5 Oct 2021

Electoral law review sparks demands for faster changes, referendums

4:37 pm on 5 October 2021

Some political parties are pushing for some additional electoral law changes to be made, without waiting for an independent review, while others say it must go to a referendum.

The first Question time and sitting of the House  in alert level 4 lockdown in the House of Representatives debating chamber.


The government this morning announced it would make some "targeted" changes to electoral law ahead of the next election, as well as setting up a broad independent review of the laws.

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi said the targeted changes - relying on the findings of the Justice Select Committee's review of the 2020 election - could include changes to make it easier to switch between the Māori and general roll, moves to make party donations more transparent, and the rule requiring overseas voters to have been in New Zealand within a certain timeframe.

Meanwhile, the review - aiming for changes to be implemented before the 2026 election - would look at changes to the voting age, the three-year Parliamentary term, funding of political parties, overseas voting and Electoral Commission recommendations on MMP.

National's leader Judith Collins was justice minister when National rejected the Commission's 2012 recommendations.

She today said the party had been unable to reach consensus on the proposals, and 75 percent majority or a referendum was required for large-scale electoral law change.

"Very clear, we couldn't get consensus in Parliament. I wrote to every party leader and we got a varying degree of responses, none of them agreeing with each other.

"We thought it was the right thing to do and that had always been what had happened prior to our time in government so we followed it through.

National Party leader Judith Collins presenting the party's plan for reopening New Zealand, Wellington, 29 September 2021.

Judith Collins Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone 

"What we've seen with this government is a willingness to use majority in Parliament to push through changes. I hope that they will be honest and truthful with their word and that they will properly consult if necessary they will seek referendum on this."

Collins said National would not be supporting lowering the voting age, and while she was personally in favour of a four-year term, it should go to a referendum.

Faafoi earlier suggested the larger changes being looked at by the review - particularly voting age and the Parliamentary term - would likely need to go to a public referendum.

National's electoral law spokesperson Chris Penk questioned the value of the review, saying it was strange considering the Justice Select Committee review of the 2020 election was already taking place.

"National sincerely hopes that Mr Faafoi is not seeking to undermine that cross-party process by establishing a separate process in competition," he said.

"New Zealanders will know that when Labour calls for consultation there's every chance it will become a box-ticking exercise. The Minister should be promising that there will be no law changes without agreement of the other major parties, not just to consult them."

He also criticised the scope and process of the review.

"It is unclear why Labour will not allow discussion of areas such as local electoral law and the future of the Māori seats within this review.

"National understands Mr Faafoi is writing to Māori organisations, youth groups, universities and the Law Society to seek nominations for the review panel. Our view is that all Kiwis should be provided an equal opportunity to contribute to the review of the electoral system, as it belongs to them all."

Green Party electoral reform spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman welcomed the review, but singled out the 2012 Electoral Commission review changes Collins had rejected, and said they should be made without delay.

"There's already been a very thorough review of our MMP system by the electoral commission that came out in 2012, that was after two rounds of public consultations with thousands of people engaged and those recommendations were buried by Judith Collins in the then-National Party government.

"Our democracy is too precious to leave to the vested interest of politicians. We've seen successive governments receive detailed important recommendations on electoral reform and ignore them. There's no need to kick the can even further down the road.

She also worried that too much focus on non-partisan consultation with political parties would only end up politicising the issue.

"Anyone who's already made it into Parliament has benefited from the existing system and that's why we have these independent bodies like the electoral commission telling us what we need to do to make elections more accessible and fair.

"The minister has said really clearly in his release today that he will commit to working with all the political parties in Parliament to get the reforms over the line but that will mean again that those already in power will get to pick and choose which bits they like and if they don't agree then that will just sit there.

"That next step is that they actually commit to implementing it without that politicisation.

"Engagement with political parties as suggested by the minister is important, but the will of those with establishment power has only ever slowed change on this style of reform."

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Golriz Ghahraman. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The Commission's recommendations should not be cherry-picked, and a bill she had proposed would adopt them wholesale, she said.

The party supported the more immediate targeted changes, she said, and urged action on the overseas voting rule.

"One thing that can be done immediately is to extend voting rights to Kiwis stuck overseas due to the pandemic."

ACT leader David Seymour said the party did not support lowering the voting age, or removing the coat-tailing rule.

"We've already got far too many voters in New Zealanders who don't pay any tax without adding 16 and 17-year-olds to the mix," he said.

ACT leader David Seymour releases the party's Covid 3.0 (life after lockdown) plan to media in the Legislative Council Chamber in Parliament.

ACT leader David Seymour. Photo: Pool / Stuff / Robert Kitchin

"We believe Parliament should be a diverse place, and that's why we would not support removing the coat-tailing rules."

The coat-tailing rule allows parties with an electorate seat to bring in more MPs based on their party vote, regardless of whether they surpass the 5 percent party vote threshold.

ACT did not believe changes were needed on party donations, Seymour said.

"If taxpayers fund the political parties you really have an insiders closed shop. People should have to go out to the community and seek funding to contest political power. If they're funded by the very institution they're supposed to be holding accountable, that's no longer true democracy.

"The donation laws are working effectively. That's why nearly every other party except ACT is before the courts - because the law works."

"Clearly those political parties are having trouble with the law, but the rest of us are managing to follow it. You generally don't change the law just because some people are doing things wrong, the fact that those parties have been brought to heel tells you that the law is indeed working.

He also criticised the review.

"Who on earth are these people on this panel, I didn't vote for them ... why should those people get to decide what our political system is?"

The one proposal the party did support was a four-year term, and that could be brought about if 61 non-government MPs supported his proposed bill, which would also hand control of select committees to the opposition, Seymour said.

"The four-year term is an idea whose time has come. We need more sober, careful and considered lawmaking in New Zealand so people have more certainty going about their business.

"This would bring real scrutiny of legislation, ministers and officials. Instead of facing a government-controlled member of the governing party, they would face a grilling from the opposition."

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