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Proportional Representation in NZ - how the people let themselves in - Part I

Contact: Rod Donald MP
: Go to the Part 2: Was it all Worth it?


The drive for change

  • Electoral Reform Coalition
  • Labour promises referendum
  • Labour reneges
  • National promises referendum
  • 1992 Referendum Campaign

  • Big business backs FPP
  • CBG overkill
  • Introduction

    September 19 is an important date in New Zealand's electoral history. Not only was it the date when women won the right to vote in 1893 but it was also the date when the people voted to change their electoral system in 1992.

    The 1992 referendum contained two questions. The first asked voters whether they wanted to retain the first past the post (FPP) or change the voting system. Change won overwhelmingly with the support of 84.7% of the voters who participated. (The referendum turnout was only 55%, due to it being non-binding and also stand alone, i.e. not held in conjunction with a general election.) It's worth noting that if FPP had won against "change" in 1992 the National government of the time was proposing to promote a second referendum to reintroduce a senate in New Zealand. This had been abolished in 1951.

    The second question asked voters to choose between four change options: SM (supplementary member, then only used in South Korea), STV (single transferable vote — as used for the Australian Senate), MMP (mixed member proportional — as used in Germany) and PV (preferential voting as used for the Australian House of Representatives). MMP won hands down with 70.5% support.

    The outcome of that indicative referendum triggered a binding one just over a year later where voters were given a final choice between FPP and MMP.

    The result of the 1993 referendum, which was held in conjunction with a general election, was much closer. The turnout was 85.2% and MMP won with 53.9% support (1,032,919 votes to 884,964), setting the scene for the most significant electoral reform since 1893.

    MMP was about to change parliament from 99 constituency seats elected by FPP to 120 seats allocated in proportion to the number of nationwide party votes received by each political party. Voters would now have 2 votes — one for the party of their choice and one for the local MP of their choice. Parliament would be made up of 65 (now 69) constituency MPs elected by first past the post and 65 (now 61) party list MPs elected by the Party vote. A party would have to win at least one constituency seat or 5% of the Party vote to be entitled to seats.

    The first MMP election took place in October 1996, but before I outline the impacts and benefits of our system of proportional representation I would like to trace the events which led up to the change.

    The drive for change

    The history of electoral reform in New Zealand, and I presume Australia, has usually revolved around the people who are left out, and/or their champions, challenging the status quo. In 1860 gold-miners campaigned for and won the right to vote without having to own, lease or rent a property. In 1867 four Maori seats were created as a temporary measure for five years, and are still in existence today. In 1878 there was an attempt to change the voting system to STV and this interest in proportional representation lasted until the emergence of two dominant political parties in the 1930s. (Early last century Labour's founding constitution actually promoted PR, but this was quietly dropped when the party became successful under FPP.)

    Universal male suffrage came into being in 1881, universal women's suffrage in 1893, women were given the right to stand as candidates for parliament in 1919, the first woman MP was elected in 1933, the voting age was reduced to 20 in 1969 and to 18 in 1974, Maori were given the option to choose every five years whether to be on the Maori or the general roll in 1975 and in the same year the right to vote was extended to permanent residents of any nationality.

    The campaign that led to the adoption of MMP had its genesis in the emergence of the Social Credit Political League in the 1950s. In 1954 Social Credit contested all 80 constituencies, won 11.2% of the vote but failed to win any parliamentary seats. Since then, no party has won a majority of the valid votes cast even though single party governments remained the order of the day. Social Credit won (and lost) its first seat under FPP in the 1960s but by 1972 knew that it needed proportional representation to ever win significant power.

    In 1975 it won over 6% of the vote and in that same election the Values Party, the forerunner of the Green Party, contested its second election and won over 5% of the vote. That election marked the serious emergence of third parties in New Zealand politics. The failure of either party to win seats also highlighted the deficiencies of FPP and stimulated the movement for electoral reform.

