Peters' offer would make Brexit referendum 'look wise'

11:25 am on 17 July 2017

Opinion - If we believe Winston Peters' speech to the New Zealand First conference, admittedly a pretty risky thing to do, any future government he is part of must hold a binding referendum on two matters.

Winston Peters on the bridge at Parliament.

If Winston Peters is promising referendums on electoral matters, why does he not focus on the issues that the public have said they actually care about? Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

First, reducing the number of MPs from 120 to 100. Second, whether to keep the Māori seats in Parliament.

Even if you believe that voters generally should get a greater direct say on public policy, these are particularly silly things to promise a vote on.

Take the number of MPs. Asking people if they would like fewer politicians has some immediately obvious appeal.

So, in a 1999 non-binding citizens initiated referendum, 81.5 percent of voters said yes to reducing the number of MPs to 99.

But a parliamentary backgrounder at the time of that referendum showed that such a reduction in numbers was a bad idea.

That message then was echoed by Parliament's Justice and Electoral Committee in a 2006 report:

"The current number of 120 members ensures proportionality and diversity in Parliament and thus contributes to its effectiveness; and we consider it essential that these benefits are not compromised. We do not consider that New Zealand is over-represented compared with other countries, especially given that it is a unicameral system."

Simply put, Peters is promising voters the chance to make a decision that would have demonstrably bad consequences for Parliament as an institution and would result in far worse representation than presently exists. That makes the decision to hold the Brexit referendum look wise by comparison.

Similarly, his call to allow voters to decide the future of the Māori seats is superficially attractive.

However, it ignores the fact that the five-yearly Māori electoral option already provides a de-facto referendum on this question.

If enough Māori voters decide to switch from the Māori to the General electoral rolls during this option period, then the Māori seats automatically will cease to exist. But instead 55 percent of all Māori voters prefer to be on the Māori roll and thus want the Māori seats to continue.

Consequently, Peters is actually proposing the non-Māori majority get to decide the future of these seats for Māori. Putting aside the sheer injustice of that proposal, it is a recipe for divisive social conflict.

Finally, if Peters is promising referendums on electoral matters, why does he not focus on the issues that the public have said they actually care about?

In 2012, the Electoral Commission asked people what changes they wanted to the MMP voting system.

The overwhelming response was for an end to the "electorate lifeboat" rule enabling electorate MPs to bring more colleagues into the House. Alongside this, a majority of respondents also indicated they would prefer a reduction in the 5 percent party vote threshold.

The government subsequently ignored the public's voice on these issues.

So, if Peters really intends giving us the electoral system we want, why not let us vote on this?

* Andrew Geddis is a regular writer for Pundit, and a professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Otago.