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‘It was New Zealand’s Brexit’ – weighing up MMP on its 20th birthday

Geoffrey Palmer, Winston Peters, Judith Collins, Andrew Little, Richard Prebble, Metiria Turei, Willie Jackson and more on two decades of a proportional system, how they’ve changed their view of MMP, and what still needs fixing.

On Saturday October 12, 1996, New Zealanders voted under the Mixed Member Proportional system for the first time. After 143 years of (mostly) first-past-the-post elections, a Royal Commission and two referendums, proportional representation had arrived, and voters got two ticks, one for a constituency, one for a party.

NZ Post first-day issue

NZ Post first-day issue

To mark the 20-year-anniversary, the Spinoff asked a bunch of politicians and observers to tell us the following:

What was your view about the introduction of the new electoral system leading up to the first MMP election and has that changed over time?

Do you believe MMP has been good for NZ politics and NZ in general?

What changes if any would you like to see made to the system now?

Winston Peters: A corrective to the old parties’ arrogance, but time for a single franchise

New Zealanders voted for MMP because the two main parties, National and Labour in the 80s and 90s, would not stick to their pre-election manifestos. Worse than that, both came to power with an inner cabal cherishing hidden agendas.

In 1984 Labour sprang a surprise social and economic revolution on the country, from which we have still not recovered. And in 1990 National continued that disastrous revolution – despite pledging to do something entirely different.

That was why the National Party and some of us parted ways – we had the temerity to suggest that we stick to our election promises and to criticise the leadership for deliberately not doing so. A lot of obstacles were thrown in the way of MMP because the two old parties did not really want a bar of it.

The Royal Commission recommended that a hundred MPs in a new MMP system would work. We ended up with 120 because the two old parties reckoned that the 20 extra would put voters off the change.

In time, the Māori seats were supposed to go when MMP proved they would not be needed. We were all to be blended in – as we should be. That did not happen either. New Zealand First was born from those who rejected the radical reforms of National and Labour and who wanted a party that represented ordinary New Zealanders – not overseas interests or those of a “few over mighty subjects”.

MMP has brought more points of view to New Zealand politics and wider representation. It is still not fully understood – even by the parties in parliament and the media – because it is still too much about winners and losers and us and them. Democracy under MMP is patently, obviously more representative, abandoning minority government for majority rule.

At no stage did we ever expect that MMP would provide a continuing basis for race-based politics in New Zealand. We were a country, justifiably or not, that prided itself on doing its best for both Māori and non-Māori and treating everyone equally under the law. We were not perfect but our record was better than most colonised nations.

A single franchise would deliver much more for the poor in New Zealand by forcing parliament to be much more responsive to poverty.

A former National Party MP, Winston Peter in 1993 founded the NZ First Party, and has served as treasurer, deputy prime minister and foreign minister in MMP governments

Winston Peters delivers the budget in 1998. : A smiling Treasurer, Winston Peters delivers the 1998 Budget in the House of Parliament,Thursday. (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

Winston Peters delivers the budget in 1998. (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

Metiria Turei: MMP opened a door for people like us to shake up the old boys’ club

I didn’t think it would make much of a difference at the time of the referendum. I was too busy with a new baby and just surviving. And, frankly, the chance of good changes to the parliament seemed unlikely when it was full of old rich white guys spending their days finding new ways to harass me and my family.

But then, in 1996, the first MMP election, I was on the ALCP list, at #6, campaigning in an election for drug law reform because people like me had a chance to change things. A real chance to change things and to support people like us to go to parliament. The 1999 election, where Nandor Tanczos and Sue Bradford got in with the Green Party, was proof – we could take it over. Little by little, slowly but surely, it was possible.

Clearly I’m a fan. There are more Māori, more women, more Greens – just saying.

We can tidy it up, lower the 5% Party vote threshold to 4% increase representation. We can get rid of the coat tailing rule so that all parties have to meet the same threshold of voter support to be in parliament. No system is perfect and now we have used MMP a few times, we can keep fixing the bits that jar.

There is no doubt it has transformed representation, and there is also no doubt it is not perfect. We should also start using more participatory tools, like a Citizens’ Assembly, if we want to build greater participation and reclaim our citizenship. Lord knows there’s still a few old buggers here that need a shake-up.