    Social Credit leader Bruce Beetham presented a petition to parliament in 1977 "praying for the application of a system of proportional representation to elections to the House of Representatives". His prayers fell on deaf ears. The chair of the petitions committee reported that it had carefully considered this petition and "has no recommendation to make". Establishment politicians were not about to relinquish their power easily but Beetham got his own back by winning a by-election the next year, regaining a parliamentary presence for Social Credit.

    Both Social Credit and Values campaigned on PR in the 1978 election. The Values manifesto posed the question: "Is it fair and democratic that more than 200,000 voters were denied representation (in 1975)?" Unfortunately the Values vote dropped in half in that election, but Social Credit support rocketed.

    Social Credit won 16% of the vote in 1978 but only one seat in parliament. Many more New Zealanders than those who voted for the party thought this outcome was unfair. More importantly, many people in the Labour Party also thought the election result was unfair because Labour won 10,000 more votes than National but National won 11 more seats. Others in Labour counselled that the result was a once in a life-time aberration.

    Much to their disgust lightning struck for a second time in 1981, with Labour winning 4,000 more votes than National but National winning four more seats than Labour. Social Credit meanwhile won 20% of the vote but only two seats. The need to replace FPP with a fairer system had become a matter of wide public debate.

    Royal Commission

    When Labour won the 1984 election the scene was set for change. New justice minister (now Sir) Geoffrey Palmer, who had promoted proportional representation as a law professor in his book "Unbridled power?", set up a Royal Commission to investigate our electoral system and propose modifications or alternatives.

    The establishment of the Commission led to the formation of the Electoral Reform Coalition in 1986, after the Commission had completed its public hearings but before it reported. The founders invited all the people who had sent pro-PR submissions to the Royal Commission to form this new nationwide lobby organization. The coalition was made up of a network of individuals, small localized reform groups and organizations all wanting some form of proportional representation to be introduced.

    By the time the Royal Commission reported in December 1986 support for proportional representation was running at about 30% in public opinion polls. I believe that base level of support was fairness driven rather than subject to reaction to the performance or, more to the point, non-performance of political parties and governments.

    Much to the surprise, indeed horror, of sitting politicians the Commission recommended a radical change from FPP to MMP, via a binding referendum. The "establishment" had hoped the Commission would mute calls for wholesale change by proposing that FPP be tweaked around the edges. However the commissioners took their task seriously and, not having a predetermined agenda, quickly came to the realization that other countries had far better electoral systems than New Zealand. In reaching this conclusion the Commission developed ten criteria against which they measured a number of electoral systems and then went through a process of exhaustive elimination until they came down to a choice between MMP, STV and FPP. Rumour has it that they were favouring STV, partly because it was used over the ditch in Australia, until they visited Ireland and Germany. It was that experience which led to their conclusion that "for New Zealand MMP is clearly superior".

    Their announcement marked the beginning of a lengthy battle to persuade politicians to put the recommendation into practice. The campaign succeeded for a whole host of reasons, including lucky breaks and political gaffes, but it wouldn't have happened without either the Royal Commission's 561 page "bible" or the campaigning zeal of electoral reformers. Had it not been for these of political activists the Royal Commission's report would have gathered dust. Equally, without the focus provided by such a substantial and authoritative report we would have struggled to make PR a mainstream issue.

    Electoral Reform Coalition

    The driving force behind the Coalition was Phil Saxby, chair of Labour MP John Terris' electorate committee. He was an advocate of MMP and helped to organise the visit to New Zealand in January 1987 of John Taplin from the Proportional Representation Society of. Taplin's visit resulted in the formation of ERC branches in a number of cities and towns around New Zealand. That's when I joined the Coalition, having decided that electoral reform was a foundation issue i.e. a prerequisite to achieving other broader goals. In March we held our first Conference and in June both Geoffrey Palmer and British MP Austin Mitchell addressed our national executive. At that meeting we committed to campaign for a referendum of PR and agreed to promote public understanding of MMP but didn't go quite as far as to endorse that as our preferred system. By the middle of the year there was a mailing list of just under 1000 supporters and we had gathered together a strong central core of activists. We also recruited a number of patrons, including a former National Prime Minister and the vice president of the Council of Trade Unions. A small number of sitting MPs also lent their support, including Palmer and Terris.

