Electoral reform in New Zealand

Electoral reform in New Zealand
New Zealand

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Electoral reform in New Zealand has, in recent years, become a political issue as major changes have been made to both Parliamentary and local government electoral systems.


Parliamentary Electoral Reform

All New Zealand elections from 1914 to 1996 consistently used the British system of 'first past the post' (FPP) for parliamentary elections (bloc voting and runoff voting were also used in some elections before 1914). This system had consistently favoured the two largest parties, since 1936 being National and Labour. In 1978 and 1981, National won more seats even though Labour won more votes. Both parties would focus their efforts on marginal electoral seats, and 'safe' seats with large working class or farming populations were taken for granted.

In 1984, Labour was elected to power. Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, also Minister of Justice, established the Royal Commission on the Electoral System in 1985. The Royal Commission's report, in 1986, entitled Towards a Better Democracy recommended the adoption of Mixed Member Proportional. Initially, the report was largely ignored outside of academic circles. The Electoral Reform Coalition was formed to lobby the government for a referendum on the electoral system.

At the 1987 election, Prime Minister David Lange promised to hold a referendum on changing to MMP at, or before, the next election. In May 1990 Labour member John Terris submitted a private members bill to force a binding referendum on the electoral system. However, this bill was defeated.[1] At the 1990 election National, under Jim Bolger, promised to hold a referendum before the 1993 election.

1992 electoral system referendum

In 1992, a non-binding referendum was held on whether or not FPP should be replaced by a new, more proportional voting system. Voters were asked two questions: whether or not to replace FPP with a new voting system; and which system should be adopted instead. A second, binding, referendum was to be held the following year, in which voters would choose between FPP and the new system chosen to replace it.

Question One

The first question asked voters if they wished to retain FPP or change electoral systems. The result was in 84.7 per cent favour of replacing FPP, and 15.3% against.[2]

Voting method referendum, 19 September 1992: Part A
Choose one proposal:
Response Votes  %
Retain FPP
I vote to retain the present First Past The Post system.
186,027 15.28
Change System
I vote for a change to the electoral system
1,031,257 84.72
Total votes 1,217,284 100.00

Source: Nohlen et al

Question Two

The second question asked voters which new system should replace FPP. Voters could choose between the following:

  • Mixed Member Proportional (MMP); also known as the Additional Member System used in Germany, Scotland, and Wales (although only in Germany at the time); in which roughly half of the seats are elected by FPP; and the remainder are filled from party lists to top-up the local seats so as to ensure a proportional overall result;
  • Single Transferable Vote (STV); a proportional system used in Ireland (North and South), Tasmania, and for the Australian Senate; in which the country is divided into multimember constituencies; and voters rank candidates in declining order of preference;
  • Supplementary Member system (SM); commonly called the parallel system, used in Japan and previously in Russia and Italy; a semi-proportional mixed system with proportional representation used only for the seats filled by lists; and a larger proportion of seats elected by FPP.
  • Alternative Vote; used in Australia and Fiji elections; similar to FPP but with voters ranking candidates in declining order of preference in single-seat constituencies (now called Instant Runoff Voting in the USA).

An overwhelming majority of those favouring a new electoral system voted for MMP. The percentages of the vote cast for the four possible electoral system options offered in the second question were:

Voting method referendum, 19 September 1992: Part B
Choose one option:
Response Votes %
valid total
Preferential Voting (PV)
I vote for the Preferential Voting system (PV)
73,539 6.56 6.04
Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)
I vote for the Mixed Member Proportional system (MMP)
790,648 70.51 64.95
Supplementary Member (SM)
I vote for the Supplementary Member system (SM)
62,278 5.55 5.12
Single Transferable Vote (STV)
I vote for the Single Transferable Vote system (STV)
194,796 17.37 16.00
Total valid votes 1,121,261 100.00 92.11
Invalid/blank votes 96,023 7.89
Total votes cast 1,217,284 100.00

Source: Nohlen et al

1993 electoral referendum

A pro-MMP poster from the 1993 referendum campaign.

The second, binding, referendum was held in conjunction with the general election on 6 November 1993. Many senior politicians and businesspeople were opposed to MMP: Bill Birch, then a senior National Cabinet Minister, had said MMP would be "a catastrophic disaster for democracy", and Ruth Richardson, former Minister of Finance in Jim Bolger's government said MMP "would bring economic ruin". Peter Shirtcliffe, chairman of Telecom New Zealand at the time and leader of the Campaign for Better Government (CBG), a group opposed to MMP, said MMP "would bring chaos".[3]

The Electoral Reform Coalition (ERC) was the main advocate for the adoption of MMP, and had support from several people, including the late Green Party co-leader Rod Donald. MMP faced an uphill battle, as acknowledged in the pro-MMP poster to the side, since the proposed model was for increase in the number of MPs from 99 to 120. The CBG responded to the increase in MPs with a controversial television advertisement showing 21 faceless list MPs with paper bags over their heads.[4]

The ERC also had a "David and Goliath" battle financially - with the CBG being backed by a large business lobby, they had large amounts of money to spend. While the CBG could spend large on television, radio and full-page newspaper advertisements, often with fear-evoking graphic images, the ERC had limited funds and concentrated more on advocating in communities.[5]

Despite the uphill battle, a majority (53.9%) of voters favoured MMP.

