Live with Proportional Representation
Nigel S. Roberts
used to be regarded as a prime example of a country with an FPTP electoral
system. However, after two referendums in the early 1990s, New Zealand adopted a
mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system in a unicameral Parliament with
120 members. Until the end of 2004, three general elections had been held using
the new system.
Why did New
Zealand change its electoral system? What led the country to do something that
was extremely unusual for any long-established democracy, especially one with an
For a start,
the FPTP system produced highly distorted results in 1978 and 1981. On both
occasions the National Party retained office with an absolute majority of the
seats in the House of Representatives despite winning fewer votes throughout the
country as a whole than the opposition Labour Party. In addition, both elections
saw the country’s then third party, Social Credit, win a sizeable share of the
votes for very little return (16 per cent of the votes in 1978 and 21 per cent
in 1981 won it only one seat and two seats, respectively, in a Parliament that
then had 92 seats). The disquiet engendered by these results led the Labour
government elected in mid-1984 to establish a Royal Commission on the Electoral
System. Its 1986 report,
recommended the adoption of a voting system similar to Germany’s. The commission
argued strongly that, on the basis of the ten criteria it had established for
judging voting systems, MMP was ‘to be preferred to all other systems’.
New Zealand’s major parties favoured the proposal and the matter might have died
had the National Party’s 1990 election manifesto not promised a referendum on
the topic. In an initial referendum, held in 1992, nearly 85 per cent of voters
opted ‘for a change to the voting system’; 14 months later, the new electoral
system was adopted after a second referendum in which 54 per cent favoured MMP
(while 46 per cent voted to retain FPTP).
Germany, in parliamentary elections in New Zealand the electors have two
votes—one for a political party (called the party vote in New Zealand) in a
nationwide constituency, and one for a candidate in a single-member district.
for single-member districts (called electorates in New Zealand) are elected by
FPTP, the overall share of the seats in Parliament allocated to political
parties stems directly from and is in proportion to the number of party votes
they receive. If a party wins 25 per cent of the party votes, it will be
entitled to (roughly) a quarter of all the seats in the 120-member Parliament,
that is, about 30 seats. If a party that is entitled to a total of 30 seats has
already won 23 electorate seats, then it will be given another seven seats drawn
from the rank-ordered candidates on its party list who have not already been
elected in a single-member district. Likewise, if a party entitled to 30 seats
has won only 11 single-member district seats, then it will acquire another 19
MPs from its party list.
There are two
thresholds for MMP in New Zealand. To win a share of the seats in Parliament
based on the party votes, a party must either win at least 5 per cent of all the
party votes cast in a general election or win at least one single-member
district seat. In the 1996 general election, five parties crossed the 5 per cent
threshold and one won a single-member district seat but did not clear the 5 per
cent threshold. Three years later, five parties again cleared the 5 per cent
threshold. Two other parties failed to do so but won single-member district
seats, which qualified one of them for an additional four seats in Parliament
(it had won 4.3 per cent of the party votes cast in the election). In the 2002
general election, six parties cleared the 5 per cent party vote hurdle, and a
seventh party won a single-member district seat that enabled it to bring one
other person into Parliament from the party’s list.
point to one major change caused by the introduction of MMP. Established, at
least in part, to ensure ‘fairness between political parties’, the new voting
system has seen the index of disproportionality plummet from an average of 11
per cent for the 17 FPTP elections held between 1946 and 1993, to an average of
3 per cent for the first three MMP elections. Every FPTP election in New Zealand
from 1935 until 1993 saw one of the country’s two larger parties—Labour or
National—gain an absolute majority in the House of Representatives. One
consequence of MMP has been that, in the three elections to date, no single
party has won more than half the seats in Parliament. In 1996, the largest party
won 44 out of the 120 seats; in 1999 the largest party won 49 seats; and in 2002
the largest party won 52 seats.
surprisingly, then, New Zealand has changed from being a country accustomed to
single-party majority governments to being a country governed by coalitions.
After the first MMP election, two parties formed a coalition government that
commanded a small majority (61 out of 120 seats) in Parliament. Since that
coalition disintegrated in August 1998, New Zealand has had minority coalition
governments that have had to rely on either formal or informal supporting
arrangements (negotiated with other parties or, on occasion, with individual
MPs) to ensure that their legislative programmes have been able to win
majorities in Parliament. One of the other criteria used by the Royal Commission
on the Electoral System was ‘effective government’. The commission noted that
electoral systems should ‘allow governments ... to meet their responsibilities.
Governments should have the ability to act decisively when that is appropriate’.
In this regard it should be stressed that MMP governments in New Zealand have
had little trouble governing: all have had their budgets passed without any real
difficulty, and none has faced the likelihood of defeat in a parliamentary vote
of no confidence. At the same time, New Zealand parliaments have fulfilled
another of the royal commission’s criteria by also becoming more effective.
Governments can no longer rely on (indeed, they seldom have) majorities on
parliamentary committees, and there is a far greater degree of consultation—of
give and take—between government and opposition parties in MMP parliaments.
Commission on the Electoral System also envisaged that under MMP the Parliament
would represent the Maori (New Zealand’s indigenous Polynesian minority) and
other special-interest groups such as women, Asians and Pacific Islanders more
effectively. This has happened. In the last FPTP Parliament, Maori accounted for
7 per cent of the MPs. They now constitute 16 per cent of the members of the
legislature. The proportion of female MPs has risen from 21 per cent in 1993 to
an average of 29 per cent in the first three MMP parliaments. During the period
1993–2002, the proportion of Pacific Island MPs went up from 1 per cent to 3 per
cent, and the number of Asian MPs rose from 0 to 2 per cent.
long-established voting system is never an easy process politically, nor is it
likely to appeal to entrenched interests or to most incumbent politicians.
Leading electoral systems scholars have warned that major electoral reforms
should not be undertaken lightly. Nevertheless, there is growing evidence that
the parliamentarians of New Zealand and the public alike are learning to live
with (if not necessarily love) proportional representation. The reforms adopted
in New Zealand in the early 1990s and instituted in 1996 seem likely to last for
a considerable time.