What’s up and wrong with the Supplementary Member System


Image by Lyndon Hood

Just when we have started to get our heads around MMP, people are now kicking around the supplementary member electoral system (SM) as an alternative (Key and the anti-MMP campaigners seem to like it).

So what’s wrong with SM?

The amount of votes you get does not determine the number of seats you get i.e its not proportional.

If it isn’t proportional then it isn’t representative, and if it isn’t representative – it isn’t really democratic (well not a fair version of democracy anyway).

So how does SM work? 

Under SM you have electorate seats that work under the old system, so the person who gets the most votes wins (and all the other electorate votes don’t count for anything).  You then have a limited number of seats which are decided on a party vote.

So, for example, you could have 100 electorate seats determined under a first past the post model and 20 seats determined on the party vote.

Under this example if a party gets 10% of the vote but doesn’t win any electorate seats then they would get 2 seats (10% of the 20 seats determined on the list). 

Seem fair to you?

60 Comments Posted

  1. Do tell me, how do these ‘rights’ follow?
    Why do we have these ‘rights’?
    Why these ‘rights’ and not others?
    If these rights follow from the recognition that we are free and not slaves then do we have these rights if we are constrained or in slavery? Is not our entitlement to be free and not slaves not founded on these supposed rights which you state follow from that same freedom? Do you see the circulatrity?

  2. No, the rights that follow from the recognition that we are free and not slaves.

    You don’t get to make up your own list of rights you know.

  3. wat dabney says:
    September 13, 2009 at 10:21 am

    > Not so. You, me and the Taliban have exactly the same rights.

    yeah. The rights your ideology believes they should have. And under the Taleban, everyone would have the rights the Taleban ideology considers to be basic human rights.

    Of course, the Taleban notably believe in a big difference between men’s rights and women’s rights, but I’m sure they would freely grant you all the rights their ideology tells them are real rights, just like you would grant everyone all the rights your ideology tells you are real human rights.

  4. The funny thing is that he doesint even realise that these minimal laws have already imposed tyranny on the population to an extent potentially greater than that we experiance today. Odd. Even more odd is that he doesint realise the proposed state actually minimises practical individual liberty and makes defunct any real acheivement of ones aims; even assuming your one of the lucky, rich, few.

  5. Malaysia has a representative government, which discriminates against minorities (i.e. it “represents” the majority view.)

    I guess if that is what you mean by representative government I can understand the confusion.

    I don’t like the idea of discriminating against minorities unless their activities harm the freedoms and enjoyment of others. And if they do, then their liberties should be curtailed.

  6. – “The concept of creating a harmonious society by giving everyone freedom is a myth.”


    A legitimate government is one that acts to optimise individual liberty. This includes the provision of a police force to prevent Somalia-like scenarios, and an army to resist organised violent ideologies such as Communism.

    But there it stops. Otherwise you have just replaced one sort of tyranny for another. Just because Jeanette carries an NZ passport doesn’t make her fascism any more palatable.

    – “I think when you talk about the government upholding liberty, you are thinking of your own liberty; not the liberty of others who have different and contradictory ideals (eg the Taliban)”

    Not so. You, me and the Taliban have exactly the same rights.

    – “Having a representative government is about trying to balance competing interests.”

    Again, why “representative” government? If it is maximising liberty, what do you care if it is “representative” or not. Malaysia has a representative government, which discriminates against minorities (i.e. it “represents” the majority view.) If Martians invade and impose global liberty, that would be just fine, no matter that they’ve got gills.

  7. wat dabney says:
    If it’s a legitimate government – one that sticks to upholding individual liberty – then what do I care if it’s “representative” or not?

    Wat…the upholding of individual liberty usually ends up creating a “mafia” society.

    The bully-boys end up ruling the streets. The selfish create hell for the rest of us.

    What should you care?? Well, if you are a person who is part of a minority group, or a person who holds a minority point of view you might prefer a government to ‘enforce’ the public acceptance of your point of view, rather than allowing public liberty for others to dominate your perspective, lifestyle, or opportunities.

    The concept of creating a harmonious society by giving everyone freedom is a myth.

    Having a representative government is about trying to balance competing interests.

    I think when you talk about the government upholding liberty, you are thinking of your own liberty; not the liberty of others who have different and contradictory ideals (eg the Taliban)

  8. I agree with your concerns about members having to vote along party lines and not being permitted conscience votes on most issues.

    I think this is the one factor, more than any other, that prevents a truly representative government in NZ.

    It is fair enough to enforce voting along party lines where an issue has been signalled as an election issue which may have swayed the public to vote for that party.