Voting method referendum, 6 November 1993
Choose one proposal:
Response Votes  %
First Past the Post (FPP)
I vote for the present First Past the Post system as provided by the Electoral Act 1956
884,964 46.14
Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)
I vote for the proposed Mixed Member Proportional system as provided by the Electoral Act 1993
1,032,919 53.86
Total votes 1,917,833 100.00
Turnout 82.61%

Source: Nohlen et al

Introduction of MMP

The first election using MMP was held in 1996.

As a result, National and Labour lost their complete dominance in the House. Neither has yet been able to hold a majority within the House under MMP. Instead, electoral results have required them to form coalitions to govern. Indeed, since 1998 there have been minority coalition governments relying on supply and confidence from parties outside of government.

Prior to the switch to MMP, New Zealand largely had a two party system, with government interchanging between Labour and National since 1935. With the introduction of MMP, particularly with New Zealand's unique provision for parties to win list seats despite getting less than the 5% threshold if they win one local seat, there has been a widening of political parties represented within the House. After the 1996 election, there were six political parties. The Greens separated from the Alliance for the 1999 election, and with the creation of the Māori Party in 2004, there became eight parties. The number of political parties was expected to fall[citation needed] (as happened in Germany after their adoption of MMP), but has in fact increased.

The transition to MMP has caused disproportionality to fall.[6]

Election Disproportionality Number of Parties in Parliament
1946-1993 average 11.10% 2.4
1996 4.36% 6
1999 3.01% 7
2002 2.53% 7
2005 1.11% 8
2008 5.21% 7

2011 referendum

The National Party promised a second referendum to decide whether or not to keep MMP as part of the lead up to the 2008 general election. Upon gaining power, the party legislated that the referendum will be held alongside the 2011 general election, which will take place on Saturday 26 November 2011.

The referendum is similar to the 1992 referendum, in that voters will be asked firstly to chose whether to keep the MMP system or to change to another system, and secondly to select their preferred system - FPP, PV, STV or SM - if the voting system were to change.

e • d  Voting method referendum 2011: Part A
Should New Zealand keep the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system?
Response Votes  %
valid total
YesY Yes - keep MMP
I vote to keep the MMP voting system
N No - change system
I vote to change to another voting system
Total valid votes 100.00
Invalid or blank votes
Uncounted votes 100.00
Total votes cast 100.00
Electorate 3,035,135[7]
e • d  Voting method referendum 2011: Part B
If New Zealand were to change to another voting system, which voting system would you choose?
Response Votes  %
valid total
First Past the Post (FPP)
I would choose the First Past the Post system (FPP)
Preferential Voting (PV)
I would choose the Preferential Voting system (PV)
Single Transferable Vote (STV)
I would choose the Single Transferable Vote system (STV)
Supplementary Member (SM)
I would choose the Supplementary Member system (SM)
Total valid votes 100.00
Invalid or blank votes
Uncounted votes
Total votes cast 100.00
Electorate 3,035,135[7]

Local Government Elections

Up until the 2004 local body elections, all territorial authorities were elected using the bloc vote (although often referred to as first-past-the-post). In 2004, at the discretion of the council, they could use the single transferable vote. Eight local bodies used STV in the 2007 local body elections. All regional authorities must still use FPP. All District Health Boards must use STV.

See also


  1. ^ MMP Or SM? A Big Decision Looms For New Zealand Voters scoop.co.nz, 30 June 2011
  2. ^ Nohlen, D, Grotz, F & Hartmann, C (2001) Elections in Asia: A data handbook, Volume II, p723 ISBN 0199249598
  3. ^ "Decision Maker - MMP's First Decade". 2006. http://www.decisionmaker.co.nz/guide2006/tbp_MMPfirstdecade_05.html. Retrieved 2009-02-05. 
  4. ^ "Cartoon from the MMP campaign - Government and Politics". http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/government-and-nation/5/4/2. Retrieved 6 July 2011. 
  5. ^ Donald, Rod (21 August 2003). "Proportional Representation in NZ - how the people let themselves in". http://www.greens.org.nz/speeches/proportional-representation-nz-how-people-let-themselves-part-i. Retrieved 6 July 2011. 
  6. ^ Jonathan Boston, Stephen Church, Stephen Levine, Elizabeth McLeay and Nigel Roberts, New Zealand Votes: The General Election of 2002 Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2003
  7. ^ a b "Enrolment statistics for the whole of New Zealand". Electoral Commission. 18 November 2011. http://www.elections.org.nz/ages/electorate_all.html. Retrieved 21 November 2011. 

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