    The ERC's organizational structure was something of a contradiction. In one sense it was extraordinarily centralized, with most activities planned and directed by the small group of Wellington based activists. We were an interesting mixture of Labour, Democrat (formally Social Credit) and Socialist Unity Party activists, former Values Party members, Trade Unionists and members of the Women's Electoral Lobby. We quickly learnt not to stray off the topic of electoral reform! On another level it was highly de-centralised and a largely informal grouping with branches enjoying a high degree of autonomy. Most of us were opposed to formalising the group into a legal institution, preferring to devote our energies towards campaigning for electoral reform. Our main method of communication was a newsletter although a number of the branches did meet regularly. Income, and therefore expenditure, was minimal in the early days.

    The ERC campaigned hard within its limited resources to make electoral refrom an election issue in 1987. Our biggest success was getting a question put to Prime Minister David Lange on a televised leaders' debate. His answer delighted our supporters and caused consternation to many politicians in his own party, when he promised that if he was elected there would be a binding referendum on MMP. Sometime after the election he claimed he had misread his briefing notes but by then it was too late.

    Labour promises referendum

    Lange had definitely let the genie out of the bottle and (by then deputy Prime Minister) Geoffrey Palmer compounded the "mistake" by confirming the likelihood of the referendum. (As political scientists Keith Jackson and Alan McRobie wrote in New Zealand adopted proportional representation "in a political paradox bordering on the bizarre, Lange had, in effect, singled-handedly firmly placed on the political agenda an issue to which he was personally opposed". There was now a strong public expectation that Labour would deliver on its promise to implement the Royal Commission recommendation that there be a referendum at or before the 1990 election.

    The re-elected Labour government had to do something about the division in its ranks so it sent the Royal Commission's report off to a Select Committee in September 1987. Over 600 submissions were received by the committee, many orchestrated by the Electoral Reform Coalition. Not surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of them supported proportional representation and most of those favouring MMP.

    Informed public opinion clearly wasn't swaying the majority of the Labour caucus. Anti-PR forces in Labour were regrouping to block the momentum for change. Pro PR MPs were up against formidable opponents, including third ranked cabinet minister Mike Moore (the next prime minister) Helen Clark (current PM), Jonathan Hunt (current Speaker) and former party president Jim Anderton (who somersaulted on PR to become one of its most fervent proponents when he defected from Labour to form the New Labour Party!) Meanwhile Labour's electoral law caucus committee, which shadowed the official Electoral Law select committee, was trying to undo Lange's "mistake" and at the same time come up with a compromise to suit the polarized views in the full caucus. They failed.

    Much to the outrage of the Coalition, all of our supporters who had made submissions and the public at large, the Select Committee reported in 1988 with a recommendation that FPP be retained and that there be an indicative referendum on whether additional MPs be elected by the SM system. SM is Claytons PR and everyone knew it.

    Labour reneges

    Not only did this recommendation make a mockery of Lange's promise but it also compounded the widespread disenchantment in the government. By 1988 Labour had embarked on a new right agenda of unpopular and un-mandated reforms, including selling off or corporatising state assets and slashing the public service as a consequence and cutting tariffs on imports and sacrificing manufacturing jobs in the process. The failure to deliver on the MMP referendum was seen by voters as yet another broken promise. The ERC's campaign for reform was gaining momentum and the public support for PR was climbing.

    Even the right-wing Dominion newspaper, under a heading "Broken promises" challenged Lange to keep his word. Their editorial also challenged Palmer's claim that there was no public pressure for change. It pointed out that 61% of the submissions to the Royal Commission supported proportional representation and tartly pointed out that the government did not wait for public support before introducing a surtax on superannuation, closing 534 post offices or selling Air New Zealand!

    To be fair to Palmer, he had been outflanked by opponents in his own caucus and he couldn't face the embarrassment of holding a non-binding referendum on SM. Palmer conceded defeat at an April 1989 Labour regional conference saying that the issue was "effectively dead for the immediate future" but that it might be revisited "in another 20 years time".

