How did New Zealand get proportional representation?

Ian Simpson, Research Officer

Posted on the 2nd August 2022

Prior to 1996, MPs were elected to New Zealand’s House of Representatives using the same unrepresentative First Past The Post (FPTP) system that is used to elect MPs to the UK’s House of Commons. Since then, however, New Zealand has used the Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system to elect MPs. In the UK, Mixed-Member Proportional is usually described as the Additional Member System (AMS).

How did this change from First Past the Post to Proportional Representation (PR) arise and does New Zealand’s journey provide any lessons for electoral reformers in the UK? Much of the information in this blog is drawn from this recently published in-depth series of articles, by Henry Cooke for the New Zealand-based website Stuff, looking back at the story of how New Zealand made the transition to PR.

Under First Past the Post, New Zealand general election outcomes displayed many similarities with those in the UK. Two parties, Labour and National, dominating and winning majorities in parliament on fewer than half the votes cast; wrong-winner outcomes (National winning parliamentary majorities in 1978 and 1981 despite winning fewer votes than Labour); and smaller parties unable to get a foothold in parliament despite sizeable vote shares, for example in 1981 the Social Credit party won almost 21% of votes but only two MPs. Of the 1,470 MPs elected under First Past the Post between 1946 and 1993, all but eleven represented either Labour or National.

Although many key figures in Labour and National were opposed to electoral reform, it crucially also had some prominent supporters. One important person in the early stages of the road to reform was Geoffrey Palmer, a Law Lecturer turned Labour MP, who briefly became Prime Minister. He was a firm believer in the need for PR and in 1978, shortly before entering parliament, he persuaded a Labour Party conference to commit to a Royal Commission on the electoral system, with a remit to consider a change to PR.

Following the two elections of 1978 and 1981, where Labour won the most votes but National won a majority of seats, Labour finally returned to power in 1984, Palmer finding himself as deputy Prime Minister, from where he launched the Royal Commission on the New Zealand Electoral System in early 1985. Palmer appointed a judge, two statisticians and two academics to the Commission but resisted pressure from within Labour to appoint politicians, as he felt their inclusion would be unlikely to lead to a recommendation of PR.

For nearly two years the Commission deliberated, visiting many European countries to better understand how their systems worked. In December 1986, the Commission published their report and recommended a system very similar to West Germany’s, renaming it Mixed-Member Proportional for the New Zealand context. The Commission felt that Mixed-Member Proportional best met their criteria of being fairer to political parties, giving voters more choice and making parliament more diverse.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Commission’s recommendation of Mixed-Member Proportional met with strong resistance from the parliamentary Labour party and MPs more generally, with Palmer being something of an outlier in his support for reform. The Commission recommended that a referendum be held on the idea on the same day as the 1987 general election but there was no way that the Labour government was going to legislate for this to happen.

Despite the Commission’s report receiving a frosty reception in parliament, it fired up support in other parts of the country. Many in the wider Labour party and trade union movement had been unhappy with First Past the Post for some time and the Royal Commission’s report provided a recommendation that they could get behind and campaign for. Then, during the 1987 election campaign, those campaigners managed to get PR firmly on the agenda. In a live TV debate, a supporter of PR asked David Lange, the leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister, if he would commit to a referendum on Mixed-Member Proportional at the next general election. Much to everyone’s surprise and to the anger of many in his party, Lange responded that he would indeed commit to referring the Commission’s report to a Parliamentary Select Committee, followed by a referendum, something that was by no means Labour Party policy. Labour went on to win in 1987 but it soon became clear that Mixed-Member Proportional would not feature in any referendum at the following general election, the Select Committee watering down the terms of any such vote and ultimately there was no referendum on electoral reform at all in 1990.

However, just as in 1987, the issue of PR rose to prominence during the 1990 general election campaign. National leader, Jim Bolger, called the broken promise a “despicable betrayal” and a backbench Labour MP put forward a bill to run an indicative referendum on Mixed-Member Proportional at the general election. Momentum built to such an extent that by April 1990 both Labour and National were pledged to hold a referendum on PR in 1992, with National promising a binding referendum on a more extensive list of reform options than just Mixed-Member Proportional versus First Past the Post.

