Commentary

Upside down

Virginia Richards
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A cautionary tale about Proportional Representation in New Zealand – from a New Zealander

There is a myth promulgated by those in favor of proportional representation that extremist, one issue or populist parties will not rise in British Columbia because, well because we are British Columbians, and we will fly against the world trend. I agree this is a special place to live. I was born and grew up in New Zealand, but have lived in B.C. a very long time.

I admire the collective faith here, but doubt its prediction.

My home country New Zealand is often portrayed as a poster child by proportional representation advocates.

In many aspects, it’s a close comparator to Canada – and especially B.C. We share a common history and similar worldview, being descendants of the British Empire. We love playing in the outdoors and embrace our gorgeous coastlines, mountains and parks.

We are both overshadowed economically and culturally by a much larger neighbour.

By the logic of proportional representation supporters, it should be immune to the world trend of populist, one issue, radical politics.

New Zealand’s last election put the lie to this myth:

Party %Vote Elected MPs List MPs Total
National 44.4 41 15 56
Labour 36.9 29 17 46
NZ First 7.2 0 9 9
Green 6.3 0 8 8
Act Now 0.5 1 0 1

 

Note: Elected MPs are individually elected directly by voters in local constituencies. List MPs are party members appointed in rank order from a list the party supplies and not directly elected, and do not have a constituency.

New Zealand’s parliament has 120 members—therefore, 61 members are required to form a majority government. Its last election was September 23, 2017. The government is a coalition of Labour, which received 37% of the vote, and NZ First (7%). Together they have 55 members and received 44.1% of the popular vote.

Since that isn’t enough to command the confidence of the House, Labour entered a second agreement with the Greens that covered budget and confidence votes, similar to that in BC between the Greens and NDP.

Once the deals were done, the three-party coalition boasts 63 members and a bare majority of 50.4% of the vote in parliament.

Less than half of the 63 were directly elected by voters in a constituency. 34 are party appointees, chosen by backroom players. This includes all eight sitting members of the Green Party and all nine representing New Zealand First – whose leader held the entire country in suspense for a month while he deliberated out of public view.

His decision to back the Labour Party dissolved the electoral deadlock and allowed a power-brokering deal.

Politics can bring together strange bedfellows. New Zealand’s Labour Party is led by a progressive, articulate leader, who had only been leader for three months before the election. She turned around party’s fortunes running on an anti-poverty platform.

In contrast, New Zealand First’s leader is nationalist and populist. He is a strict law-and-order and direct democracy advocate; whose party’s central platform plank was drastically restricting immigration. He wants New Zealand for only New Zealanders.

The pound of flesh paid by Labour for power was granting several prime cuts to New Zealand First. Their leader would serve as Deputy Prime Minister, and the party list members would hold three cabinet portfolios, with a fifth sitting as parliamentary secretary.

Again, New Zealand First received just 7% of the vote, and not one of their nine MPs was elected directly by voters. Over half hold ministerial responsibilities.

Imagine, nine backroom politicos are MPs, led by a populist who hammered away on one issue, and who decided who would be government, and what direction it would take.

It could easily happen here in British Columbia.

I do not want a single-issue party holding the balance of power. I do not want an MLA chosen from a party list and therefore not answerable to a constituency holding the balance of power. I do not want governments throwing out their election platforms to make deals to secure power. Full stop.

I voted to keep our present First Past the Post system, in part because it safeguards against populism and radical one-issue parties.

Virginia Richards is a transplanted Kiwi. She came to Canada to marry her Vancouver born husband and has since become a proud Canadian citizen. She is a residential interior designer who has been active in politics at all three levels.