    Labour's decision to renege on the issue served only to fuel the determination of the ERC and its supporters. The Coalition's public awareness work, through leaflets, newspaper articles and public meetings, had focused on the unfairness of FPP. The public still remembered the "skewed" 1978 and '81 results and the ERC highlighted that around half the votes in every election were wasted because they were cast for losing candidates and that votes for third party candidates almost always counted for nothing. We could now add the unfairness of politicians denying the people the right to decide how we wanted to elect them.

    Meanwhile electoral reformers in the Labour Party kept up the pressure. In September 1989, after Palmer had become prime minister, the full annual conference of the Labour Party passed a remit endorsing a referendum on the principle of proportional representation.

    National promises referendum

    Labour MP John Terris took the issue into his own hands by introducing a private members bill in May 1990 to hold an indicative referendum on proportional representation. This caused further embarrassment for the government. National's leader, Jim Bolger, decided to capitalize on Labour's "broken promises" image by promising in the lead up to the 1990 election that National would hold a binding referendum on the electoral system if it was elected. Bolger's promise will go down in electoral history as a gaffe on the same scale as Lange's earlier one. Apparently Bolger simply made up the referendum policy during an interview with a journalist and National's policy committee had to ratify his position the next day. So now, for the second election in a row, we had a political party leader promising something which he, and a majority of his party, opposed!

    Labour then felt forced to match National's referendum promise, although in their case they proposed only an indicative referendum. By good luck rather than good management the scene was now set for a referendum on electoral reform, whichever main party came to power.

    National won the election, and, to give them credit, they did move on their pre-election promise. However they too wanted to drag the chain and instead of ensuring that any new electoral system would be in place for the 1993 election they initiated the two stage process described at the beginning of this paper whereby an indicative referendum was held in 1992 followed by a binding referendum if needed at the 1992 general election. While we objected to what we saw as an attempt to stall reform, in hindsight I believe the two stage process has helped to make the change to MMP more robust. That didn't stop us from campaigning at the time for a quicker timetable, including media releases, letter writing, lobbying MPs, demonstrations at parliament and submitting a 35,000 signature petition. Again, the perception of politicians dragging the chain added to the momentum for change.

    1992 Referendum Campaign

    The 1992 referendum campaign was a one sided affair. The ERC promoted MMP, no one campaigned for the other alternatives and a few sitting MPs undermined FPP even more by launching a campaign to save it. The ERC spent a total of $26,000 to win the referendum.

    Despite knowing that they were unpopular, politicians were reeling after the overwhelming vote for change and for MMP in 1992. Many accepted that they were facing ultimate defeat but some others looked for ways to slant the binding referendum against MMP. Prime Minister Bolger announced that the form of MMP would follow the Royal Commission's recommendation, which meant the new system would have 120 MPs against 99 with FPP. We claimed that the Government was deliberately sabotaging the referendum by adding 21 "much hated" MPs to the MMP option.

    Big business backs FPP

    That became the least of our problems. On ANZAC day 1993 a full page advertisement appeared in the major Sunday paper attacking MMP. Inserted by Peter Shirtcliffe, chairman of Telecom, New Zealand's largest company, it marked the beginning of a David and Goliath battle that went to the wire. We had been warned by Palmer that a big business campaign was being organised to block MMP. This was it. Shirtcliffe had the backing of senior politicians, Saatchi and Saatchi and, more importantly, big money. Three weeks later he inserted a second full page ad attacking the increased in the number of MPs, the inevitability of coalition Governments and the disproportionate power MMP would place in the hands of small parties. At the same time he announced the formation of his Campaign for Better Government (CBG), the opening of an office and the appointment of paid staff.

