Govt considering three issues for referendums next election

Morning Talk 27/11/2018

Next time New Zealand goes to the polls, Kiwis might be faced with more than just deciding the next Government.

Referenda on recreational marijuana use, euthanasia and the MMP system of governance itself might be left in voters' hands in 2020.

Justice Minister Andrew Little told RadioLIVE’s Mark Sainsbury that he's considering rolling them altogether into "one big series of referenda at the next general election".

Only the referendum on recreational marijuana use was agreed to in coalition negotiations. The vote on ACT leader David Seymour's End of Life Choice Bill wasn't originally going to involve a public vote, but Mr Seymour agreed to it in order to get New Zealand First's vote in Parliament.

"I've been talking to him about the mechanics of that," said Mr Little, who said they hope to have a confirmed date for the recreational marijuana referendum "hopefully in the next two or three weeks".

To get the Green Party's support in forming their coalition, Labour and NZ First agreed to hold a referendum before or at the 2020 election.

With those two referenda on the cards, Mr Little says they might as well tackle MMP while they're at it, even though it wasn't signalled during the election campaign, nor agreed to in coalition negotiations.

"It has been hanging around. The previous Government, it hit their desk and they decided not to do anything about it. If we don't do anything about it, it'll come up again as it periodically does at some point in the future. The question is whether we just deal with it now."

After losing the 1978 and 1981 elections despite receiving the most votes, the Labour Government under David Lange set up the Royal Commission on the Electoral System to look into a better way of choosing our representatives in Parliament.

When the commission reported back in late 1986, it recommended ditching first-past-the-post (FPP) and adopting German-style Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) representation with a 4 percent threshold.

A review in 2012 by the Electoral Commission reaffirmed experts' views the threshold should be dropped, as well as abolishing the coat-tailing rule - which allows parties which win an electorate seat to bring in more MPs, even if they don't meet the usual threshold.

In recent years the biggest beneficiary of this rule has been ACT - in 2008 the party got five MPs into Parliament with only 3.65 percent of the vote. In 2017 it got one MP, despite polling well below both the Opportunities Party and the Māori Party, which got none.

Mr Little says it was also "unfair" the Conservative Party missed out on getting into Parliament in 2014.

"The ACT Party is the only one-member party at the moment. They get their one seat, but their votes across the rest of the population mean they don't qualify for extra people. It's only if you get that extra 2, 3, 4 percent where you might feel like you're missing out."

The Conservatives had 4.2 percent of the vote on the night in 2014, over the proposed 4 percent threshold, but this fell to 3.97 percent once all the votes had been counted.

In 2008, New Zealand First was ejected from Parliament when they won only 4.07 percent of the vote. Massey University associate professor of politics Grant Duncan suggested Mr Little might have an ulterior motive for wanting a vote on bringing the threshold down.

"The cynic in me is saying it's got something to with making sure NZ First get back in next time in case they don't make 5 percent," he told RadioLIVE.

"But overall, basically it is a good idea. Personally, I have recommended it myself… the basic reason for it is to make it that little bit easier for new entrants to get into the system."

Winston Peters on a marae in 2002. Photo credit: Getty

What there won't be a vote on is the Māori seats. Mr Little says it's not Labour's policy, and he doesn't "detect a wholesale wish in most other parties" to get rid of them.

But Labour's partner in Government, NZ First, has long campaigned on having a referendum on whether we should abolish them. Leader Winston Peters even made it one of his bottom lines during the 2017 campaign, but that didn't stop him signing up to become Deputy Prime Minister when the opportunity arose.

"Winston Peters just used that as a way to drum up votes - he wasn't serious," said Prof Duncan.

"A lot of Maori voters vote for New Zealand First in the Māori seats, on the Māori roll, so they're not too serious about it either. Winston Peters talked about it during the election, but honestly, it was only a way of drumming up his grumpy old voters… it would have been one of the first things off the negotiating table when he started talking about a coalition."

Mr Little says it's up to Māori whether their seats survive.

"The general view has always been that when Māori want to let go of them, let's hear from them to do that. It's not what Māori are saying - they like those seats. It's a constitutional safeguard if you like, and on that basis we're not entertaining getting rid of them."

In the past National has said it would remove them once all the Treaty settlements were complete. Current leader Simon Bridges has expressed doubt it would be worth the hassle.

With all seven Māori seats currently held by Labour, Prof Duncan says it's obvious why they'd want to keep them. But he says secretly, National doesn't want to get rid of them either.

"They don't want to a whole lot of pissed-off Māori voters ending up in provincial National-held seats, do they? They'll lose some of their electorate seats.

"National, they won't say this publicly, but they don't want to do away with the Maori seats. They never have. They didn't do away with them when they had the chance… why? Because they work for them. They help them win elections."

He said part of the reason National won the 1981 election, despite getting fewer votes than Labour, was that so many Māori voters were "corralled" onto the Māori roll. Back then, there was no party vote - voters could only choose their local representative.

All three of the referenda, if they happen, will be binding. This differs to citizens-initiated referenda, which over the past decade have tackled issues such as smacking, asset sales and the number of MPs - and all been roundly ignored by the Government of the day.

"When confronted with very big questions and significant change in policy, then actually it is right that you do have the referendum mechanism," said Mr Little.

"I think in modern Government now there is a hell of a lot of consultation. We've been accused of setting up so many inquiries and committees to look at various things. We do a lot of public engagement, but sometimes there are questions that are so big, it is right to refer them for a referendum."

Listen to the full interview with Andrew Little and Dr Grant Duncan above.

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