    Any other issue should be a conscience vote, allowing each member to be free to reflect majority public opinion, or to stand up for a minority perspective which they may have some particular reason to support; either because they have personally promised support, or because it may be an issue requiring a different point of view to be aired for the benefit of their electorate etc etc.

  9. If the governement passes no legislation, or makes decisions, that affects you, then you need not be concerned. Do you think it likely that you’ll see such a government in your lifetime? The reason for representative government is that, by and large, people will get the policies they are happy with. I don’t expect representative government anytime soon, either.

  10. It seems like wishful thinking to me. Yes, if, as a voter, you agreed with everything the party advocates and your electorate MP also agreed with all party policies, present and future, then STV/MMP might well be an improvement. But I don’t think it will give representative government. I’ve always felt a bit reluctant to vote at elections because I can’t agree with everything a party proposes and I know that, for those policies that the party hierarchy considers critical, all party MPs will vote for that policy. I aslo know that if my party doesn’t get into government, in some way, my voice will not be heard for at least another 3 years, even if the party I voted for were the second largest party in parliament.

  11. I don’t find that thought at all relaxing – proletarian revolutions have not worked out any better than the sort of thing Wat claims to be advocating.

  12. Relax, everyone knows that Wat is a communist whom is attempting to put New Zealand in such a situation that a Proletariate revolution becomes inevitable.

  13. BK Drinkwater says:
    September 12, 2009 at 10:39 am

    > Forgive me Sapient: I don’t quite think I follow. How would STV for the Party Vote work?

    If the party you voted for as no1 got less than 5%, your vote would be redistributed to the party you put as no2. If the party you voted for as no1 got over 5%, it would work the same as at present.

  14. wat says, “if it represents my views, the rest of you can get stuffed”, pretending that even his views would be represented with such an approach to government, i.e. wat is being both selfish and naive.

  15. Forgive me Sapient: I don’t quite think I follow. How would STV for the Party Vote work? And why would it be necessary (the whole point of the party vote is that seats apportioned according to it are allocated so as to be as proportional as possible to first-preference)?

    I’m definitely with you when it comes to STV for the Electorate Vote: that just makes sense.

    The view I’m coming around to personally is that the best improvement we can make to the present system is to dump the 5% threshold altogether.

  16. – “I can’t help thinking, though, that party politics doesn’t provide representative government.”

    Why should anyone be concerned about “representative government”?

    It’s it’s a legitimate government – one that sticks to upholding individual liberty – then what do I care if it’s “representative” or not?

  17. Mostly what I am refering to is the 5% minimum vote unless one has a electorate seat and the absence of STV in electorates and for the list vote.
    The first is a problem because it means any votes toward a party bellow that barrier are wasted and as such people will tend to vote for parties more likely to make the threashold but less representitive of their views and desires. The absence of STV is a problem for the same reason, with STV in electorates once could vote for ones perfered option as first choice and have their second option as the ‘ill vote for labour to keep the seat from going to national’ vote. STV for the list vote would work in a similar way but would only really be needed if the 5% margin remains or to help the really really small parties to actually get in; thus increasing representation.

    If you have to fill a barrel to the rim with water in order to win a million dollars but you are one drop short you will be willing to pay a lot more for that last drop than your would for one in an almost empty barrel. Regardless of where the cut off is, be it 50% of 75%, if you do not have the seats to pass the legislation you want to you are going to have to find them somewhere else or fail to pass the legislation. If there is only one party that is likely to give you those votes, as was the case with Nats/NZfirst then you will be willing to give a lot more than that seat is worth outside of such a situation. More potential parties means that you will have more chance to play them off against each other and because of the greater options you will obtain a value more proportionate to the seat number but it will still be greater than the actual value of the seat in a circumstance not marginal. Any seats after you have obtained the majority becoming far less valuable. I simply do not see how this could be eliminated, it is rather fundamental economics really.

    What I am saying is that as the system is now, and esspecially as how i suggest it should be, the larger parties will get smaller as the vote shifts to the more representitive smaller parties and the smaller parties subsequently grow; increasing the diversity in distribution of seats. At the moment this is hampered due to the absence of STV for MMP votes but it is happening now. I would say it would take as long as it takes for voters to realise that it is a very real option for them to vote for whom represents them than have to vote to keep out those that most dont represent them; at present there is a very real need to vote to keep your opponents in opposition but with STV in MMP there would be no such need. I think we will see more left wing parties getting a foothold as labour begins to crumble with goff at the head.

  18. I don’t know about structural problems with the concept of MMP but there are clearly structural problems with its implementation. What alternative implementation would avoid those problems? You say it’s young but what changes have been proposed to allow it to mature into a workable system?

