Guest Post – What happens if Nick Smith quits

Graeme Edgeler is a frequent commenter on all sorts of election issues, and I have yet to find him to be wrong on anything. He has been kind enough to clarify some points following a post about National needing to look after Nick Smith or he could leave, force a by election, and a hung parliament.

As with all guests posts this is unedited. Those invited to write guest posts are assured that posts will be published in full, whether I agree with them or not. I might comment in a subsequent post, but I will leave this unedited.

When New Zealand adopted the mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system, Parliament had a bunch of choices to make about the detail.

One of the choices it made was that proportionality only mattered at the general election. This means that if an electorate MP from one party resigns (or dies, or otherwise leaves Parliament), and an MP from another party wins the resulting by-election, the overall proportionality of the House changes. Usually this won’t make much difference – the Government’s majority might be reduced from nine votes to eight – but if the House is close to evenly divided, it might make a difference.

This has happened under MMP already. When Labour electorate MP Tariana Turia resigned, Maori Party candidate Tariana Turia won the resulting
by-election, and the number of Labour MPs fell by one, and the number of Maori Party MPs grew by one. And the same principle applies if the replacement is a different person.

You might think that in the event a candidate from a different party from that which previously held the seat won a by-election, the party winning the by-election should lose a list MP, and the party which had the MP resign from it should gain a list MP, so that overall proportionality is maintained with the party vote at the preceding general election. There are good reasons why you might do this, especially if the proportionality of the party vote is considered particularly important.

But the simple point is that we don’t. If you look at Section 55 of the Electoral Act, you will see all the ways in which a seat can become vacant in Parliament. The seat of a list MP cannot become vacant because a candidate for their party won a by-election in a seat they didn’t previously hold. Look through the rest of act, and you simply will not find anything that says we ensure proportionality remains after a by-election is held.

There are also good reasons why we don’t do this. Sometimes it simply can’t work, for example, when a party not previously in Parliament wins the by-election (which the Maori Party and the Mana Party both achieved). And redoing the list seat allocation after a by-election could also completely muck around Parliament.

What would we have done if Winston Peters had won one of the by-elections held during the term of the last Parliament? The current rule we have is that he would
simply have become an MP, replacing the person who previously held the seat, but if we re-did the list allocation, then National would have lost three MPs, and the Greens and Labour one each, so that New Zealand First could have gotten five MPs. This could easily be very destabilising to Parliament. Of course, in a very close Parliament, like the one we currently have (where, for example, the government’s partial sale of various assets is being passed 61 votes to 60), not doing it can have the same effect.

There are any number of different ways we could treat by-elections. The way we do it is probably the easiest, but if people want to suggest alternatives, then they can propose them to the Electoral Commission’s review of MMP. It’s going to look at some of the other rules around by-elections, such as whether list MPs should be able to run in them, and there’s no reason for them not to look at this as well.


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  • Whafe

    Cam, thank you for sorting this piece from Graeme, hugely helpful.

    WO again helps out…..

  • AngryTory

     force a by election, and a hung parliament.

    Look at the polls: what’s wrong with a snap election right now?

    Of course, if NZ was a democracy, like Queensland, Labour would have 3 MPs and National 96. 

    • Kosh103

      NZ is a democracy. Under FPP we were not.

      • Salacious T Crumb

        Really Kosh? 83% of the population over a number of polls against a piece of legislation which is then passed anyway is democracy?

        Deals done for confidence and supply with pressure groups disguised as political parties is not democracy.

      • parorchestia

        History has not been kind to countries with proportional representation (Spain in the ’30s, Germany from 1904 -1945) whereas FPP countries (UK,USA)  are remarkably stable and successful. 
        This is because proportional representation encourages particularism and schism, which lead to instability.  You get a whole lot of little parties and the tail wags the dog as happened in Germany in 1932-3 when a minority party seized power (the Nazis), and which is happening here right now.  How can this be democratic?
        And you can’t say one system is democratic and another isn’t.  It sticks in my throat that we get so many unelected twerps in parliament.  You can give me a couple of MMP elections where National squeaked in as a minority government, which I regret but then no system is perfect, and  I will give you Winston Peters and his ilk.  Which is worse?

      • That whole Civil War tells about your view of stability in first-past-the-post US.

    • Look at the polls? National has a one seat majority for asset sales, and their polling is lower than it was prior to the election. Recent polls have the Maori Party with the power to decide whether National governs.

  • Evan Johnson

    Cameron – I don’t see Nick Smith quitting any time soon.  In fact he could be enjoying a quiet chuckle while all sorts of other National luminaries are exposed as having far too much to do with one Bronwyn Pullar!

    • Positan

      I agree, Evan.  The man won’t quit.

  • @BoJangles

    Its called Gardening Leave – Smith will be back by lunchtime – or Xmas.

  • DrStoat

    We are not Switzerland and we do not administer on the basis of opinion polls.  The government went to the election on the basis of a policy platform.  It won and has a mandate to follow that through.  Of course events will occur that affect the popularity of a government but until it loses a confidence vote in the House it has every right to proceed with its mandate.  No one suggested that the last crowd had to go to a snap election on the basis of dismal polling.

    • Peter Wilson

      Not just every right to implement their mandate, but the responsibility, and duty. We’ve voted for them, and we expect them to implement policy they were voted in on.