Synthesis/Regeneration 13   (Spring 1997)

Update on Proportional Representation in New Zealand

by Curt Firestone, Independent Progressive Politics Network

below# Report on the New Zealand Alliance (5 parties including the Greens)

New Zealand has conducted its first national election using the proportional representation system: mixed member proportional (MMP). And it has worked beautifully. The electorate understood what they were doing, the political parties each have a proportion of the seats in Parliament in accord with the results, more women and more Maori hold seats than ever before, and a coalition government has been formed.

Prior to October 12, 1996, all national elections were conducted using the British-American system of first past the post (FPP), single member districts. There were 99 districts with one member of parliament (MP) each and the person with the plurality of votes won the election. The party with the most winning candidates became the government.

Under a parliamentary system of government, used in most of the democracies in the world, there is not a separate elected administrative (executive) branch, as in the US. Rather, the administrative branch is led by the Prime Minister who is the leader of the party in control of the legislative branch. He or she is an elected MP. All of the cabinet ministers are also MPs. The Prime Minister, the cabinet ministers, and their political party are called the government. When the party does not have a majority of seats in parliament, it must form a government in coalition with one or more parties. At any time, if a majority of parliament find dissatisfaction with the government, they vote to conduct a new national election; not waiting the required number years between an election.

Since 1951 in New Zealand, the government in power has had the support of less than half of the electorate and newcomer political parties have gained few or no seats in Parliament.

Since 1951 in New Zealand, the government in power has had the support of less than half of the electorate and newcomer political parties have gained few or no seats in Parliament. For example, in 1981 the Social Credit Party gained 21% of the vote and only two seats. In 1984, the New Zealand First Party gained 12% of the vote and no seats. And in both 1978 and 1981 the Labor Party got more votes than the National Party yet received fewer Parliament seats. This led to a growing perception that the results of FPP were unfair, penalizing political parties which had popular support. Governments were being formed that did not represent the majority opinion of the voters. In some districts with several parties vying for office, a candidate was winning with less than a third of the vote by winning a few more votes than any other candidate. This meant that a party with a minority of votes nationwide could still get a majority of seats in Parliament. In 1993, National won just 35% of the votes nationwide, but 51% of the 99 seats.

Geoffrey Palmer was elected to parliament in 1979 as an advocate of election reform. On that specific issue, he was consistently opposed by the two large parties: Labor and National. But upon becoming Deputy Prime Minister, he was able to establish a commission on election reform which in turn searched the world for the fairest electoral system. The commission opted for the German system of proportional representation, mixed member proportional (MMP).

MMP combines the British-American FPP system with European systems of proportional representation. There are both districts and party lists. New Zealand (under MMP) has 120 seats in parliament. 60 seats are filled by constituent MPs, 5 by regional MPs reserved for Maoris only and 55 seats are filled from party lists. A voter has two votes; one for his/her constituent MP and the second for the political party of choice. Parliament is formed using the Party List of candidates (in rank order and presented to the public prior to the election) to insure that the parties are in proportion to the national vote. A party must either win a constituent seat or have 5% or more of the national vote to be represented in Parliament. The 5% threshold prevents a proliferation of minor parties with little public support.

While both Labor and National continued to oppose the election commission's report, public support was gaining for a change. In an apparent off-the-cuff pledge, Prime Minister David Lange in 1987 promised a national referendum on adopting MMP if the Labor Party was elected to govern. They were and he reneged on his promise. This led Jim Bolger, Leader of the Opposition, to promise that National would hold a referendum if it was elected in 1990.

National was elected in 1990 and continued the political climate of the 1980s, namely breaking its campaign promises.

