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Back to the future

Don Brash's lash out at MMP is rather hard to fathom.

You only have to take a quick peek at the fading photographs lining the walls of the corridors in Parliament to applaud the democratising virtues of MMP. There they hang, the long faces from Parliaments long dead - almost universally white, male and the wrong side of middle-aged and, in their short-back-and-sides uniformity, seeming victims of some raid by a razor-wielding gang of Lambton Quay barbers.

What would those pillars of conformity have made of a Nandor Tanczos suddenly plonked in their midst complete with purple tam-o'-shanter under which his dreadlocks coil like a sleeping python?

Or, for that matter, a transsexual Georgina Beyer marching into the chamber to give one of her no-nonsense lectures to the Tories opposite?

Yet, just when the so-called House of Representatives has finally lived up to its name, along comes Don Brash - white, male and the wrong side of middle-aged - attacking the electoral system that has spawned that very diversity.

What should we make of his intention to make it National Party policy to hold a referendum on how we elect our MPs, besides the obvious point that there seems to be almost zero demand for one?

Brash fired his first election-year salvo by blasting MMP in a newspaper opinion piece in which he questioned whether the decade-old electoral system had delivered on the promise of a "more consensual, more accountable" form of government.

He questioned why there had been no follow-up referendum on MMP when New Zealanders had been under the widespread impression that there would be one.

And, urging greater use of referenda, he pondered how Labour could justify imposing profound social and constitutional change such as civil unions, the legalisation of prostitution, the banning of smoking in restaurants and bars, and abolition of access to the Privy Council without first seeking a specific mandate from the public.

On the Privy Council, he may have a point. But prostitution law reform was a private members' bill enacted by conscience vote. As for the other two measures, at the end of the day parties fight elections so they can implement their manifesto policies.

Is Brash heralding a brave new world where National is willing to subject all its controversial policies to referendum?

And is National really willing to put its money where Brash's mouth is by promising to overhaul the current limp provision for non-binding, citizen-initiated referenda into one offering binding plebiscites on demand?

Having sampled the appetiser, only the main dish - his speech to the Orewa Rotary Club - will tell what, if anything, he has to say about that.

The sudden enthusiasm for referenda may have some spin-off for National in both exploiting the grizzling provoked by Labour's "social engineering" and painting Labour as anti-democratic. But it does not deal with National's fundamental problem.

Brash has yet to convince sufficient voters that when it comes to the basics of competent government - rather than peripheral issues like civil unions and bans on smoking - National would run the country a great deal differently and, more important, run it better. The contents of Orewa Mark II must be read in that context.

Harder to fathom is Brash's lash out at MMP - particularly when it comes from someone whose parliamentary existence is courtesy of a slot on National's list.

Sure, in pushing for the restoration of the winner-takes-all first-past-the-post system or the token proportionality of the untested supplementary member method, he is peddling the prospect of fewer MPs and a smaller executive. But we've heard that one before, haven't we?

Brash's onslaught will instead be dismissed as blame-the-system sour grapes from National, following its dismal showing at the last election, as well as sounding less than confident about how National thinks it will perform at the next one.

The attack is also highly expedient. In turning its back on Maori last year, National walked away from a segment that will comprise 17 percent of the population by 2021. National thus has to find some way of stifling the burgeoning voter power Maoridom will exercise through MMP.

This failure to reach out to all constituencies reflects a lingering born-to-rule mentality that has National treating MMP as a temporary nuisance that will be removed once New Zealanders come to their senses.

But why would they? Only a prolonged bout of unstable government would cancel out the empowering benefits of tactical and split voting under MMP, along with the system's strongest attribute - fairness. MMP governments may be compromise affairs. But they are no longer minority ones endowed with absolute power.

Witness 2002. Voters wanted Labour, but they did not want Helen Clark ruling alone. Therein lies the electorate's response to Brash's wish to go back to the future.

Pushing the self-interested politics to one side - and ignoring the difficulty of Brash finding coalition partners willing to contemplate suicide and back implementation of a referendum - National's leader is trying to rewrite history in claiming that MMP has failed to deliver "more consensual, more accountable" government.

There was no such promise. Rather, MMP was forced on the two major parties after public rebellion because they were unwilling to countenance better ways of curbing executive power, such as radical reform of parliamentary scrutiny or the introduction of a legislation-delaying upper House.

As a means of limiting Cabinet fiat - the point at issue for Brash - MMP is a comparatively blunt instrument. But one that is working surprisingly well.

Parliament's cosy two-party club is no more, replaced by frenetic competition for media attention as a multitude of parties engage in a constant hunt for ministerial stuff-up or bureaucratic botch-up and, in the process, subject governments to far more intense scrutiny than previously. As do Parliament's now far more independent select committees.

The need to consult endlessly with coalition partners has severely hampered a government's previous capacity to rush unpopular policy into law.

On that score, Brash has a particular beef that backroom deal-making with the minor parties to progress legislation has removed the whole process one step further from public accountability.

However, all that has changed under MMP is that the wheeling and dealing that was hidden behind closed-door meetings between factions within the sole governing party now also takes place between parties. If anything, there is more transparency, especially as minor parties are vulnerable to the ultimate instrument of accountability - the five percent threshold.

If they so choose, minor parties also have capacity to restrict the major party's mandate. It is worth remembering that the post-election agreement between United Future and Labour specifically prevents Labour decriminalising marijuana. That would not have been the case under first-past-the-post.

Brash is right about one thing. The public was under the (incorrect) impression there would be another referendum on MMP after two elections.

If there is still pressure for a review, surely that is a job for an independent body like the Electoral Commission, rather than rushing to a referendum.

It is not something to be left in a politician's hands - Brash's or anyone else's.