Both Labour and National yesterday opened the door to lowering the party vote threshold to four per cent.
This has been proposed by Green MP Golriz Ghahraman who wants to to introduce a Private member’s Bill to accomplish it.
The Prime Minister said that though Labour favoured the proposal, it was something that should be “put to the people”.
National Leader Simon Bridges was less supportive saying that though he might be open to discussing this, he would not want anything done before the election.
He said the Bill was designed to screw the scrum against National and save the three-party Government’s bacon.
“I think it will be outrageous if they seek to bring such a change in before the next election,” he said.
He said that up till now significant constitutional change had not been done without strong bipartisan support.
His comments came yesterday after the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, also suggested Labour is open to a debate on the matter.
She reminded her media audience that Labour had favoured the original proposal for the threshold for the party vote to be set at four per cent made by the Royal Commission in Electoral System in 1986.
She went further, however, and said it was a question that should be put to the public.
“We’re having a discussion as to whether or not that is something that should be put to the public,” she said.
“I’m not going to put a timeframe down on it. “
The question has become relevant because the Greens have proposed a Private Members’ Bill which would change both the electorate and general thresholds under MMP.
What has surprised some MPs over the Greens Bill is that it has come while a Select Committee is set to conduct an inquiry into the 2017 election and while thresholds are is not on the list of proposed topics for that review, they could easily come up.
Bridges said there was a “real; cheek” in the proposed Bill.
“A first term Green MP has out his forward when on the Justice Select Committee there is an electoral law review going on at the moment, and the Greens haven’t even deigned to go to that.”
Bridges is presumably referring to the Committee’s review of the 2017 election which is ongoing.
But there is also National support for another measure contained in the Bill; overseas political donations.
National’s Electoral spokesperson, Nick Smith, has proposed a number of changes to the Electoral Act. He would entrench the Act (except for some minor parts of it) which meant that it would need a majority of 75% of the House to change it; he wants a referendum on a four-year term (a previous one in 1990 was lost), and he would limit foreign donations to political parties.
But in a speech he gave on this at the beginning of the year, he did not mention the thresholds.
However, Bridges is open to change.
“Where do we sit on it? I think the majority view (in the caucus) is probably at sticking at five per cent.
“But we would be open to listening to some of the arguments.”
But there could be some in the caucus who might argue for four per cent.
In a 2006 paper for his honours degree in law, National MP for Hutt South, Chris Bishop argued for the total abolition of the threshold.
“The abolition of an electoral threshold would provide for a more representative Parliament and a more democratic one,” he wrote.
“ It would empower voters of minor parties, increase the proportionality of Parliament, and reduce voting distortion.”
Bishop also proposed abolishing the electorate threshold as well by which a party is entitled to receive a proportionate share of seats in the House if it wins one electorate.
“The five per cent threshold disenfranchises a large swathe of the voting population.
“Democracy must triumph over stability.”
If the threshold had been four per cent from the inception of MMP in 1996, as the Royal Commission recommended, then two parties who missed out because it was at 5% would have been in Parliament.
In 1996 the Christian Coalition got 4.33% of the vote and in 1999 NZ First got 4.26%.
In 2012 the Electoral Commission reviewed MMP and advocated a four per cent threshold, but that was rejected by the Key Government.
In submissions to the Commission, National, New Zealand First and ACT all supported retaining the status quo of a 5% party vote threshold while Labour supported a 4% party vote. The Greens wanted a lower threshold but did not specify a figure.
The irony is that both main parties would now benefit if the threshold were lowered.
Labour is likely to need both the Greens and NZ First to form a government after the next election, and currently, polls show NZ First is below 5% while the Greens are hovering on the edge.
National is “hopeful” that at least two new parties – the New Conservatives and the Sustainability Party — get off the ground or that the Maori Party returns. None of those parties is anywhere near five per cent in polling.
So while the Greens may not see their Bill go anywhere, they may have opened up another debate on the threshold.