Wednesday, December 14, 2011

MMP review: Dual candidacy

MMP is currently being reviewed, with an issues paper due out in February. In anticipation of that, I'm doing a series of posts on the review questions. This one will focus on the second question:

[Should] a person should be able to stand as a candidate both for an electorate seat and on a party list?
Being able to run as an electorate candidate and on the party list is known as dual candidacy. And there are two main gripes about it. The first is "zombie MPs", incumbent candidates who are defeated in their electorate but return via the party list (examples this term include Paula Bennett, Clayton Cosgrove and Chris Auchinvole). The feeling here is that these MPs have been "given the boot" by their electorates, and so it is unfair in some way that they return "by the back door". But this, like the electorates themselves, is a legacy of FPP and its parochial structure of representation. Under MMP, there are two ways for MPs to be elected: via an electorate, and via the party list. The former requires a local constituency, the latter a national one. Zombie MPs have lost the first, but they retain the second, which is a democratic mandate for their election. National Party voters across the country voted for Bennett and Auchinvole, which is why they're in Parliament. And its entirely inappropriate for local hicks in Waitakere or West Coast-Tasman to exercise a parochial veto on that national-level support.

(People might also want to remember that there are different scales of loss. Was Paula Bennett, who lost by 11 votes, "given the boot" by the people of Waitakere? Was Brendon Burns, who fell 47 votes short, "kicked out" by the voters of Christchurch Central? In a tight electorate contest, there doesn't seem much of a mandate for preventing someone from taking up a list seat).

But while everyone focuses on "zombie MPs", they miss the real picture. Its not just defeated incumbents who can return via the list, but defeated challengers - people like David Parker, Hekia Parata, and Russel Norman. All of these candidates contested unwinnable electorates in an effort to build a constituency; all lost. Without dual candidacy, that would be that - meaning that you simply would not get such high-profile challenges. While this might work for the major parties (who have no shortage of candidates, and some sort of process by which candidates who try and fail in an unwinnable seat might eventually get a crack at a safer one), it would be absolutely disastrous for the smaller ones. Without dual candidacy, smaller parties could not risk any of their high-profile talent in electorate contests. At best, this would mean that small party voters could never vote in an electorate for anyone they actually wanted to win it; more likely, it would mean they largely abandoned electorate races to focus solely on the party vote. And that would be a tragedy for our democracy.

As a final note, I think the culture of list MPs adopting electorates, combined with the slow dying-off of old FPP generation, will see these concerns disappear. Many electorates now effectively have multiple MPs serving them, with voters making no distinction over who won or lost the electorate race and who came in on the list. As that becomes more ingrained, FPP-driven concerns about "zombies" should fade.