You are not permitted to download, save or email this image. Visit image gallery to purchase the image.
At times when controversy has struck the mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system in New Zealand during the last 25 years, a common refrain has been "who voted for this anyway?"
The answer is a majority of voters (54%) in the 1993 binding referendum, held at the time of the general election.
The path to the introduction of MMP was a tortuous one. By the 1970s there was growing disquiet about the dominance of the National and Labour parties in New Zealand politics. The Social Credit Party, which first gained a seat in 1996, took 16% of the vote in 1978, but only gained one seat in the then 92-seat Parliament. In the next election, its numbers were boosted to two, despite it having a 21% share of the overall vote.
The first-past-the-post system (FPP) where voters have a single vote in an electorate and the candidate who receives the most votes wins, was increasingly seen as unfair because it often installed governments which did not receive an overall majority of the vote. This happened in 1978 and 1981, where National was returned but Labour had more votes.
After it won in 1984, Labour fulfilled its promise to set up a royal commission into the electoral system, and its report in 1986 recommended a change to MMP, with its two-vote system boosting the number of members of Parliament to 120, half from electorates and half from party lists. Neither major party was enthusiastic, but as disillusionment with politicians grew, so did the appetite for electoral reform.
There was a two-referendum set-up (not dissimilar to the ill-fated flag referendums). In the first in 1992 voters were asked if they wanted change and then had to choose between MMP, FPP, the single transferable vote (STV) which we are familiar with now in local government, or preferential voting (PV). Turnout was low but the mood for change was clear with 85% of voters opting for it. MMP was also favoured.
The 1993 binding referendum was a straight shoot-out between FPP and MMP and many dramatic claims were made by opponents of MMP who thought it would lead to instability.
The first MMP election in 1996 was certainly not lacking in drama when the results were indecisive and former National MP Winston Peters, now the leader of New Zealand First, with 17 seats became the king maker during protracted negotiations which no doubt confirmed sceptics’ worst fears about the new system.
Despite teething problems, including party-hopping and the unedifying collapse of that original coalition, and some clamour for a return to FPP, MMP has endured, and it was supported at another referendum in 2011.
With MMP, concerns remain about the ability of a small party’s tail to wag the dog, whether the 5% threshold for parties on the list is too high, and the fairness of coat-tailing where the election of a single electorate party MP can bring in other MPs despite the party not meeting the 5% threshold.
Voters who might have hoped for some more obvious letting up of the adversarial nature of politics under MMP may have been disappointed too.
What the system has increasingly delivered, however, is a greater diversity among MPs. There are more women, more Maori and more ethnicities represented.
In the last election it also turned up what many thought would be impossible, an outright majority. It is worth noting, however, that while Labour achieved that, the current Parliament comprises five parties, not two as was the norm under FPP.
Twenty-five years on, MMP seems set to stay, with or without any refinements which may be suggested by the recently announced independent review of our electoral system.