Not a bad idea doing away with by-elections

Nigel Roberts suggests a way to get rid of expensive and largely pointless by-elections:

More than 40 years ago, when I was a young political scientist teaching at the University of Canterbury, I spent a semester at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. I went there specifically to examine the government and politics of the Scandinavian states. Like New Zealand, they were (and still are) prime examples of small, stable democracies.

Before going to Aarhus, I also thought that an allied research project would be to write an article about by-elections in Denmark. Imagine my surprise when I learned that it would have been akin to writing an article about snakes in New Zealand!

There are no parliamentary by-elections in Denmark. Nor are there by-elections in Norway or Sweden. Indeed, a significant number of other European democracies also don’t hold by-elections to fill vacancies in their Parliaments. These countries include Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Israel, the Netherlands, and Portugal.  

In the five Nordic states – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden – parliamentary vacancies are filled by people who were candidates both from the same political party and from the same multi-member electorate as the departing (or dearly departed) MP.

Unlike the Scandinavian states, however, New Zealand does not have multi-member parliamentary electorates. We have single-member districts. So too does Germany (which – like New Zealand – has a mixed-member proportional, MMP, parliamentary electoral system), and significantly – as the New Zealand Electoral Commission’s review of MMP pointed out – any vacant seat (electorate or list) in the German Bundestag “is filled by the ‘next-in-line’ candidate of the same party”.

To avoid the unnecessary expense of by-elections, New Zealand could do what the Germans do: we could simply fill parliamentary vacancies by appointing the “next-in-line” list candidate from the same party to the position for the remainder of the parliamentary term.

The biggest potential side-effect from by-elections is distorting parliament’s proportionality. We saw this with Northland. The result of Northland was stalled RMA reform, the very reform needed to sort out housing.

Of course, there was a reasonably recent by-election in New Zealand that didn’t have an utterly foreseeable outcome. Two years ago, NZ First leader Winston Peters won the Northland by-election, and gave the National Party – which had held the seat since the late 1960s – a bloody nose. The overall number of National seats in Parliament dropped from 60 to 59, but the National-led government had a majority in Parliament before the by-election and it had one afterwards too.

The question needs to be asked, though, what if losing one seat in a by-election had caused the Government to lose its parliamentary majority? The Government has a majority in the House of Representatives as a result of the primacy of the party votes – not the electorate votes – that were cast in the 2014 general election. Should voters in one small part of the country casting electorate votes in a by-election have the right to bring down a government?

Under MMP, voters cast their party votes in one large electorate – namely, the country as a whole. Party votes cast in general elections should make or break governments – not electorate votes cast in by-elections. This is especially important because New Zealand’s constitutional structure has very few safeguards that help ensure government stability.

We are constantly told that the party vote is what counts, but a by-election could destroy all of that.

Once a government has been installed in office in New Zealand after an MMP election, it really is debatable whether voters in one electorate – representing less than one-seventieth of the country’s population – should have the potential ability to bring down a government by changing parties in a by-election.

To enhance government stability, to avoid unnecessary expenditure, and to end electoral contests that are often little more than meaningless charades, New Zealand should give serious consideration to following in the footsteps of many other nations with proportional representation voting systems.

We should discard the dubious pleasure of holding parliamentary by-elections.

On cost alone, I think that is sensible.

 

– Fairfax

 


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