Metiria Turei is co-leader of the Green Party

Judith Collins: A flawed but relevant system

MMP has been our system of electing Parliament for 20 years and many people I talk to still find it confusing and counterintuitive. One of the reasons is that many New Zealanders are just too busy earning a living and getting on with their lives to worry about the intricacies of how we vote in MPs and, by extension, government. Many people do not get why we should have parties represented in parliament where no MP has been directly elected and why electorate MPs and list MPs get paid the same for a quite different job.

As an electorate MP, I feel that MMP gives everybody a vote that counts. No longer do people who support a party feel that there’s not much point voting if they live in an electorate that usually returns a member of a different party. When I was Minister of Justice, I did not support lowering the threshold of votes required to get parliamentary representation. That threshold is either winning an electorate seat or winning 5% of the party vote. We already have eight parties represented in parliament. My view is that if we can’t get 5% of the country to support us or at least an electorate seat, then as a party, we probably don’t have a lot to offer. That 5 % threshold tends to keep out the truly fringe element and standing and winning an electorate seat, means quite a lot of voters in an area have confidence in you.

The best thing about MMP, apart from every vote now counting, is that it has given political parties realistic and sustainable ways of extending diversity in representation. That’s a good thing. Diversity, whether at the workplace, the board room or in parliament makes for more balanced decision making and better understanding of the ramifications of decisions.

I’ve gone from being a First Past the Post supporter to being very relaxed and comfortable with our flawed but relevant system.

Judith Collins is National MP for Papakura

Andrew Little: A vast improvement, but enough of a check on the executive?

I voted for Single Transferable Vote in the first electoral system referendum, and then MMP in the run-off with FPP. MMP has been a vast improvement over FPP, and New Zealanders clearly agree, given the strong vote in 2011 to retain it.

MMP has made parliament more representative of New Zealand’s diversity. It has also fixed some of FPP’s undemocratic outcomes. In 1993, National had a parliamentary majority with just 35% of the vote. In 1978 and 1981, the party with the most votes, Labour, got fewer seats. That can’t happen now.

A question remains whether MMP acts as enough of a check and balance on executive government as was promised.

We’re reviewing policy in this area but our position at the last election was to adopt the Electoral Commission’s recommendations: get rid of coat-tailing, which causes so much game-playing, and lower the threshold to 4%, to make parliament more representative.

Andrew Little is the leader of the Labour Party

Richard Prebble: more representative parliaments, weaker governments

I am on record saying that MMP would not result in less politics in parliament as its supporters claimed. I predicted that whatever voting system we have the result would be the election of a politician.

MMP has done what it is set up to do – parliament is more representative of New Zealand. First Past the Post gave a parliament of mainly white middle-aged males, now we have a parliament more representative of the country.

MMP has also resulted in weaker governments that do not tackle problems such as the housing crisis which requires some tough political decisions.

The MMP system we have is not the MMP system advocated by the Royal Commission. The Commission advocated doing away with race-based seats. The Commission advocated a 4% threshold and no threshold for minority parities. The two old parties combined to reject these features for party political reasons.

What is important is not the voting system but our willingness as a people to make whatever system we have work. The housing crisis and other issues governments have avoided may have been made worse by MMP but it is really a failure of our political parties to tell it as it is and be willing to lead.

Richard Prebble is a former Labour MP and ACT leader. He was dramatically elected for ACT in Wellington Central in 1996

Richard Prebble, Mark Thomas and Alick Shaw in Wellington Central, 1996. Still: NZ On Screen

Richard Prebble, Mark Thomas and Alick Shaw in Wellington Central, 1996. Still: NZ On Screen

Laila Harré: Without the Alliance, there’d be no MMP

It was New Zealand’s Brexit. A referendum on the political establishment loaded against change. The same general election, in 1993, gave National a majority on 35% of the vote (one per cent more than Labour). The Alliance won 18% but just two seats. New Zealand First claimed two seats with over 8% of the popular vote.

Commentaries usually underestimate the role that the Alliance, in particular, played in ushering in MMP. Jim Anderton’s conversion did not come easily, but it was backed with resources for a referendum campaign at least as active as our 1993 FPP seat campaigns. Without the Alliance we would not have had MMP.

