be. The government insists it will be passed through the house in very short order.