Voter participation on decline despite MMP

9:13 pm on 16 January 2017

Outspoken - Victoria University academics are worried that despite the introduction of MMP 20 years ago voter participation in elections is continuing to decline.

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Photo: 123rf

They said the country's democracy was not in as good a shape as it should be and that the young, the poor and Māori and Pasifika saw little point in voting.

MMP was introduced in 1996 with great hopes that it would make politics better and encourage more people to participate.

But the Reader in Government at Victoria University's School of Government, Chris Eichbaum, said that did not happen.

"MMP did change some things. It led to multi-party politics but it is still, and this hasn't changed and I can't see it changing, it's still about the numbers. So if you have the numbers, if you have that kind of grouping of like-minded people, whether it's of the left or right, you have the majority of Parliament and it's largely still unfettered too," Dr Eichbaum said.

In the 2014 election only 77 percent of eligible voters voted. For younger people the results were worse, with only 62 percent of those aged under 30 bothering to vote.

The head of the School of Māori Studies at Victoria University, Maria Bargh, said she believed economic changes that began in the 1980s have had a bigger impact on voter turnout and democracy than MMP.

Dr Bargh said those free market economic changes had turned many people off voting.

"I don't believe it's apathy as such... more of a sense that actually, 'What does my vote do?' You know we have these protests of hundreds, thousands of people, petitions or submissions or letters and still the government goes ahead with particular types of policies. So I think it's less the apathy of those people and more feeling their voice isn't being heard.

First Union media and communications officer Morgan Godfery agreed.

"If you're in a secure job, if you own say an Auckland home, you might think the system and our institutions are working very well. GDP is growing, house prices are going through the roof, so you feel prosperous," Mr Godfery said.

"But if you're in say an insecure job, if you don't have an education, from that position in society you might say that democracy doesn't look very good. In fact you might have actually checked out of the entire process."

Dr Eichbaum said a number of decisions made by the government - such as the deal to ensure The Hobbit was filmed in New Zealand and the deal with Sky City to build an international convention centre in Auckland - helped confirm the view that New Zealand's democracy favoured people with money.

"These are the things going on where you have again this relationship between economic power and political power. I mean, you know, in terms of knocking on the Prime Minister's door who's going to get in there. Well, Warner Bros obviously got in there. Sky City, you know, can get in there. Can I get in there? Can the Petone Women's Bowling Club get in there with the same degree? Can Māori groups, iwi, get in there? Possibly not...

"You're always going to have that deal-making but where the deal-making is compromised by the fact that those who have economic power get in there that's a problem," he said.

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Dr Chris Eichbaum Photo: ( Supplied )

Mr Godfery said non-government institutions, such as trade unions, had also been weakened and that had not helped democracy.

"The changes of the last 30 years have made that harder, not just for trade unions but other community organisations as well.

"You would have seen in the last eight years with places like the Problem Gambling Foundation complaining about being gagged or complaining about threats of cutting their funding, which I think is quite a scary development that our politicians, perhaps because we don't have a written constitution to constrain them, can do these kinds of things."

Dr Bargh said there used to be a lot of robust debate but not so much now.

"That robust discussion about policy is now no longer really, you know, encouraged quite as much as it used to be. There are, you know, particular sectors that will immediately try to clamp down on that," she said.

"If you look at how that translates into Parliament, again it is the strong executive and really the inability of the select committee process to adequately draw out and ... genuinely engage with that robust discussion, which is one of the difficulties."

Dr Eichbaum said that while New Zealand still ranked highly in international freedom stakes its democracy could be in better shape.

He, Mr Godfery and Dr Bargh all believed constitutional change was needed, particularly to rein in the power of the executive. But they said a written constitution would not be the panacea for every worry about New Zealand's democracy.

Outspoken is a series in which RNZ's experienced correspondents host debates on some of the top issues of the year - and the year ahead. Check back for new episodes this week here.