It is impossible to look at the 1993 election (and Social Credit’s 1981 20%, two-seat win) and deny the benefit of MMP to New Zealand’s democracy. It has greatly increased the legitimacy of both governments and oppositions. That is important, but not transformative. There’s a sense in which Big Policy remains locked in the grip of Labour and National, with the Greens sinking into the blancmange, NZ First content with baubles and, since the Helen Clark/Heather Simpson assisted suicide of the Alliance, no identifiably left party. There is no parliamentary critique of the violence of global capitalism (I bet even reading that last sentence made you feel uncomfortable – I didn’t like writing it, but decided against a sanitised version to make my point).

Eliminating the threshold or lowering it to 2% (the latest review cowered around 3-4% but couldn’t explain why even those heights were needed) and at the same time abolishing the coat-tails rule might help. Meanwhile my prescription would be to focus on the revival of Labour. A bird in the hand ….

Laila Harré is a restaurateur and was an Alliance MP 1996-2002

Geoffrey Palmer: I fought hard for MMP, and it is a good system. But far from good enough

I was the minister of justice who established the Royal Commission on the electoral system, headed by Sir John Wallace, that reported in 1986. This was preceded by a commitment of the Labour Party, in its Open Government policy to establish such an inquiry.

I have always been a supporter of the Commission’s report that recommended MMP based on the German system, but it took quite some time for the idea to take hold.MMP was never very popular with either National or Labour because it was likely to reduce the power of the executive government in parliament.

I campaigned hard for MMP at the beginning. In 1992 I wrote a book to promote MMP entitled New Zealand’s Constitution in Crisis. It concluded in this way: “A political system which does not produce a close relationship between voting preferences and seats in parliament has little claim to be regarded as legitimate.”

MMP was adopted in the 1993 by referendum. The first MMP election was held in 1996. MMP was confirmed again by referendum in 2011. So now it is with us to stay.

MMP is a much more democratic system than first-past-the-post was. It has led to a much more diverse parliament, in terms of ethnicities, women and the range of political views represented there.

MMP was vigorously opposed by conservative business interests. None of their dire predictions eventuated. Government continued to be effective.

But electoral systems do not solve much. The one change that I would make was the one recommended by Sir John Wallace himself. In a carefully considered analysis published as long ago as 2002, he wrote: “I would, therefore, abolish the provision under which the threshold is waived for a party that wins a constituency seat.” That recommendation was also made by the Electoral Commission in 2012 to abolish the coat-tailing rule. It was not adopted for reasons of political party advantage.

A modern democracy must encourage participation, openness, and consultation in all its decisions. The new voting system for parliamentary elections was a most important constitutional change.

The two main political parties have to a large extent mastered MMP through confidence and supply agreements with the smaller political parties. So in the absence of an upper house, the executive government in New Zealand remains too powerful. Constitutional change that provides more transparency, more openness, more participation and greater accountability of the executive government remains urgently required.

MMP is good, but it is not enough. The levels of public trust in our system of government are too low. According to a survey conducted by the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University in March 2016, 61% of New Zealanders either do not have much trust or they have no trust that citizens’ interests are equally and fairly considered by government.

People are voting less than they used to do, as the recent local government elections amply demonstrate. Apathy and indifference are great enemies of democracy. We need a sense of democratic and constitutional renewal. Our condition is not helped by the fact that New Zealanders cannot find their constitution anywhere and for many it is a great mystery.

A good electoral system is one thing. An adequate constitution is quite another.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC is a former prime minister and author of A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand

Willie Jackson: An end to domination by old white men

MMP is one of the best ideas that has ever been initiated in NZ politics – for far too long NZ politics had been dominated by older white men. MMP opened up parliament to all New Zealanders. Who would have believed, for example, that a Māori activist like Tariana Turia, one of the main protesters at Motua Gardens in Whanganui, could have gone to parliament with the Labour Party courtesy of their list? Or anti-establishment person and veteran protester Sue Bradford? Or Rastafarian Nandor Tancoz or Tino Rangatiratanga Queen Donna Awatere Huata? And I could go on and on – heck even I managed to get there under the MMP system!

I always believed in this type of system and nothing has really changed my mind about it, although if I had an opportunity to block anyone I certainly would like to see some of the rednecks and those Hobson’s Pledge nuts stopped from entering parliament but then I suppose you can’t get everything.