National was elected in 1990 and continued the political climate of the 1980s, namely breaking its campaign promises. This had become a notorious practice of both Labor and National, creating strong public resentment towards both parties. At the same time FPP was preventing any other party from gaining participation in government in proportion to its public support. National had broken so many promises that it determined that it dare not reverse its pledge for a MMP referendum especially with public support for electoral change growing. It therefore kept its promise. National bet that they could in coalition with Labor beat MMP at the polls when the voters understood its shortcomings. Public support for MMP was not based on the merits of the system, but instead prompted by Labor and National opposition to change. Voters were ready to punish politicians for years of deceit and election reformers believed that the public would chose MMP as the way of regaining control of the political process.

Instead of a straight up or down vote, MMP or FPP, National decided on two referendums. The first made the voters decide between five different voting systems which included MMP and FPP. They also added that parliament would grow from 99 seats to 120 seats under an MMP option. In the 1992 referendum, MMP won with a huge margin of votes and FPP came in a distant third behind a single transferable vote system as used in Ireland.

With a massive campaign funded by big business, the size of which had never before been seen in New Zealand, FPP gained in the opinion polls.

The second referendum in 1993 pitted MMP (the winner of the first) against the incumbent FPP. With a massive campaign funded by big business, the size of which had never before been seen in New Zealand, FPP gained in the opinion polls. MMP was portrayed as the system of political party hacks who would ruin the economic reforms that had been made in the 1980s, namely privatizing large segments of the government. The campaign was so strident that a backlash may have been created and at least a reaffirmation of the commitment to change was created. MMP won with 54% support to FPP's 46%.

On October 12, 1996 New Zealand held its first election using the MMP system. The initial results were very clear. The table shows each party's proportion of the vote and seats in parliament in the 1993 and 1996 elections.

MMP has brought changes to Parliament that go beyond the more equitable distribution of seats as reflected in the table. There are now 32 women members and 15 Maori members, the most of either group in New Zealand history. Three MPs are of Pacific Island descent and the first person of Chinese descent was elected.

Voting and Representation in New Zealand
1993 (FPP system) 1996 (MMP system)
Party % Vote No. & % Seats % Vote No. % Seats
National 35% 50 50.5% 33.8% 44 36.7%
Labor 34% 44 44.4% 28.2% 37 30.8%
NZF 8% 2 2.0% 13.4% 17 14.2%
The Alliance 18% 2 2.0% 10.1% 13 10.8%
ACT - - - 6.1% 8 6.7%
United - - - 0.9% 1 0.8%
CC - - - 4.3% 0 0.0%

Note: NZF: New Zealand First; ACT: Association of Consumers and Taxpayers. United won their single seat with tiny nationwide support by winning a constituency. The Christian Coalition (CC) failed to achieve the 5% threshold needed to fill seats from the party list.

Since no party won a majority of the seats, a coalition government has been formed. New Zealand First led by Winston Peters became the "king" maker with the option to form a government with National or in coalition with Labor and The Alliance. After eight weeks of negotiations in an atmosphere never experienced prior to MMP, New Zealand First exacted some large concessions and went into coalition with National. Although Jim Bolger of National is Prime Minister, Winston Peters is both Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Treasury (responsible for developing the national budget).

A coalition government means that the executive will have less control and the coalition partners will have to cooperate if they are going to pass important legislation. The committees doing the day to day work will reflect the proportional membership of the parties in parliament.

During the eight weeks of negotiations to form the government, the public became frustrated. The negotiations were done in secret at the demand of Winston Peters. During the election New Zealand First ran an outspoken campaign against National. Winston Peters himself used to be a National MP and broke with his former party to join NZ First. New Zealand First's platform promised a coalition with Labor, making Helen Clarke the first woman to be Prime Minister of New Zealand. When Peters chose National for its coalition partner, the public felt that once again politicians had reneged on their promises and some of their hope for MMP diminished. Poll results reflect this.

MMP cannot force politicians to be honest and act with integrity. Voters must make politicians clearly state their plans if elected and refuse to listen to non-answers and political nonsense. MMP gives voters more options; gives voters a larger voice in their government; gives voters more opportunity for representation of their views; and creates more democracy by forcing elected officials to work together in coalition. Compromise will reflect the will of a broader range of public opinion and work toward the common good of all citizens more than the old system of one party, one point of view in total control. There is far less opportunity for radical swings in government leadership when all parties are fully participating in proportion to their strength in the national community.

