Public input imperative for effective electoral reforms

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(Image by Doug Cowan, Digital Officer Electoral Reform Society)

Marcus Roberts
Auckland, June 6, 2022

Our interest in the electoral process is generally confined to every three years when there is an outbreak of feverish activity.

On election day, we go to a local school hall, give our two votes and then go home to discover that we have elected, yet again … some politicians.

Unless we are particularly engaged, we generally don’t give much thought to the process by which we choose our governments. However, some recent developments give us all a chance to think more deeply about our electoral framework from first principles rather than on what is politically useful.

Sweeping changes proposed

A couple of weeks ago, Green MP Golriz Ghahraman had her Member’s Bill on Electoral Reform pulled from the ballot. This Bill proposes many sweeping changes to the way our democracy works including lowering the voting age to 16 and lowering the threshold at which a party enters Parliament to 4%.

Just a week later, the government announced the terms of reference for its (long-planned) Independent Electoral Law Review and established a Review Panel to carry it out.

Marcus Roberts

This has likely sounded the death knell for Ghahraman’s Bill since the government would not go to the trouble of setting up the Review Panel to then shortcut its process by passing a Bill that covers many of the same areas.

The members of the Review Panel have until November 2023 to release a summary of the issues they will review, engage broadly with the public, release a draft report, engage with the public again over that draft, and then deliver a final report to the Minister of Justice. The Panel is tasked with reviewing the term of Parliament, the overall design of our electoral legislation, the administration of parliamentary elections, and considering the recommendations made by the Electoral Commission in its 2012 review of the New Zealand MMP system.

Broad and significant

Although November 2023 may seem like a long time away, the areas that the Panel is looking at are both very broad and deeply important to the way in which New Zealand’s democracy operates. So, it is not surprising that political commentator Bryce Edwards has noted that the Panel’s timeframes “are fairly urgent” and that they are not in keeping with the ideal situation where “major constitutional reform should be done slowly with the maximum public debate”.

Given that time is short, we should start thinking now about our electoral system. And when we do have a chance to contribute to this debate, let us do so from a deeper perspective than simply which changes we think will benefit our preferred political team.

Some questions to consider might be: on what basis do we include or exclude groups of people from being able to vote? Is the stability of government more important than Parliament representing the vote of the people?

Of course, it is difficult to accurately predict the longer-term political impact of any particular change. But asking and answering some deeper questions will more likely improve the common good for all New Zealanders.

That is worth voting.

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at Maxim Institute based in Auckland.

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