New Zealanders Adapt to MMP

Party Realignment in Preparation for 1996 Elections        

Helena Catt

        Since New Zealanders voted for electoral reform in 1993, "change" has been the order of the day. 54% of those voting in the government-initiated referendum on November 6, 1993 chose the "mixed member proportional" (MMP) representation system over the traditional first-past-the-post, plurality system. In the general election held at the same time the ruling National party lost ground, with its 35% share of the vote barely earning a one-seat majority in parliament. This unusual election result led many to suggest that voters had given an MMP-type result of more consultative government one election early.
        The combination of a government that does not have a guaranteed majority (National lost a key vote because a legislator missed a vote when washing his running shorts in the restroom) and the fundamental change to the electoral system has radically changed the face of New Zealand politics. Some changes stem from the MMP legislation as government departments and political parties start the process of implementing the new system. Other changes are in reaction to the new political climate.

Debate Over New Districts

        The first stage to the implementation of the new electoral laws was the so called "Maori option." Maori representation has for decades been guaranteed through four Maori districts which cover the whole country, on top of the general districts. Whether or not these seats should be retained was a hot topic during the electoral reform debate, but they were kept because most Maori groups wanted them.
        However, one crucial change was made. Under MMP the number of Maori districts will depend upon the proportion of Maori who choose to be on the Maori register rather than the general register. In the past there have always been four regardless of population size meaning that a Maori Member of Parliament (MP) represents many more people than an MP for a general district.
        Therefore the first stage in implementing MMP was to ask all Maori which register they wished to be on. This option was carried out in early 1994, resulting in an increase to 5 Maori districts. However several Maori groups, feeling that the government had not followed the spirit of the legislation in the way that it informed Maori voters of the option, took a case to the High Court. The case against the government was rejected in August 1994, but an appeal still is pending. If the appeal succeeds the whole process of district allocation will have to start from the beginning again. Whatever the result, MMP has started life with disaffection within the Maori community, a group that voted heavily for change.
        The second administration stage to implementing MMP is the drawing of new district boundaries. At the 1993 election there were 94 general districts but under MMP this must be reduced to 60. As with any redistricting, this will be contentious as many MPs will find that their present district no longer exists and various communities will find they are now attached to others close by. The preliminary boundaries were released in October 1994, and arguments over details raged for months. Only when the new boundaries have been agreed will it be possible to hold an election under the new system.

Political Parties Evolving Rapidly

        Political parties are also faced with major internal reorganization to meet the challenges of MMP. As parties have traditionally used the district as their basic administrative unit, the reduction of seats from 94 to 60 has meant that each party must decide what to do with 34 redundant district committees. However the aspect of change that is occupying more meeting time is how to select candidates for the party list.
        Under MMP, each party publishes a ranked list of candidates before the election which will be used to top-up their district Mps to give them proportionality. These party lists, or slates, are seen as a vital shopfront for the party, indicating the type of people they claim to represent. Also the MMP legislation requires that each list be selected in a democratic manner that allows every party member to be involved.
        The different political parties are still debating the ways in which they will select their list, but most have decided that some type of balance must be achieved. For some parties the balance between urban and rural and different regions of the country is paramount while for others gender and ethnic balance is crucial. The decisions made in annual conferences next year on this matter will be very important for how well MMP works.

"Guess the number of parties at the next election" has been the most popular after-dinner game for many.

        In reaction to the new electoral rules, the range of political parties is also undergoing great change. Under a winner-take-all system, minor parties find it hard to win election, but with MMP a party gains representatives if it wins 5% of the vote nationwide. Several groups feel they could cross this hurdle and so are establishing parties.
        The two major parties also are not immune to change. Since the election two Mps -- one from each major party -- have left to establish new groupings, and other Mps are expected to follow suit before the next election. In the interim, each major party faces the difficult task of positioning itself for the new political age before it knows all of its competition.
        "Guess the number of parties at the next election" has been the most popular after-dinner game for many New Zealanders. As of late 1994, there are five new parties in the pipeline, and more are likely to emerge before the first MMP election. As the number of parties increases, the chances of each reaching the 5% hurdle diminishes, especially in the increasingly crowded "center ground."

New Zealanders Enjoying the Change

        When I talk to northern hemisphere people about the situation in New Zealand, the most common question I am asked is "how are the people reacting to all the change and turmoil?" A good question but not one that is paramount inside New Zealand. In general people are happy with the emerging political scene.
        One consequence of the small government majority and the act that the parties are pre-occupied with internal matters is that the legislative program has been greatly reduced this year. After the mass changes and fast legislation of the past decade, the people seem to welcome the rest. Business groups,
who warned of economic ruin if New Zealand chose MMP realized that this could be a self-fulfilling prophesy and are helping to establish a mood of calm and controlled change.
        Most importantly though, the journalists are loving every minute of it. With so much happening politically and ample opportunities for crystal ball gazing the political commentators are in an exuberant mood. As always, when the media is playing up a story, that mood is echoed by the population.
        Most of the pro-MMP activists are recovering from at least two years of very hard campaigning and weeks of euphoria, although the addicted few are continuing the electoral reform crusade with a push for single transferable vote (e.g., preference voting) for local government. As for the lobby group defending the status quo -- who outspent the pro-MMP side by at least 10 to one -- a few are prominent in one of the new political parties and the rest have disappeared from sight.

        Dr. Helena Catt is a lecturer at the University of Auckland. She contributed a chapter "Why Did MMP Win" to a forthcoming book on New Zealand's electoral reform by Raymond Miller, Jim Lamare, Peter Aimer, Helena Catt and Jack Vowles.

        Notable Quote

        "Any general election held after early next year will see seats won proportionally by votes cast, under a new system. This means the balance of power is likely to be held outside of the traditional National vs. Labor division. . . .
        "[A weakened two-party system] may create an opening for a liberalization front unwedded to the subsidy constituencies in the traditional parties' bases. Thus, the decade of reformation could finally shift from economics to politics, and allow the Kiwis to score another first."
        • Editorial, Wall Street Journal, July 20, 1994

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