I think it’s been great that MMP gives smaller parties the chance to shape governments. In previous years National and Labour parties haven’t had to worry about what they believed to be minority interests. So Māori, women, gay and Green interests were not looked after properly by the major parties. But MMP changed that and hopefully it will continue for many more years to come.

Willie Jackson is a broadcaster and CEO of Manukau Urban Maori Authority, and was an Alliance MP 1999-2002

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Peter Dunne: It’s better, but I’d still prefer STV

In the lead up to MMP, I strongly favoured Single Transferable Vote because I believed that MPs should be directly elected by a constituency, not deposited in parliament courtesy of a largely unaccountable party list. While I think we have made MMP work very well in the New Zealand context, I have not really changed my view that STV would be a fairer system.

MMP has worked well for New Zealand, with none of the fears of instability, indecision and weak governments being realised. Confidence and supply agreements have evolved into a very sophisticated set of arrangements which work well. The one thing that has not changed though is the public mindset that we still have an essentially bi-polar system (left/right groupings) rather than a genuinely multipolar environment. That is to the detriment of all the small parties who still tend to be viewed as appendages of either National or Labour.

I have already stated my preference for STV, but on the assumption that MMP is here to stay, I would make two changes. First, I would change the electorate voting system from FPP to preferential voting. Second, I would prohibit list MPs from being “pretend” electorate MPs by not allowing them to describe themselves as anything other than “X Party list MP”. At the moment, they can describe themselves as “X Party MP based in Y electorate”, implying they are a de facto alternative electorate MP (which of course they are not). It creates a false impression of their role, and perverts the MMP system. If we are to retain party lists, let us describe list MPs as what they are, not a pale imitation of something else.

Peter Dunne was a Labour MP from 1984 to 1994 and a United Future (or precursor) MP since

Andrew Geddis: Had we not chosen MMP, other changes would have been more drastic

At the time of the MMP referendums, I was 21-22 years old and deeply immersed in “progressive” student politics at Otago University. Hence, I was almost by default in favour of electoral reform (to the extent of putting up a hand-made poster advocating change on the outside wall of my flat). I’m a bit older, greyer and less doctrinaire today, but I still think I got that one particular call right.

MMP has been good both for New Zealand politics and New Zealand in general (if you can separate those two things!) Those who think otherwise need to realise that if we hadn’t adopted MMP, the eventual changes to New Zealand’s political and constitutional arrangements would have been far more drastic and far-reaching. Giving people an electoral system that delivers a parliament more representative of the population as a whole, and which diffuses power between parties, probably saved our system of parliamentary supremacy from a written constitution.

We know what needs changed about MMP, because the Electoral Commission undertook extensive public engagement and produced a very good report on this issue back in 2012. Get rid of the “electorate lifeboat” rule. Cut the party vote threshold to at least 4% (and I’d go lower to 2.5%). Abolish overhang seats and keep Parliament at 120 seats. Fix the ratio of electorate to list seats at about the present mix. The public said these are the changes they want – it’s just the politicians (and I’m looking at you, National) refused to listen.

Andrew Geddis is a Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Otago

Ben Thomas: The tail never did quite wag the dog

The first MMP election was my first time voting, and these days the idea you could be in government with fewer total votes than the opposition (as happened a couple of times under FPP) seems mediaeval. As a first-year politics student I thought smaller parties would be more dominant than they turned out to be – the “tail wagging the dog” theory – not least because smaller parties realised they should keep some distance from Cabinet after formal coalitions fell apart in 1996-1999 and 1999-2002. The consolidation of parliamentary parties would also have surprised 18-year-old me: new parties were springing up, either spontaneously or out of the two main parties, at an alarming rate in the leadup to 1996. But only ACT, and arguably the Māori Party and Mana, have entered parliament without an existing sitting MP, and the Alliance has disappeared.

Small parties have broadened public debate, and the country has benefited. The mere existence of the Māori Party , for instance, means ministers and the media will now automatically ask what a new policy means for Māori. The bigger parliament means more talent, as well as more dross, in absolute terms, which overall is a good thing.

The 5% threshold is generally agreed to be undemocratic and arbitrary. We’ve consistently seen, for example, that there is a constituency of about 4% who would support a conservative Christian based party in NZ. So, careful what you wish for and all that, but that seems a fairer threshold in terms of achieving what was intended for MMP.

