|Get ready for a big debate on how to improve democracy in New Zealand. On Tuesday, Justice Minister Kris Faafoi announced the review panel that will oversee a once-in-a-generation overhaul of electoral rules, including how political parties are funded. The announcement contained details of some significant changes to elections and Parliament to be considered.
The review is welcome news, as there is significant room for improvement in how New Zealand politics works. And the Minister’s reform process looks fairly sensible.
As well as dealing with the crucial issue of money in politics, the new review will consider other highly contentious electoral issues: lowering the voting age, reducing the 5% MMP threshold, abolishing the coat-tailing rule, lengthening the parliamentary term, and increasing the ability to move on and off the Māori electoral roll.
It’s easy to be sceptical about the possibility of real reform – there have been numerous reviews of elections and rules over the years that haven’t resulted in any change. But it looks like Faafoi has listened to criticisms and come up with something more robust.
There are now essentially two stages to Faafoi’s review – step one is currently looking at some targeted changes to electoral finance rules, and these are due to be put in the place this year, in time for next year’s election. This first step may end up just being tinkering. It’s the second step that will be much more sweeping in focus, allowing for the possibility of major reform.
The independent review panel of six has also been announced. The chair is lawyer Deborah Hart, and it includes Māori academic Maria Bargh, electoral law expert Andrew Geddis, law student and disability advocate Alice Mander, former Chief Electoral Officer Robert Peden, and political scientist Lara Greaves.
Faafoi says the panel was picked in consultation with the leaders of other parties in Parliament. Even so, there has been some grumbling about the group not being very politically diverse. National-aligned blogger Liam Hehir argued yesterday that although they “all seem like pretty talented and credentialed people… it seems to be a fairly left-wing group” that “falls pretty squarely within the comfort zone of the Labour Party.” He believes that, although each panel member obviously has their own integrity, it will be hard for some individuals not to be influenced by the Government’s agenda.
Such criticisms will likely only help push panel members to further assert their independence and make sure they properly engage with all sorts of stakeholders in coming up with their recommendations.
It’s this issue of public engagement that the Government has, so far, been very weak on in terms of their electoral reform agenda. For example, for the first stage of reforms Faafoi released a set of proposals for change, and only gave the public a few weeks over the summer break to provide feedback, suggesting they were not actually very interested in consultation.
The Greens have been the biggest critics of the Government’s reform programme, with justice spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman hitting out yesterday, saying there had already been enough reviews and it was time for the Government to just implement previous recommendations.
She suggested the Government was stalling on reform, and advocated Labour simply support her private members bill which sought to implement a large number of changes, including the 2012 recommendations of the Electoral Commission. Ghahraman said: “Those matters should now be acted upon, and this new working group should look at other things… we wouldn’t want it to be used as a delay tactic.”
However, many of the reforms that Ghahraman’s private members bill champions are highly contentious, and all require much more debate and discussion. The Government’s review seems the most sensible way forward for these, rather than just pushing major constitutional changes through the debating chamber as the Greens suggest.
What’s more, although the Government’s review panel will certainly take time – it could be that any new reforms are only passed in time for the 2029 election – there is no doubt the panel will be moving quite fast, and potentially too fast. Major constitutional reform should be done slowly with maximum public debate. According to the detail of the new reforms, the panel’s timeframes are fairly urgent: they will release a potential range of reform options by November this year, their draft recommendations will be put to the public by May next year, and their final report will come out in November next year.
Some might see the reform area as too narrow. And there certainly are areas that the review isn’t allowed to look at – such as the size of the Parliament – which clearly should be on the agenda. But all the other issues under the microscope provide for the possibility of quite radical change.
There will be an obvious temptation for the media and public to focus on the contentious issue of lowering the voting age, but the other areas are also truly huge.
For example, the review will look at the rules around political party advertising, with some big changes expected, including a shakeup of the allocation of broadcasting monies to the parties, a repeal of the ban on election day advertising, and new rules for social media use by politicians. Likewise, big changes could occur in protecting the country from foreign influence, and for how the state deals with politicians who may have broken the political finance rules.
But along with issues like fixing money in politics, the review will grapple with the major issue of whether our system of MMP should continue with the current five per cent threshold, which keeps minor parties from growing and getting into Parliament. The review panel are likely to advocate that it is reduced to something like three per cent, or perhaps even abolish it entirely – something that would make the system more democratic. Such a change would be truly consequential, and it’s a very good example of why the public needs to take this new review very seriously, and engage with it. Let the debate on how to improve democracy begin.