How Proportional Representation ‘completely transformed’ New Zealand politics

1st October 2017 / ThinkPublica
How Proportional Representation ‘completely transformed’ New Zealand politics

By Josiah MortimerElectoral Reform Society: In 1996, New Zealand introduced the Mixed Member Proportion (MMP) voting system – a mixed FPTP and proportional list voting system. It was a big step forward for the fight for fair votes everywhere.

I went to the Global Greens’ Congress in Liverpool last weekend – and had the chance to catch up with Metiria Turei, the co-leader of the New Zealand Green Party – who was elected when PR was first introduced.

Metiria talked to me about how electoral reform has changed New Zealand politics for the better: and what’s next for democratic reform.


Josiah: What’s the current state of the party?

Metiria: We have an election in September – the Green Party is very well geared up and ready to contest it, which is very exciting. And that comes off the back of a caucus of 14, so at the last election our vote grew by 10,000. Our percent of the vote went down but our voter numbers grew. And we have a new co-leader, James Shaw, who was elected 18 months ago.

So at the moment we’re in this really fantastic situation – a really strong caucus, great new leadership, and we’ve just released our initial party list – and we have some great new young candidates come up. In the top 15 there’s two who are in their early 20s, both in electable places, plus we’ve still got some of the old guard – the experienced – but it’s really great to see a refreshment in our list. We’ve just had a very successful fundraising appeal so everything is lining up for us to do well in this election.


JM: How did the introduction of PR affect the political culture?

Metiria: It completely transformed New Zealand politics. Right up until that period we had a government of either the National or Labour – they were often able to govern with less than 40% of the vote. We had political parties like the Values Party, the Social Credit Party, the Alliance – who had all at various points got somewhere between 15 and 25% of the vote, and no seats.

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And so, by the mid ‘80s there was enormous frustration by the New Zealand population that so many votes were being wasted, and that we were just a two-party state and no way to break through it. So, in the ‘80s, Labour set up a Royal Commission on the electoral system, which looked at alternatives and made some suggestions about that. But despite promises from the next Labour PM to hold a referendum on electoral reform, Labour reneged on that promise.

But because they reneged on that promise before an election, the National Party attacked them for it and said that they’d hold a referendum. They were just playing politics at the time – saying that Labour had weakened and they’d be very strong about this. So, after the election, which the National Party won, they were actually arrogant enough to think that they could hold the referendum and win it – in favour of FPTP. It was a moment of weakness by the then Minister Jim Bulger.

They held the first referendum in 1992 and that was a yes/no on changing or not changing the system – with the question, ‘if you did change the system, what would be your preference?’. Then at 1993 in the election, there was a run-off between FPTP and the most popular alternative [MMP].

It’s an interesting discussion here in the UK between some people wanting there to be a definitive alternative that’s presented at the first opportunity, and those who are saying we need to win on the principle first of change vs keeping the same.

Our circumstance shows that you need to win the argument to change [the voting system] first. Because there’s so much complication and detail about what system you choose. But if you win the argument that change should happen and there should be PR, then you can spend as much time as you need to arguing about ‘to what?’. But it’s winning that first change argument that I think is quite important.

So the first MMP election was 1996 – the Alliance stood in that election. The Green Party was part of the Alliance along with other parties – and [the Greens] got three MPs. And that was fantastic – it was the first time that a third party of any kind had any representation in the New Zealand Parliament. And there were a few others as well, but the first time the Greens had been in there.

In 1998 Greens split from the Alliance halfway through that term, and contested the 1999 election under their own name, as an independent Green Party, and we got over the 5% threshold – so we had seven MPs: distinctive, independent Green MPs.


Josiah: The first elections under MMP must have seen quite a significant rise in representation of disadvantaged groups, indigenous groups etc.?

Metiria: The representation of women went from 20% to close to 30% of Parliament overnight. Maori representation doubled overnight. And there was an 80-year period under FPTP when Maori women could vote and stand for election – and in that period, only three Maori women were ever elected to Parliament. In 80 years. Get MMP, and we get seven, in one election, overnight. And we averaged somewhere between seven and ten or 11 Maori women in Parliament since. So it makes an enormous difference to population representation.

In the early period of MMP, we saw the proportion of vote to MMP parties increase – parties that were getting 5, 7, 12% of the vote – but over time the proportion of vote going to MMP parties has shrunk. It’s the political system settling down and people understanding it and using it, and then at other times not using it like you would expect – a process of understanding it better. It’s also that the parties in the very early years were very eager to be in government. And government for smaller parties, especially in those first few coalitions, was extremely hard. And so those parties were losing votes in each election.

So, what we have now is we have two large-ish parties – National and Labour – two medium-sized parties (New Zealand First) and the Greens. New Zealand First swing between 8 and 10%, we swing between 10 and 12%. And we have three very tiny ones that have one or two MPs and swing around the 1% mark. It’s quite a mix, and I guess it’s not too bad – what I would like to see in the future, our own ambition as Greens, is to see a better share of the vote between National, Labour and the Green Party – so it’s a bit more of an equitable share between those. That’s possible in the next ten to twenty years.