National won the 1990 general election and Bolger became Prime Minister. Although much more sceptical of PR than Palmer on the Labour side, Bolger was another frontline politician who played a key role in reform coming to fruition, simply by keeping his promise of holding a referendum on it in 1992, despite the majority of MPs continuing to oppose reform and despite the fact his party had won a landslide victory under First Past the Post in 1990. However, the referendum was a modified version of the one that had been outlined. Instead of a one-off binding referendum laying out a number of options, the referendum was to be a two-step process.

In 1992, voters were asked two questions.

  1. Did they want a change from the current voting system.
  2. Of four options for change, which did they prefer – Mixed-Member Proportional; Single Transferable Vote (STV); Preferential Voting (known as Alternative Vote in the UK); or Supplementary Member (or Parallel Voting), which has some similarities with Mixed-Member Proportional but is in practice less proportional.

If the answer to the first question was ‘No’, then the process would end there. If the answer was ‘Yes’, then the most popular of the options at question 2 would be put up against First Past the Post in a binding referendum on the day of the 1993 general election, with any change coming into effect at the following election in 1996.

The outcome of the 1992 referendum was a landslide in favour of reform. Almost 85% of people voted ‘Yes’ to question 1. There was also a clear majority in favour of Mixed-Member Proportional over all of the other options. Just over 70% of people who expressed a preference voted for Mixed-Member Proportional, with the next most popular option, STV, garnering just 17.4% support. It should, however, be noted that the turnout was only 55%, much smaller than the 85% who had voted in the 1990 general election.

It has hard to pin down exactly why the result of this first referendum was so heavily in favour of changing the voting system. Polling from the time and the recollections of people involved indicate that there was a public mood of anger against politicians in general and with both of the mainstream parties. It seems likely that this contributed to a desire for change. Also, there was a mismatch between the effectiveness of the campaigns. The pro-PR campaign, led by the Electoral Reform Coalition (ERC) ran a well-organised campaign across the whole country. The campaign for the status quo was lacklustre in comparison, despite or perhaps because of prominent politicians, such as Prime Minister, Bolger, and Labour’s deputy leader, Helen Clark, speaking out in favour of First Past the Post.

The second, binding, referendum between Mixed-Member Proportional and First Past the Post, held on the same day as the 1993 general election, was to be a much closer and more keenly fought contest. Supporters of First Past the Post coalesced around the Campaign For Better Government (CBG), which was very well-funded by businessman Peter Shirtcliffe. As the campaign against Mixed-Member Proportional got into full swing in 1993, the polls started to tighten, with support for Mixed-Member Proportional dropping slightly below 50% in July 1993, having been as high as 69% earlier in the year. That month, a parliamentary select committee published details of how Mixed-Member Proportional would work in practice if it defeated First Past the Post in the referendum. The introduction of Mixed-Member Proportional would see the number of MPs rise from 99 to 120 and  a closed list system would be used for the List MPs, meaning parties, rather than voters would be in control of the order in which the candidates were elected

The CBG spent a large amount of money on advertising criticising the increased costs of extra MPs and the fact voters would not have a say in the ordering of party list candidates. However, despite being financially outgunned, the ERC now had years of campaigning and organising for electoral reform behind it and had grown deep roots across the country. Ultimately, despite a much closer result than in the first referendum, the forces of reform prevailed, with Mixed-Member Proportional winning 53.9% support, against 46.1% for First Past the Post, on a turnout of 83%. Thus, the general election held on that same day in 1993 was the last to be held under First Past the Post. The nine general elections since then have all been held under Mixed-Member Proportional and the system is firmly part of the fabric of New Zealand’s democracy.

As expected, the nature of politics in New Zealand has been changed by the switch from First Past the Post to Mixed-Member Proportional, though perhaps not as drastically as some thought it might be. The first eight general elections under Mixed-Member Proportional saw no single party win a majority of seats. However, Labour and National continued to be the biggest two parties by far, continuing to produce Prime Ministers, it is just that they have now needed to seek an element of consensus from third parties, in order to govern.

The ninth general election since Mixed-Member Proportional’s introduction, in 2020, saw this pattern broken, as Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party won a small majority of seats, having won just over 50% of the Party List votes. Despite this, Ardern still led Labour into a ‘cooperation agreement’ with the Greens, whereby the co-leaders of the Greens are ministers outside the cabinet. Such a move reinforces how the introduction of Mixed-Member Proportional has seen New Zealand politics move from a very confrontational approach to a more consensual one. And Helen Clark, the Labour deputy leader who had spoken against reform? She became Prime Minister and is now an active advocate for reform.

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