1 Mar 2020

The Boundaries Commission: Reshuffling the electoral deck

From The House , 7:30 am on 1 March 2020

If you follow American politics you will know that who draws the electoral map can decide the result. Unlike that flawed democracy New Zealand takes electoral fairness a bit more seriously.   

One way we do so is through MMP, in which every single vote is counted and counts nationwide (so the electorates give us local MPs but don’t shape our Parliament).  Another way is through making sure that where lines are drawn they are drawn openly and fairly.

Craig Thompson Chair of the Representation Commission talks to submitter and MP Kieran McAnulty

Craig Thompson Chair of the Representation Commission talks to submitter and MP Kieran McAnulty Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

After every census an independent body called the Representation Commission is formed and tasked with redrawing the electorate boundaries for whichever national elections occur in the next five years.

It’s not a simple task but they are given two assists: an easy formula, some guidelines and a clutch of experts. 

It will make sense to many Mainlanders that they are at the heart of the formula. Roughly, the average size of electorates in New Zealand = (South Island / 16). 

More accurately, after each census the chief statistician totals the the South Island’s general electorate population and divides it by 16. The result this time was that there should be 65,458 people in each South Island electorate (plus or minus 5%). That formula is in the Electoral Act.

To keep the numbers roughly equal per electorate this inevitably means adding extra electorates in the North Island and sometimes to the Maori electorates as well. In 1995 there were 16 electorates in the South and 44 in the North, and five Maori. This year there will be 16 in the South and 49 in the North, and seven Maori electorates. (If it keeps going in that direction we'll end up needing more MPs.)

The rest of the 120 MPs in Parliament are taken from lists to make the proportions in Parliament match the proportion of the Party Vote each party received. 

Keeping an even spread of population means a lot of shuffling, but people will insist on moving around and making things difficult. So maps must be fiddled with and solutions found.

Name tags for the political appointees at the Representation Commission

Name tags for the political appointees at the Representation Commission Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Thankfully along with the formula comes the experts; this time they are the Surveyor General, Anselm Haanen (who sadly does not wear gold braided epaulettes), the Deputy Government Statistician Carol Slappendel, and the Chief Electoral Officer, Alicia Wright. Offering advice is Brendan Duffy, chair of the Local Government Commission (who do something similar for local body elections). 

And keeping an eye on things from both sides of the political divide are one appointee each from government and opposition. This time they are former Labour Party and National Party MPs Rick Barker and Roger Sowry. Their leader for the task is Judge Craig Thompson.

The House chatted about the Commission’s work with its chair, Judge Craig Thompson. You can hear him at the link above.

When the Commission considers Maori electorates they add in expertise from Te Puni Kōkiri (Chief Executive, Dave Samuels), and political appointees Moana Mackey (government) and Dan Te Kanawa (opposition).

The shuffle operates like this.

The Commission is nearing that final stage (results out in April). 

Having attended a hearing of the commission and read through many of the hundreds of submissions, I was surprised by two things:

  • How many people are happy to delve into the maps and suggest tweaks for a fairer, more sensible boundary.
  • That far more people want to complain about changes to electorate names. Who knew that renaming the much altered Helensville to the more obvious Whangaparāoa would have caused so many letters? Bay of Whales seems like a lovely name for an electorate.