Referendum Culminates a Decade-Long Reform Process

Jack Nagel

An Historic Referendum
        In a referendum on November 6, New Zealanders voted by a 54%-46% margin to replace their British-style, First-Past-the-Post (FPP) parliamentary voting system with a proportional representation system known as Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP).
        Modelled on the method used in Germany, MMP gives each elector two votes: one for a district representative and one for a political party. As with FPP, district representatives will be chosen with MMP by a winner-take-all, plurality vote from single-member districts, but the number of electorates will be reduced from 99 to about 60.
        The rest of the new 120-member Parliament will be drawn from national party lists. Seats won by parties in districts will be subtracted from list allocations, so that parties' overall representation in parliament will be proportional to their party vote. A party will earn list seats only if it wins at least 5% of the party vote or at least one constituency seat.

1986 Royal Commission Report Started Process
        The referendum resolved a process of deliberation and debate that began early in 1985, when the then-Labour government appointed a Royal Commission on the Electoral System (RCES). Labour had alternated with the National Party in a two-party duopoly of power since 1935, and most of its leaders only wanted the RCES to recommend minor changes in the existing system. However, after a thorough study, RCES published an impressive report, Towards a Better Democracy, that made a systematic case for MMP.
        Politicians of both major parties tried to bury the Royal Commission's recommendation, but a grassroots campaign led by the Electoral Reform Coalition (ERC) kept the idea of reform alive. Nipping at the heels of the political establishment, the ERC persistently advocated a referendum, a route to reform that was available under the Electoral Act and had been recommended by the Royal Commission. During the 1990 election campaign, through a combination of blunders and competitive bidding, both major parties pledged to let the voters decide.

Major Parties Seek To Thwart Change
        The victorious National Party ultimately honored its promise, but their leaders and other opponents of MMP attempted to defeat the reform with some not-too-subtle maneuvers. Instead of scheduling an early, one-on-one vote between FPP and MMP, they held a preliminary non-binding referendum in September 1992. On this occasion, voters were asked two questions: first, whether FPP should be retained, and second, if FPP were to be replaced, which of four alternatives they preferred: preference voting (single transferable vote), an Australian-style majority preference voting system, a supplementary member "topping off" of FPP or MMP.
        This attempt at divide-and-conquer failed, as the ERC remained united behind the Royal Commission's recommendation. An astonishing 85% voted to reject FPP, and MMP won its primary with 65% support.
        These overwhelming results were widely believed to reflect the public's anger at politicians. FPP supporters turned that hostility to their advantage when they drafted legislation specifying the terms of the binding 1993 vote. The Royal Commission had recommended that Parliament be increased to 120 members independent of the question of electoral reform, but the legislation applied the increase only to MMP. Thus, opponents could equate MMP with "More MPs," a prospect many voters disliked.
        On another key detail, however, the legislature passed up an opportunity to weaken the reform package. A major goal of the Royal Commission had been to end the system, fixed since 1867, of reserving four racially separate constituencies for MPs elected by the indigenous Maori minority, which comprise about ten percent of the population. (Maori citizens as an alternative can register in general electorates, which have occasionally elected MPs of Maori descent.) The RCES believed that MMP would enable Maori to gain fair representation through inclusion on major parties' lists or, if necessary, by voting for a Maori-oriented party. But a series of meetings with Maori leaders convinced everyone, including the Royal Commissioners, that even with MMP, most Maori were not willing to give up their assured four seats.
        Deferring to this sentiment, Parliament retained separate Maori constituencies under MMP while stipulating that their number should vary according to the number of Maori who opted to register on the Maori voting roll. Thus, offered hope of gains through both their own seats and party lists, Maori (many of whom boycotted the 1990 election) registered in large numbers for the 1993 referendum, and they voted for MMP by a 2 to 1 margin.

A Well-Financed Opposition to MMP
        The overwhelming vote for change in 1992 demoralized politicians opposed to reform. Former Prime Minister David Lange quipped that their only way to defeat MMP would be to endorse it en masse. Some may have followed his advice: eventually, two- thirds of Labour candidates for Parliament supported MMP, though most of their front-benchers remained opposed. Not surprisingly, MMP had enthusiastic backing from smaller parties: the Alliance, New Zealand First and Christian Heritage. Leaders of the National Party government remained strongly opposed, but, in general, kept a low profile on the issue.
        Into the breach stepped the pro-FPP Campaign for Better Government (CBG) headed by Peter Shirtcliffe, chair of Telecom, New Zealand's largest corporation. Like many business leaders, Shirtcliffe feared MMP would give the Alliance and New Zealand First more power to roll back the free-market reforms that Labour and National had enacted since 1984. Encouraged by the 1993 Italian referendum, which it misrepresented as a rejection of MMP, the CBG launched a sophisticated, lavishly-funded media campaign.
        As the CBG broadcast ads -- dramatizing concerns that its surveys and focus groups had demonstrated were effective -- the once-huge gap between MMP and FPP shrank steadily. By the eve of the referendum, polls forecast a virtual dead heat. But as the votes were counted on election night, MMP quickly took the lead, and there was soon no doubt about the reformers' victory. The last-minute resurgence of MMP may have resulted in part from a backlash against the CBG, as the ERC -- outspent at least 8-1 and perhaps much more -- benefitted from a David vs. Goliath image.
        Another influence that partially offset the funding disparity was a government-sponsored information program that had a larger budget than the CBG and ERC combined. Overseen by a panel of distinguished citizens, the Referendum '93 campaign commissioned and disseminated highly professional videos, advertisements and brochures. Although strictly neutral on the merits of the two systems, this educational effort, combined with a similar program before the 1992 referendum, helped to produce a remarkably high level of public understanding about electoral mechanics that are presently beyond the ken of most Americans (including President Clinton).

Implementation of MMP
        Up to the November 6th election, the struggle over the electoral system overshadowed the regular Parliamentary election which was held on the same day. On election night and afterwards, the situation reversed, as the referendum produced a clearcut result, while control of Parliament remained in doubt for ten days. The Alliance and New Zealand First each won two seats, and for a while it appeared they would hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament.
        After absentee ballots were counted, however, National emerged with a bare majority -- 50 seats out of 99 -- with 35% of the vote. Because the Government loses a vote on ordinary legislation when it appoints the Speaker, National cannot do much without getting support from one or the other parties. New Zealanders appreciated the irony that the (possibly) last election under FPP had produced an MMP outcome, in which the government would have to consult and build coalitions across party lines.
        Although this chance to practice the arts of negotiation and compromise may get MMP off to a good start, the indecisive FPP result could also delay inauguration of the new electoral system. The New Zealand parliament has a maximum term of three years, but new elections could be called if the Prime Minister declared he were unable to command an effective majority. The defection of just one National MP could topple the Government.
        Meanwhile, officials project that MMP probably cannot be used until April 1995. Thus, a dissolution during the intervening months might result in another election under FPP, which could push back the first MMP election from the expected date of November 1996 to as late as April 1998.
        At present, an early election under FPP would be seen as a betrayal of the people's decision, but a stretch of ineffectual government could change the public mood. Meanwhile, New Zealand is engaged in a fascinating process of adjusting to the major constitutional change its voters have chosen.

        Jack Nagel is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been studying New Zealand since 1986, when he taught at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch as a Fulbright lecturer.

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