Credit: Kerin Gedge

A guest blog by Dylan Difford. Dylan is a researcher specialising in elections and voting systems, as well as formerly a regular contributor to the Electoral Reform Society blog.

Thirty years ago, New Zealand decided to switch from First Past the Post (FPTP) to a Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) voting system. This week, Kiwi voters head to the polls in their tenth proportional general election. With New Zealand’s reform having gone so smoothly, what lessons can we learn from it?

Choosing a System

The reform movement in New Zealand began in earnest after the 1981 election – the second in a row that saw the National Party win majorities both from under 40% of the vote and with fewer votes than Labour. This, combined with the Social Credit Party winning just one or two seats from up to 21% of the vote, sparked public anger at the unfairness of the system. 

In 1986, a Royal Commission unanimously recommended a switch to MMP. Reformists quickly united around this system, allowing the debate to be a simple question of FPTP vs MMP, rather than being distracted by different forms of PR. Governments of both parties delayed implementing the recommendations, but, by the early 1990s, public pressure was too great – a clear majority of the public supported abandoning FPTP.

Building such support was hard for reformists – they were up against the political and business establishment. But, aided by disillusionment with both main parties, they were able simply and effectively to highlight MMP’s superior democratic credentials and tie a number of divisive recent economic reforms to FPTP and single-party government. In 1993, New Zealanders voted to switch to MMP, with the new system in place for the 1996 general election.

A Better Democracy

PR’s benefits appeared immediately – New Zealand’s Parliament was instantly more reflective of the country, both in terms of parties and demographics. The disparity between vote shares and seats shares was reduced by three-quarters in the first PR election and has since fallen further. Additionally, between the 1993 election (the last held under FPTP) and the most recent one, the proportion of women MPs has grown from 21% to 48%, the number of Māori MPs has increased threefold, with the total MPs from other ethnic minorities rising from 1 to 21.

Public attitudes to politics also substantively improved. A 1999 study showed that more voters felt their vote counted under PR and that politicians cared what they thought, while fewer were left believing that MPs and the government were out of touch and in hock to special interests. These shifts were largest among supporters of smaller parties, who had previously felt particularly alienated from the political system. 

Doomsday Predictions Have Not Materialised

Revealingly, New Zealand’s reform also demonstrated that most of the supposed negative effects of PR claimed by its opponents are little more than fearmongering. Before the introduction of MMP, they had hyperbolically claimed it would bring chaos and economic ruin. It’s very clear that it hasn’t. There has been no noteworthy fall on any measure of political stability, with several measures actually improving. And New Zealand has retained a healthy economy that has grown more than many western counterparts since 1996, including Canada, France, the UK and the USA.

Recognisable Party System

The party system also hasn’t changed dramatically, nor has there been a notable rise in political extremism. Instead, a stable moderately multi-party system has emerged from the one that existed during the dying days of FPTP, simultaneously giving voters a more meaningful choice, while creating a base for stable coalition governments. 

The historic Labour and National parties may no longer be unfairly overrepresented and might have seen a small decline in combined vote share, but they remain the two largest parties and continue to provide voters with the basis for two alternative governments. Alongside them, a handful of smaller parties – most notably the Greens, the right-wing liberal ACT and populist New Zealand First – have become regular presences in parliament and reliable coalition partners.

Enabled Parliamentary Reform

On top of its direct positive effects, the adoption of MMP also laid the groundwork for reforming New Zealand’s Parliament into a more modern legislative body. Ahead of the first PR election, parliamentary standing orders were changed to enhance the role of the Speaker and the opposition, while also giving committees more resources and a greater influence over the policy-making process. Parties, including those in government, have quickly and successfully adapted to this new more cross-party way of working, with a New Zealand government website also boasting that parliament has become “more open to the public and more autonomous of the government”.

Reviewing the System

Part of the process of reform in New Zealand has been semi-regular reviews of how the system is operating – including reports suggesting tune-ups of MMP (such as a reduction of the 5% threshold to 4%) and the holding of a ‘keep or change’ referendum in 2011. This saw only 31% of voters favour a return to FPTP, with the vote to keep MMP winning by a comfortable double-digit margin.