Graeme Edgeler has produced another of his review pieces about the MMP review. This time he talks about Zombie MPs, those that return off the list after being tossed out of their electorates. And again it seems he has had a change of heart:
But approaching this from the standpoint that I haven’t had a problem with back-door MPs, is a mistake. The question we need to address is whether there would be benefits.
During the referendum campaign, Jordan Williams of the anti-MMP group Vote for Change repeatedly argued that Supplementary Member was a compromise between fully proportional MMP, and the majoritarian, electorate-based, First Past the Post (FPP). The usual response to this argument is that it is in fact MMP which is the compromise: between a fully electorate-based system like FPP and a fully list-based system (such a system is used in most countries with proportional representation); we get a proportional result, but also get the strong local representation missing from systems that rely solely on lists.
That’s how the argument goes, anyway. But does our current form of MMP really allow for strong local representation? Jordan’s greatest complaint about MMP was that it was unfair that when a party lost an electorate it got an extra list seat (and sometimes even the very same MP). He argued that this meant that parties (and MPs) could ignore the wishes of the middle New Zealanders who make up the marginal electorates.
And I think he’s right. The tendency may not be great, but it is a factor. We’ve never had (under MMP or FPP) the Westminster tradition of crossing the floor (I don’t think government backbenchers in New Zealand have ever taken out newspaper advertisements opposing government policy, for example), so the effect might not be as great, but it could manifest itself in other ways. But maybe under first past the post – out of fear of losing their jobs, with no plan B – local MPs in marginal or somewhat marginal electorates were more likely to more forcefully put their constituents’ views in caucus, and were able to forestall unpopular changes, or obtain concessions. It certainly seems likely that an MP who, if they lost their electorate, would be out of a job, would take that part of the representative function more seriously.
Indeed, as Jordan argued, the very existence of a process of ranking MPs on a list, whereby the higher they are on the list, they more likely they are to keep their well-paying jobs, is an encouragement to not stand up to party bosses – even for MPs who represent electorates. While there are other ways to counter this effect – and I’ll discuss the possibility of “open lists” in a future post – it’s worth considering this on its own.