SAYit Blog
Do list MPs do the same job?

As the firestorm exploded around Richard Prosser this week, I noticed that many of the articles referred to the fact that he was a list MP.  Most specified that he received 'only' 538 votes in the Waimakariri electorate in 2011, with the word 'only' included to imply that it's not very many.  That seems to reflect a pretty widely held belief that list MPs aren't as accountable and are only there through somewhat 'illegitimate' means.  I thought that it might be interesting to explore this issue, and to share with SAYit members the results of a very old poll (2001) we did on this topic as part of a major survey on the electoral system.

The need for List MPs does seem to be one of the most controversial aspects of the MMP system.  This seems to be driven by belief that:

  • They are not as accountable
  • (alternatively) they are accountable to their parties not to the public
  • They do not have to work as hard
  • They can come in 'through the back door' (i.e. lose an electorate seat and come in off the list)

Here are some quotes from the 2001 study illustrating public attitudes towards list MPs:

I  think that whoever the list MPs are, it doesn’t really matter because that list vote is the party vote and that’s just propping up the support and I’m not entirely sure of how great the function of the list MP is, how much work they actually do do within Parliament.  (Christchurch, male)

My concern is the list MPs because we have absolutely no say as to who gets chosen on the list.  They say we vote for the party.  As a list MP some of them are loose cannons as has been proven.  (Christchurch female)

If you don’t actually belong to a political party, Labour or National or something, and you’re really not in the hierarchy, you really have no control over who gets put on the list.  They just are there.  (Wairarapa, male)

The poll included a question asking New Zealanders how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the notion that 'List MPs are not as accountable to voters as electorate MPs'.

  • 61% of New Zealanders agreed with this statement, compared with 15% who disagreed.  24% were neutral or undecided.
  • Of those who claimed to know a lot or a fair amount about how the system worked, 72% agreed that list MPs were not as accountable.
  • Even a majority (60%) of those who were generally supportive of MMP thought that list MPs were not as accountable.

This last number shows that it's possible to believe that list MPs are less accountable and still believe that they serve a useful function.  One of the major arguments used in favour of list MPs is that they encourage diversity within parliament.  Women, for example, have consistently made up a larger proportion of list MPs than electorate MPs after all MMP elections - at the moment, women make up 39% of list MPs and 24% of electorate MPs.

While (like, it appears, many others) I regarded Richard Prosser's comments as spectacularly ignorant, I think the prominence given to his electorate performance is over the top.  It's based on the assumption that all votes for electorate MPs are votes for the person rather than the party, and that's plainly not the case.  I'd suggest that no matter who NZ First had persuaded to stand in Waimakariri, their chances of winning will still have been remote.  Similarly, there are numerous seats held by the major parties where the incumbent party could put up a completely incompetent and unlikeable candidate (I'll leave you to speculate on who I might mean...) and still win.  Is the electorate MP's victory a sign of their personal achievement or just because they happen to be with the right party?  If we're going to regard Richard Prosser's place in parliament as illegitimate because he only got 538 electorate votes, then how should we feel about Steven Joyce, for example, who received no electorate votes at all (because he didn't stand in an electorate)?  I haven't heard many people arguing that the third-ranked cabinet minister (or indeed Michael Cullen from 2005-2008) doesn't deserve to be there.

So - how do you feel about list MPs?  Are they a useful part of parliament?  If you think list MPs aren't 'legitimate', what could make them more so in your eyes?

Comment below, or vote in the Facebook poll http://www.facebook.com/sayitnz

Or, if you'd rather see the results of our poll on nuclear powered vessels, visit http://sayit.co.nz/blog/what-do-we-think-about-nuclear-powered-vessels.