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New Zealander answers three No ProRep arguments

Nov 12, 2018

By George Le Masurier

A former Comox Valley resident who now lives in New Zealand, which uses the mixed-member version of proportional representation, answers three common arguments against voting in favor of electoral reform in BC

 

A few readers have criticized Decafnation recently because we have not examined the arguments against changing our electoral system to proportional representation, the main question in the current provincial referendum.

So, we visited the “No to ProRep” website to understand the rationale behind sticking with the current system of First Past The Post.

We discovered that the No side does not extol the virtues of the current system that gives 100 percent of the power to a single party that may only get 30 percent to 40 percent of the votes. The No side website is singularly focused on reasons why proportional representation isn’t a good choice.

We put the “No to ProRep” arguments to Katie Betanzo, a high school teacher in New Zealand who grew up in the Comox Valley and graduated from G.P. Vanier. Betanzo lived in in British Columbia under FPTP and now lives in New Zealand under the mixed-member version of proportional representation.

Decafnation: One of the No side’s arguments is that “the most populated city will decide everything for all of BC. PR will lead to a Vancouver-centric government that only cares about Vancouver issues.” In other words, the No side argues the political power base will move to the largest urban areas and smaller, rural communities will lose influence in the government. Has that been your experience in New Zealand?

Katie Betanzo: I have to say, this is not an issue I have heard much about here. I suppose it’s arguable that, under our system of MMP, most of our ‘list’ MPs come from urban centres rather than rural areas, but it’s just as likely that a rural electorate winds up with effectively two MPs working for them, for instance West Coast –Tasman, with a Labour electorate MP and a National list MP based in the area.

The thing about proportional representation, though, it’s proportional. Every few years we redraw electorate boundaries so that there are roughly the same number of people in each electorate. So, of course, rural electorates are physically very big – but they represent the same number of voters as a relatively ‘small’ urban electorate. The balance of power does come from the cities, but that’s where the bulk of people live. So it makes sense.


Our situation normal is two large parties – centre left and centre right – supported in a coalition government by at least one small ‘extreme fringe’ party and one small centrist party. It tends to balance out.


Historically, our electorates were unbalanced in favour of rural areas. Urban electorates had 28 percent larger populations than rural ones, giving rural electorates a disproportionate amount of power.

One thing to note, though, is that we have a party which was founded since the introduction of PR that has a focus on the regions (rural areas). Because of PR, that party consistently winds up in parliament and at the moment are in government – part of the coalition. So we have both a properly representative and proportionate government, and also a strong pro-rural voice in government.

We also have a certain number of seats for Māori, our indigenous people, who are more likely than the general population to live in rural areas. Māori can chose to vote in either a general or a Māori electorate, but this ensures a strong voice for indigenous issues in central government. These seats date back to 1867.

Decafnation: The No website also claims that under PR, “the rise of backroom deals and political posturing is inevitable.” Does this happen in New Zealand?

Betanzo:: I suppose this is a concern and it does get thrown around from time to time, but it’s almost never proven — certainly no more prevalent than under FPTP. If anything, having to work together with at least one other party in government tends to keep parties honest.

The closest I can think of is some past manoeuvring by a right-wing party to ensure that another, very small right-wing party won an electorate seat (the larger party did not stand a candidate in the electorate), and thus would bring two MPs into Parliament under our MMP rules. This was widely held to be a corrupt practice and created quite a scandal.

As for any type of cronyism or nepotism – it doesn’t happen – not more than under FPTP.

Decafnation:: And last, anti-Pro-Rep people say the system gives the balance of power to extreme fringe parties on the right or the left. They say PR allows “extremist parties to have a say.” Has that happened in NZ?

Betanzo: In theory, it is possible that an extreme fringe party could sway a government (the tail wagging the dog). But in theory, it is also possible that an extreme and vocal faction within a larger party could sway that party’s policies. (That happened here when a small group within a socialist party drove their neoliberal economic agenda through into law.)

I’ve done a far bit of research, and the most common mention of the “tail wagging the dog” or “unpopular legislation” is in the context of people complaining about proportional rep. It’s a myth. There are a few examples of small parties using their leverage to get bills introduced to parliament, but once the bill is before the house it has to pass the same scrutiny as any other legislation.

Our situation normal is two large parties – centre left and centre right – supported in a coalition government by at least one small ‘extreme fringe’ party and one small centrist party. It tends to balance out.

Once or twice a far left or right party has managed to tug a government a bit further to the left or right, but nothing like the myth of the country being held hostage by an extreme fringe party.

 

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