The New Zealand Alliance

by Curt Firestone

The New Zealand Alliance is a coalition of five political parties that came together in the realization that they were too small to succeed independently in the electoral arena. Founded in December, 1991, there has been immediate success. In the 1993 election, The Alliance won two parliamentary constituencies and 18% of the total national vote. In the October 12, 1996 election, they increased their members of parliament to 13 out of a total 120 seats. This success was the result of both hard work and New Zealand's adoption of the mixed member proportional (MMP) system of proportional representation.

MMP created a parliament in the October 1996 election which for the first time reflected the proportion in which the voters backed the various political parties. For example, the Alliance got 10% of the vote and a proportional number of seats.

The five political parties forming the Alliance are: 1. The New Labor Party, a progressive split from the Labor Party. 2. The Liberal Party, a progressive split from the National Party. Both National and Labor had moved towards each other politically and the progressives in each moved to create new parties. 3. The Green Party, an outgrowth of the Values Party. The Values Party dates back to the early 1970's and was the first environmentalist party in the world. The Green Party is affiliated with the International Green Movement. 4. The Democrats, the renamed Social Credit Party, mainly comprised of small business operators and farmers who couple progressive positions with economic reforms. 5. The Mana Motuhake Party, a Maori workers progressive party.

Upon formation of the Alliance, an agreement was reached on 10 concise principles. Number one was honesty and accountability (with themselves and with the public). Other principles dealt directly with New Zealand political issues. Today, as in 1991, the principle of integrity separates the Alliance from other political operatives.

Key factors have enabled the Alliance to function and will help to keep it viable in the future. The five parties complement each other. They represent different social, ethnic and economic bases. They have different political strengths. Each party must stay viable in its own right. The Alliance is not a replacement of any political party. It is intended to help each party gain more influence and power. Each political party has equal representation (four seats) on the national steering committee. In addition to the 20 members (who may have alternates), there is the chairperson or leader and two staff (an executive and a secretary). Any two parties acting together may veto any item.

Organizational structure and its administration are critical to the functioning of the Alliance. A smooth operation requires all participants adhere to the agreed upon rules of procedure. Consensus is used, insuring that every issue is fully discussed and analyzed. The Alliance has a charismatic leader skilled at resolving conflicts and keeping all participants focused on the organizational goals. The leader is chosen by the general membership at a national meeting. Each party must abide by The Alliance rules and contribute its fair share of the money and energy necessary.

Goals for the Alliance were articulated and agreed upon at the outset. This has helped to reduce conflict. The Manifesto (platform) is a comprehensive document representing one year of intense thought, debate, analysis and writing. The document addresses virtually every aspect of New Zealand life and resulting political issues. A proposed national budget has been developed to show the public how the Manifesto would be financed and implemented. Sacrifice of personal, social, and economic lives has been necessary for The Alliance to succeed.

With five political parties and only one possible candidate running for Parliament in each constituency, there are political battles. All members of the five parties living in a constituency are called together to interview and recommend a candidate for office. The recommended candidate has to receive concurrence from a panel made up of two members appointed by each party (one from within the constituency and one from outside). This ensures that both local and national interests of the Alliance are kept in balance.

Under MMP, a rank order party list of candidates is also developed. This is done by a national panel with two representatives from each party. The final list in the 1996 election contained almost all of the constituency candidates plus the other Alliance candidates necessary to create a comprehensive national slate.

The Alliance works to ensure that its MPs are representative of the five political parties and their respective numerical strengths. The first 5 Alliance candidates in rank order represent each of the 5 political parties. Of the 13 elected MPs; 5 are New Labor, 3 are Green, 2 are Democrat, 2 are Mana Motuhake, and 1 is Liberal.

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