Guest Post – What happens if Nick Smith quits

Graeme Edgeler is a frequent commenter on all sorts of election issues, and I have yet to find him to be wrong on anything. He has been kind enough to clarify some points following a post about National needing to look after Nick Smith or he could leave, force a by election, and a hung parliament.

As with all guests posts this is unedited. Those invited to write guest posts are assured that posts will be published in full, whether I agree with them or not. I might comment in a subsequent post, but I will leave this unedited.

When New Zealand adopted the mixed member proportional (MMP) voting?system, Parliament had a bunch of choices to make about the detail.

One of the choices it made was that proportionality only mattered at?the general election. This means that if an electorate MP from one?party resigns (or dies, or otherwise leaves Parliament), and an MP?from another party wins the resulting by-election, the overall?proportionality of the House changes. Usually this won’t make much?difference – the Government’s majority might be reduced from nine?votes to eight – but if the House is close to evenly divided, it might?make a difference.

This has happened under MMP already. When Labour electorate MP Tariana?Turia resigned, Maori Party candidate Tariana Turia won the resulting
by-election, and the number of Labour MPs fell by one, and the number?of Maori Party MPs grew by one. And the same principle applies if the?replacement is a different person.

You might think that in the event a candidate from a different party?from that which previously held the seat won a by-election, the party?winning the by-election should lose a list MP, and the party which had?the MP resign from it should gain a list MP, so that overall?proportionality is maintained with the party vote at the preceding?general election. There are good reasons why you might do this,?especially if the proportionality of the party vote is considered?particularly important.

But the simple point is that we don’t. If you look at Section 55 of the Electoral Act, you will see all the ways in?which a seat can become vacant in Parliament. The seat of a list MP?cannot become vacant because a candidate for their party won a?by-election in a seat they didn’t previously hold. Look through the?rest of act, and you simply will not find anything that says we ensure?proportionality remains after a by-election is held.

There are also good reasons why we don’t do this. Sometimes it simply?can’t work, for example, when a party not previously in Parliament?wins the by-election (which the Maori Party and the Mana Party both?achieved). And redoing the list seat allocation after a by-election?could also completely muck around Parliament.

What would we have done?if Winston Peters had won one of the by-elections held during the term?of the last Parliament? The current rule we have is that he would
simply have become an MP, replacing the person who previously held the?seat, but if we re-did the list allocation, then National would have?lost three MPs, and the Greens and Labour one each, so that New?Zealand First could have gotten five MPs. This could easily be very?destabilising to Parliament. Of course, in a very close Parliament,?like the one we currently have (where, for example, the government’s?partial sale of various assets is being passed 61 votes to 60), not?doing it can have the same effect.

There are any number of different ways we could treat by-elections.?The way we do it is probably the easiest, but if people want to?suggest alternatives, then they can propose them to the Electoral Commission’s?review of MMP. It’s going to look at some of the other rules?around by-elections, such as whether list MPs should be able to run in?them, and there’s no reason for them not to look at this as well.