New Zealand's rocky road to MMP

New Zealand's rocky road to MMP
Photo credit: Newshub.

This weekend on Newshub Nation, John Michael-Swannix examines how we elect our Government, and asks what can be done to improve the system. Ahead of that story, Newshub Nation looks at why MMP was adopted in the first place.

In 1993 New Zealand made the most dramatic change to its political process since the success of the suffrage movement.

A binding referendum held alongside the 1993 general election saw Kiwis vote for the same Government but an entirely new way of electing them - a German import known as Mixed Member Proportional (MMP).

Until then, almost every general election in New Zealand's history used First Past the Post (FPP). The only exception was a short-lived experiment with the 'second ballot system' between 1908-13.

FPP meant that the candidate with the most votes in any electorate would take the seat, with Government being formed with whoever had the most out of 92 available seats. The winner didn't need over half the votes, just more than any other candidate.

This led to parties who received comparatively little of the overall vote gaining disproportionate representation in Government and vice versa.

In the 1973 general election, the third leading party at the time, Social Credit, won 16 percent of the overall vote but only one seat in Parliament. In the next election, it won 21 percent, but still ended up with only two seats.

Voters grew disillusioned with the electoral process and pressure mounted for Government to investigate alternatives.

During its 1981 and 1984 campaigns, Labour promised to establish a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate election reform. After winning in 1984, they made good on their promise and the commission was set up in 1985.

The resulting recommendations, delivered in 1986, were surprisingly radical. It was suggested that New Zealand’s Parliament should increase to 120 MPs, and the FPP system be scrapped in favour of MMP.

The suggested system meant half the MPs would be elected in electorate races, as before, with the other half being taken from party lists. The system ensured a party's representation in Parliament was more broadly representative of their total share of the vote, while also making it easier for smaller parties to enter Parliament.

The recommendations proved unpopular with both Labour and National, but due to public pressure both parties promised to hold a referendum on voting reform heading into the 1990 election. 

Labour was soundly defeated and Jim Bolger's new National Government was called on to make good on its pre-election promise.

National eventually agreed agreed to hold a non-binding referendum on electoral reform in September 1992, with the promise of a binding referendum the following year if there was majority support for change.

In the first poll, voters were asked whether they supported reform and to pick between four possible alternatives: MMP, single transferable vote, supplementary member or preferential vote.  

The referendum results were starkly one-sided, with 85 percent of respondents in favour of reform and the vast majority favouring MMP among the suggested alternatives. As then Labour leader Mike Moore put it: "The people didn't speak on Saturday. They screamed."

The second, binding referendum was held alongside the 1993 general election and was a straight choice between FPP and MMP.

There were well-entrenched lobby groups for both sides by this point, making the results of the referendum much closer, but MMP still came out on top, with 54 percent to 46 percent.

The Government was then faced with the enormous task of overhauling the entire electoral system before the 1996 election. But the change was completed in time, overseen in part by the newly established Electoral Commission, and in 1996 New Zealand voted in its first MMP election.

The results were infamously messy, with two months of negotiations forming a surprise coalition between NZ First and National, which eventually collapsed.   

Today, MMP is not without its critics, with some experts saying that one of our most significant updates to political process should still be seen as a work in progress.

Catch John-Michael Swannix's full story on MMP tomorrow at 9:30

Newshub Nation.