Josiah: How quickly did other parties – and the public – get used to this principle of seats matching votes? Was it quite a big learning process for them?

Metiria: There’d been the Royal Commission in 1986 – it was ten years between the Royal Commission and the first MMP election, so that’s a lot of time. So the concept of fairness and fair representation was pretty well embedded in people’s minds.

There’s still some FPTP thinking – so we have a FPTP voting system for choosing our electorate [constituency] MPs. And that is problematic and should be changed. We should be using something like STV for our electorate MPs [Ed: alongside the existing top-up list, this would be the STV+ system. Alternatively, Metiria could be talking about AV for constituencies]. With FPTP the electorate MP tends to be National or Labour, with very few changes to them. Now and then there are changes, but mostly because National or Labour have gifted a seat to another party – so they don’t stand there. So there isn’t PR through the electorate seats, because we still have FPTP there.

One of the reasons for dealing with that as a priority is because there’s still a sense that an electorate MP – someone who represents a geography rather than a constituency – has greater status. So electorate MPs get more money to do their work, more staffing resources and things like that. But increasingly list MPs like myself get constituency work because people come to us because of our issues, and because they feel like we better represent them. But we don’t have the resources to support them like we should.

The other thing is that we had another referendum on whether to keep MMP in 2011, and that referendum was won for MMP, which was fantastic. But there was also a big campaign to review and change some aspects of MMP, like reduce the threshold, get rid of the ‘coat tailing’ rule. There’s two thresholds in the New Zealand system – one is 5% to get in on the list. But if you win an electorate seat, you’re allowed to bring in with you as many list MPs as the % of your vote would get you, even if it’s under 5%.

So it’s either 5% [list], or an electorate seat. But an electorate seat, because it’s under FPTP and the small number of people in the electorate, can be won on under 20,000 votes. 5% of the [overall NZ] voting population is much more than that – about 2.5m voters. So the threshold for the coat-tailing rule is too low, compared to the threshold parties have to get for the 5% [list vote]. You can equalise them by bringing the 5% threshold down, but there’s a strong argument for just getting rid of the coat-tailing rule.


Josiah: Do people have a problem as well with the list element not giving them a choice over who the candidates elected are?

Metiria: There’s some talk about that, but I don’t agree – it’s not the main issue. The threshold and the coat-tailing [are the issues]. The reason why the coat-tailing is so important is because what that leads to is deals between the large parties and the small ones – for example, the National Party has done a deal with the ACT party. ACT contest the Epsom electorate – a safe national seat. If National contest it seriously they’d take it, but they don’t run a serious campaign there. That’s because when ACT is doing well, they could bring in not only that one MP but a couple of others as well [on the list], which proves the value of that seat to the National Party. But people consider those to be dirty deals.

So, getting rid of the coat-tailing and a fairer electoral system for electorate seat would get rid of what the public perceive as dirty deals. The parties are open about it, but they’re still perceived as grubby.


Josiah: How much do other parties try now to make diversity a priority?

Metiria: This is another problem we have with the electorate seats – about 40% of the women who are elected come off the list. That’s because in New Zealand in many seats, you’re still more likely to win it if you’re a man: sexism does still exist in our society. So parties tend to put up the most likely candidates (for obvious reasons) in the [constituency] seats, who tend to be men, and tend to be wealthier. And so the diversity tends to be on the party list rather than the electorate representatives. Again, that could probably be fixed with a fairer voting system for the electorates.

There’s still some other barriers. We’re the first party to have elected a profoundly deaf person. We’ve never had a person elected who’s in a wheelchair in NZ. So there are still some real barriers to representation for some communities. Mojo Mathers – the deaf Green MP – she has done some amazing work this past two years to improve access to Parliament for people with disabilities. She’s had to win some big fights within the system to make sure she has the resources to help her participate.

So PR is not a panacea, but again it does give people a chance – it opens the door. The extent to which we manage to get through that door varies.


Josiah: What do you think the lessons are for people campaigning for PR in the UK?

Metiria: My advice for what it’s worth is you have to maintain this really persistent, ongoing campaign to keep encouraging people to think about it in terms of fairness – basic fairness – ‘you have the right to have your vote counted. And continuing to build momentum amongst the public.

Because when the opportunity arises it can come as a real surprise, like [former National PM] Jim Bulger agreeing to have the referendum after the election – it was completely unnecessary [laughter]. But he just had a moment of weakness, or maybe he really did believe in it, but who knows – he did it, and you seize the moment.

So it might feel like opportunities come and then are lost, and that would be true – but at no point should the campaign stop rolling along as hard as possible. Because when the opportunity arises next time and you can seize it, it might be the one.

There has to be this fertile ground already existing in the public mind that it’s the fair thing to do. And then you take the moment when you get it!



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