New Zealand System a 'Qualified Success'

By Bruce Campion-Smith
Published July 10th 2004 in Toronto Star
OTTAWA—In New Zealand, proportional representation has encouraged a diversity of political ideas, better legislation and a parliament that more closely reflects the makeup of the country's population, according to a political scientist.

"I think most people would say it's been a qualified success. It has certainly resulted in a more representative Parliament," said Raymond Miller, a professor at the University of Auckland.

Canada's NDP party, which is pushing to introduce proportional representation, holds New Zealand up as the model to follow. The country adopted the new voting system in 1996 and Miller admits it wasn't smooth sailing at first.

"Initially, for the first three or four years, we had a lot of instability with the collapse of the first coalition government," he said in an interview from New Zealand this week.

"Since then, under the Labour-led administration, we've had a reasonably stable government," Miller said.

He said the new voting system met the promise of bringing more women and minorities into government. The country's current parliament is about 30 per cent women, he said. And it also boasts 15 per cent representation from New Zealand's indigenous Maori people, who make up 14 per cent of the population.

And proportional representation has opened the door to smaller parties, he said. "We currently have eight political parties in the parliament representing a wide range of different interests. Traditionally, we would have no more than two," Miller said.

He said conservative voters who like what he calls "strong and effective" government might consider proportional representation — and the inevitable coalition governments it produces — less effective.

"Coalition governments involve some consultation and compromise and trade-offs with small parties and that tends to slow down the decision-making process," he said.

But Miller argues that while it takes more time, the need to reach a consensus on big issues tends to produce "better legislation and legislation that meets with stronger public approval."

Nor have coalitions resulted in unstable government, a criticism levelled by skeptics of proportional representation, who often cite the examples of "revolving door" governments in Israel and Italy.

"It really hasn't changed the election cycle ... It's been little different from what we had previously except we've had coalitions rather than single party governments," he said.