Ben Thomas is a PR guy at Exceltium and a Spinoff podcaster

David Seymour: Stability – and a handbrake on effective change

I was in Form 2 at the time so I didn’t have any particularly fixed views.

MMP has delivered stability – in the past we were subject to large swings in policy direction and even when the policy direction was good the pace of change was unsettling. Whether it’s business or private life, you need stability and certainty in order to plan ahead, and MMP has delivered that. It’s also made it nearly impossible to bring about effective change. If you look at the current parliament, there are many things that National and ACT would like to do but Peter Dunne and the Māori Party hold us to ransom. For example people, including me, complain that there has not been a serious and comprehensive approach to fixing housing markets, but the political reality is that it’s very difficult to get the numbers in parliament to do serious reform, just look at the RMA legislation being kicked for touch after the Māori Party spat the dummy.

Governments need to be able to propose coherent reform without the kind of public policy instability that New Zealand has been known for in the past. We are the only unicameral (no upper house), unitary (no states or provinces) democracy without a written constitution in the world. MMP was introduced as a check on that “elected dictatorship”. New Zealand would probably be better off with a written constitution providing for a FPP lower house that can propose coherent reform and a proportionally represented upper house acting as a check on the nuttier stuff that governments propose from time to time.

David Seymour is the leader of the ACT Party

Graeme Edgeler: Bin the threshold altogether

I wasn’t yet in High School when New Zealanders voted to adopt MMP, but I do recall supporting it. I am not foolish enough to think I could fairly remember my reasons for doing so, but I suspect they haven’t changed a great deal. The system is a vast improvement over the first past the post system it replaced. In 1993, the past examples people used to argue MMP would be fairer would have been the 1978 and 1981 elections, where Labour got more votes than National, but National got to govern. I’ve long thought that our last first past the post election, in 1993, was a better example. In that year, the opposition got over 60% of the vote, while the Government got 35% of the vote, and got to govern.

The best argument I ever heard for first-past-the-post was in (I think) a Kiwiblog comments thread, although Google has never been able to re-find it for me. It was basically: New Zealand has always had coalition governments, it’s just the coalitions used to be called National and Labour, and they announced their policies before the election, instead of after. It’s a nice thought, recognising the democratic deficit in post-election coalition government, but of course, with large votes for Values, and Social Credit, it stopped being true well before we adopted MMP.

I don’t really care whether MMP has been good for politics, or good for political parties. I care that it has been good for voters. Under first past the post, where you lived determined whether your vote mattered. If you lived in a marginal seat, you could help decide the next government. If you didn’t, you pretty much couldn’t. When what matters most in deciding the result of the election are lines drawn on maps, instead of votes cast by voters, something is wrong.

And if you had a poor local MP from the party you supported, the only way you could get rid of them, was by voting against not only them, but also the party you liked. MMP fixes these problems, and, as a bonus, has given us a parliament that looks quite a bit more like us.

The 5% threshold is far too high. 120,000 voters could vote for a party, and get no representation at all, yet, if they’d voted for a different party, it would get six more seats. If we think a party’s policies, or candidates are wrong for the country, we should try to persuade other voters why that is so, not rely on a law which tells them that all voters are equal, but some are more equal than others.

I’d probably just get rid of the threshold altogether, but even if I can’t convince enough of you of that, it doesn’t need to be nearly as high as it is. Many arguments are advanced in favour of having a threshold, which could be met with a threshold no higher than 2.5%. Even then, a party would need to convince more than 60,000 people to vote for them to get into Parliament. If we are to have a threshold, we should decide what we want it to achieve, and set it as low as possible consistent with that aim. And one of the things we should aim for is a voting system where one of the things that can happen is that new political forces can emerge. Even staunch partisans should support this, as the threat of it, should keep the parties they support true to their beliefs.

Graeme Edgeler is a lawyer and blogger at Public Address

Annette King: I liked it then and I like it now, but let’s scrap the loophole

I supported MMP against the leader of the Labour Party at the time, who was opposed to it. My view has not changed.

Yes, MMP has been good for New Zealand, and it would be better if more people knew the value of the party vote.

I’d like to see changed the loophole that lets parties like ACT win a seat and bring in extra MPs.

Annette King is deputy leader of the Labour Party

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