    As well as recruiting prominent citizens to their campaign they invited an Australian academic, Malcolm McKerras, to put the case against MMP. In 1988 McKerras had said the Royal Commission's recommendation was "so radical that it had virtually no prospect of popular endorsement at a referendum" and, following the 1992 referendum, had condemned MMP as "a rat bag scheme…… utterly out of synch with the experience of parliaments in the Anglo-American". From our point of view McKerras became our secret weapon with his arrogance tipping the swinging voters in our direction.

    Unfortunately this wasn't sufficient to stop MMP's slide and the rise of FPP in the opinion polls. CBG's campaign strategy eclipsed the ERC's. They conducted market research, used direct mail and paid for radio talkback programmes. A confidential report from their market research company somehow made it on to the front page of a weekly business paper. It was a blueprint for an anti-MMP advertising campaign targeting "the least educated and most gullible" sectors of the electorate by providing "easily digestible, alarming material" warning electors of the consequences of MMP. Despite Shirtcliffe disavowing any direct knowledge of the report the CBG's campaign closely followed this prescription.

    The ERC was ill prepared for this onslaught. We were still all volunteers although many of us contributed a lot of time. We had an excellent spokesperson, Colin Clark, who had recently retired as general secretary of the Public Service Association, but we had little money to get him around the country to match the CBG's campaign. We certainly didn't have money to spend on full page newspaper ads but we did have people on the ground who were taking our message directly to their local communities. We were also fortunate to get an article supporting MMP in the New Zealand Listener (the main TV & Radio guide). We also established a support group under the banner of "New Zealanders for MMP".

    Two months before the referendum we pulled in some experienced activists to add to our central core of workers. It was fortunate that we did because CBG launched a massive propaganda onslaught against MMP on radio and television backed by more full page newspaper advertisements. We swung into action with our own TV ads featuring two comedians who not only lent credibility to our campaign but also used humour to ridicule the CBG adverts. The Listener also came to the party in the last week of the campaign with a magazine cover that simply said "Vote MMP". Not only was that the message inside the magazine but every billboard outside every dairy and bookshop screamed the same call to action. But without doubt the "Reject MMP" ads had a major impact with graphic visuals showing crying babies, mice about to be caught in the MMP trap and List MPs with paper bags on their heads.

    CBG overkill

    Had the referendum been held a week earlier I believe we would have lost. That was confirmed by CBG executive Brian McNicolle who claimed that the Monday before the referendum their polls showed FPP ahead. By the end of that week they had spent $500,000 on television advertising alone and lost the referendum. To put that amount in context the CBG and their business backers spent more than the two main political parties spent on TV advertising in the same week for their election campaigns. They unwittingly reinforced the image that the referendum was about FPP backed by big money versus MMP backed by the little people. A Murray Ball cartoon summed it up nicely with Wal telling the Dog "want a good reason to vote MMP? Look at the people who are telling you not to".

    In the end the CBG was rumored to have spent over $1.5m, compared to the ERC's $300,000. Other organisations, particularly the Alliance (a coalition of New Labour, Green, Democrat, Mana Motuhake and Liberal parties), which featured vote MMP on all its election billboards, also spent considerable funds promoting MMP.

    Jackson and McRobie concluded that the ERC is "a very good example of a highly successful lobby. A largely organic, grassroots, almost anarchic organizational structure, it was a pressure group characterised by single mindedness of purpose that can only be admired. Although it did not have the resources to engage in marketing research or to engage focus groups, its spokespeople were articulate and believable. Highly populist in its approach, its campaign struck at a key moment in time when confidence in politicians and the political system was at an all time low. Major reasons for its ultimate success were the depth and commitment of its active supporters and the fact that, with one notable exception (endorsing the retention of the Maori seats), it picked up the Royal Commission's key recommendations and promoted them assiduously." High praise.

    Of the CBG they said "built as it was on the fears and uncertainties of people who were not quite sure of the desirability of change, their campaign was remarkable effective.….. the CBG's greatest handicap lay in its failure to convince the electorate that — despite Shirtcliffe's repeated protestations to the contrary — it was not simply a front the business roundtable."

    : Go to the Part 2: Was it all Worth it?


    \"Now We the People\" Conference, Sydney 23/24 August 2003
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