    Why do you say that no system will avoid problems of disproportionate power? What systems have you considered? For example, a non-party system may not have those problems, since it is not a party that is yearning for power.

    You seem to be saying that small parties will eventually disappear or become larger, as the system matures. This is a reasonable view but it’s not a given and how long would such a process take? The idea of a government having multiple routes to implement its policies is OK provided that any one of those routes represents a majority of the voters.

    I can’t help thinking, though, that party politics doesn’t provide representative government.

  19. And what I am saying is that that is due to flaws in the implimentation of MMP and a factor of its youth rather than structural problems with the concept itself.
    No matter which system is used it will always be those with the turn vote which hold a disproportionate influence. If you look at the government as it is at present john key would be held to ransom by ACT if the Maori party wasint there but since the Maori party is there he has two routes through which to get a majority and the influence of each drops dramatically should he so choose. In a properly implimented system of sufficent age the large parties would be much smaller and there would be more moderate sized parties so this would be the case on a much larger scale, the party having to work with multiple minor parties or even the other major parties to get the job done but having many options as to which ones to choose and thus each party having influence relative to their seat numbers. A far superior outcome if one seeks representation.

  20. With respect, that is your point, not the point of my comment. What is clear is that some parties (and hence some portion of voters) can gain a say in government, whilst other parties, with similar or greater public support, can gain no say in government. Yes, parliament gets to vote on bills but free votes are rare so it is government opinion which holds sway and parties which represent a small fraction of voters can influence the government line, in a way that other parties, which may have similar or larger shares of the vote, cannot. In addition to that, governments may be held to ransom, to some degree, when they have a tenuous majority, even with small party support, so that small segments of voters can, at times, have a big say in what the government supports.

    It’s difficult to think of a way forward but I’d like to see freer voting in parliament. I’d prefer to be represented by someone who doesn’t always toe the party line on all issues. I’d also like us to find a way to have much longer term strategies that can be supported by all parties, no matter what the make up of the government.

  21. The point is not that Labour, getting 34%, should have representation in government but that those people whom voted for labour are able to be represented in parliment by those whom they voted for. If only 34% voted for labour then 34% of the seats is perfectly representitive,the closerto that percentage the better. When a bill comes to be passed labour has a chance to have its opinion heard through its 34% but that opinion is only relivant if another >16% agree with their posistion or else that minority is over-ruling the majority. Democracy is always rule of the voting majority, even in the case of direct democracy, and as such it is a case of how much those appointed represent the wills of the voters rather than if they can have any actual say.

    I believe that if STV were adopted within a MMP framework for both votes then we would see a proper emmergence of smaller parties and a breaking up of the larger ones; this would result in a far superior process and would eliminate the tail-wagging-the dog dilemma and the aforementioned anderton/peters situations.

  22. SM sounds terrible. However, MMP isn’t really working either, if the idea is to get representation in government that is proportional to the vote received. However, we don’t get that.

    Labour got 34% of the vote, in 2008, but have zero representation in government. On the other hand, the Maori party got 2.39% of the vote and have representation in government. In 2005, Jim Anderton’s party got just over 1% and had a role in government. Clearly, MMP isn’t providing representative government, even if it provides some measure of representation in parliament (which is important but not as much as in government).

    The question is, how can we get truly representative governments?

  23. Glen: I think that the idea could be simplified: – –

    (1) Electorate vote – – – – – -[Green] EV coalition preference to – [Labour]

    (2) List vote – – – – — – – – – -[Maori] LV coalition preference to -[National]

    They are just examples.

  24. Stay with MMP the faireast system yet devised in my opinion (& many others) – FPP is completely undemocratic as seen in the UK. Lib Dems have been soldiering away for years under the FPP & still get far feweer seats than they should under a fairer system. Of course it’s the two major Parties who stand firm against reform – what a surprise !

  25. Hmmm, that’s an interesting thought Drakula.

    I would be worried about people’s ability to perform under pressure when in the polling booth. Somehow, some people seem to struggle with our current system…

  26. I am very much in favour of the MMP system and I think that Toad hit the nail on the head that as it is not perfect, it is the best one that we have.

    Once more Toad is correct the Shirtcliff oligarchy are dead scared of MMP as it is more flexible system when it comes to forming coalitions.
    That is coalitions of minority parties.

    MMP could be improved I think that we should have three/ four votes OK?
    (1) Electorate vote (2) List vote and (3) If both votes are the same party you vote who that party goes into a coalition with OK?
    If vote (1) and (2) are different you vote which party they go with.

    The reason I am thinking along these lines was that the very first time MMP was put into practice I felt that Winston Peters abused the system.
    Politicians should not have any choice as to who they go into a coalition with, I think that it should be our choice.

    Just a thought

  27. I’ve noticed that John Key is big on promoting ideas that are “efficient”. Especially if they are “financially efficient”.

    In some ways that is the opposite of morality.

    Unfortunately I think he applies the same standard of measurement to political representation. It’ll be much more “efficient” to choose a cheaper system, even at the cost of real representation.

    I have always been a big fan of MMP. Sure it has it’s flaws and needs some fine tuning, but I NEVER want to see a return to the days where one party assumes a mandate for it’s own policies.

    I like the negotiation required within the current system. I believe Labour lost the last election by virtue of its stand on the S59 repeal, and I believe the same potential exists for MMP to give JK a caning at the next election too if he doesn’t heed Boscowans call. (Watch Winston make an issue of this)

    The biggest issue with MMP is that our MPs are still not cognisant enough of public opinion.

    However, that also shows that minorities can still affect the outcome.

    It’s not all bad with MMP.

  28. While I agree in principle that electorate seats distort the representation they do have the benefit of keeping the politicians closer to the people; they give people in electorates a local politician whom they are able to take their hassles to. It does distort but I feel the benefit is greater than the cost.
    While politicians will try to buy votes, this is not always a bad thing. For in attempting to buy votes they ensure that their region is not overly disadvantaged, in doing so causing a constant interchange which ensures any national changes to policy do not overly disadvantage their electorates for this would compromise their position. I feel that the present MMP system offers a decent trade-off between the benefits and costs of electorate based seats.

  29. and i don’t know about a ‘supplementary member’..

    but i wouldn’t mind a ‘single transferable’..

    (voting system double-entendres..eh..?

    a whole new comedy mini-genre there..)


  30. Agree, but let’s agree to keep an (almost) proportional system first, rather than revert to FPP or SM, and then we can sort out the glitches with MMP as it currently operates later.

    Shirtcliffe and his big business mates will be mounting a concerted attack on proportionality because they want a return to the undemocratic electoral system that gave us elective dictatorship governments like those of Muldoon and Lange that were totally unaccountable to the electorate.

  31. Could I have a supplementary member please? I think I must have overused mine when I was younger, because it doesn’t work as well these days.

  32. The trouble with MMP is that it is not proportional enough. The threshold to get seats should be 1/120th of the total vote. All electorate seats (Pakeha and Maori) should be abolished. You should be able to vote for people on party lists instead.
    Remember: The Maori Party depends entirely (as the current MMP “tail wagging the dog” party) on FPP in the Maori seats, not the list vote. Act depends on one electorate to get a few coat-tail MPs into the House, while the 5% threshold kept NZF out. Currently MMP is hardly democratic nor proportional, and reform is urgently needed.

  33. It seems that the sort of people who think SM is a good idea also tend to think that having way more electorate seats than list seats is a good idea.

    Mainly because more of “their” people tend to get elected in electorate contests, rather than because of any measure of fairness. If all they cared about was the accountability of list MPs, they’d support some sort of open-list modification to our MMP system instead.

  34. Nice work 🙂

    Haha under MMP0, in 2005 Destiny Church would have gotten a seat! Now *that* would have caused some hilarity

  35. BK Drinkwater says:
    September 9, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    > Why would the number of electorate seats suddenly bump? At the moment, there are 70 electorate seats; about 58% of Parliament (unless there’s overhang). I don’t think your only-twenty-supp-seats scenario is accurate.

    There’s no obvious reason why it should – when they had SM in Russia, they had equal numbers of electorate seats and list seats, though other countries that use it have significantly more electorate seats than list seats. However, the version of SM that was suggested in the 1992 referendum had 90 electorate seats and only 30 list seats.

    It seems that the sort of people who think SM is a good idea also tend to think that having way more electorate seats than list seats is a good idea.

  36. Why would the number of electorate seats suddenly bump? At the moment, there are 70 electorate seats; about 58% of Parliament (unless there’s overhang). I don’t think your only-twenty-supp-seats scenario is accurate.

    FWIW, I did some data-crunching over at my own blog: I took the voting data from each of the MMP elections we’ve had, and ran it through the SM calculations. (I also ran it through MMP and SM as if there were no 5%-threshold in either.)

    I then calculated a measure if how “disproportionate” the results are. SM is just on the well-proportioned side of half-way between FPP (quite bad) and MMP (very good).

  37. SM is just FPP in drag – but compared to PR is designed to minimise effectiveness of Minor Parties that dont get electorate seats – like the Greens for example – but hold the vote for parties that get overhangs – like the Maori Party for example.

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