Electoral reform in New Zealand

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Electoral reform in New Zealand has, in recent years, become a political issue as major changes have been made to both Parliamentary and local government electoral systems.

National elections in New Zealand were first held in 1853 using a simple version of the first-past-the-post (FPP) electoral system[1] and conducted over a period of two and a half months. At this time, the country was divided into 23 electorates who elected either a single member or three members depending on the population within that area[2].

This basic system continued over a great period of time, with major diversions only in the form of the change to the second ballot system (a type of Two-round system) for two elections, in the 1908 election and 1911 election; which was swiftly repealed in 1913[3] and the change to the mixed-member proportional system in 1996.

The first-past-the-post (FPP) electoral system used in New Zealand for much of its history was a simple plurality system, in which voters choose the candidate they wish to represent the electorate they live in. The candidate that garners the most votes through this process is then elected to Parliament. Generally, elections conducted in this manner result in an absolute majority[4], in which the party who wins the most votes has the absolute power in the house. The only deviation from this in New Zealand during the FPP era was before the 1890s during which each member was independent and as such no political parties existed[5]. The second-ballot system briefly introduced from 1908-1913 was a modification of the existing FPP system, wherein for a candidate to be elected, they must garner over 50% of the votes in their district[3]. If they did not reach this threshold, a new ballot would be conducted featuring only the two highest polling candidates, to ensure one gains over 50%. Mixed-member proportional (MMP) as seen in New Zealand from 1996 onward, is a proportional system wherein each voter has two votes. One of these is for the candidate in their electorate and one is for the overall political party[6]. The party vote is what ultimately decides the number of seats each party gains in parliament, with any shortfall between the number of electorates won and the overall percentage made up by list party members.

The impetus to change from first past the post to mixed member proportional was largely due to the excessive disproportionality FPP elections are prone to. Prominent examples of this include the 1966[7] election, in which the Social Credit Party gained 9% of the vote and yet won only a single seat. Furthermore, this disproportionality often lead to the successful party winning less overall votes than the opposition, but gaining more seats. An example of this is the 1978 election, in which the Labour Party won more than 10,000 votes (0.6%) more than the National Party but gained 11 fewer seats in Parliament[8]. Another major factor that highlighted the weaknesses of FPP was the potential abuse of power that could occur. New Zealand does not have a written Constitution, and as such it is subject to change. Under FPP the power is concentrated with the leader of the winning party. Prime Minister Robert Muldoon showed this clearly when he illegally abolished the Superannuation scheme upon his election in 1975. Though the Judiciary ruled this move illegal, they were unable to halt the action and Muldoon faced no repercussions for this abuse in power.[9]

Due to these factors, in 1979 the New Zealand Labour Party adopted policy to seriously consider the adoption of proportional representation in place of the current first past the post system. While changes resultant from this were extremely delayed, the undercurrent of support for electoral reform continued and were bolstered by the commissioning of the Royal Commission on the Electoral System in 1985 which ultimately recommended a change to mixed-member proportional[10]. Finally, both the Labour Party and the National Party entered the 1990 election with policy for a referendum on electoral reform.

This referendum was held in 1992 and represented the first tangible governmental step towards electoral reform. The results of this referendum overwhelmingly supported change and selected mixed-member proportional as the preferred electoral system to replace first past the post[11]. Due to this a binding referendum was held the following year in 1993, offering a choice between these two systems. Mixed-member proportional was selected by a vote of 53.9% to 43.1%[12] and was implemented at the following election in 1996.

Parliamentary electoral reform

Authority for government in New Zealand is derived from Te Tiriti o Waitangi (Treaty of Waitangi)[13], which was signed in 1840. The meaning of Te Tiriti is complicated by the fact that the Maori and English texts of the agreement are not entirely consistent in their meanings. While the English version is generally interpreted to have ceded absolute sovereignty, the Māori version only cedes governorship. Practically, in the years since 1840, the English interpretation was generally privileged. Thus, New Zealand officially became a British colony and was ruled by a governor until 1852, when the British government passed the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852[14]. This Act established settler self-government in New Zealand by the way of a bi-cameral Parliament consisting of an appointed Legislative Council and a House of Representatives[15]. Following this, the first government was elected using a simple first-past-the-post electoral system, with single and multi-member districts[16]. Importantly, political franchise was only extended at this time to male land owners over the age of 21, which disqualified many Māori due to their communal ownership of land[17]. Furthermore, no women were extended the right to vote. However this changed in 1893 when New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world to allow women the right to vote[18].

Establishment of Māori Electorates

In response to Māori antagonism towards the governments of the time due to their general lack of franchise, the 1867 the Māori Representation Act was passed, which established four additional Māori electorates throughout the country[19]. Each of these would each elect a single member to Parliament[19], who was mandated to be full blooded Māori. However, all Māori males over the age of 21 were allowed to vote in these electorates regardless of their bloodline. Initially, these seats were created on an interim basis with a provision for their removal after five years had passed. Despite this, the Māori seats have remained even to this day as a part of the New Zealand political framework and have even been expanded in the Electoral Act 1993[20].

Introduction of Universal Suffrage

Universal male suffrage was introduced in 1879 by the passing of the Qualification of Electors Act, which abolished the previous requirement to own land[21]. As such, all European men aged over 21 were now eligible to vote in New Zealand's elections. The only qualifiers to this were that to be eligible to vote, one must have resided in New Zealand for 12 months and in a specific electorate for 6 months.This had an immediate and profound effect on the number of registered voters as they rose from 82,271 (71%) of the adult European population in 1879 to 120,972 (91%) in 1881[21]. Furthermore, this allowed for election of people of different class to Parliament, including many 'working men'[21].

Under huge pressure from suffrage campaigners lead by Kate Sheppard, universal women's suffrage followed in 1893 with the passing of the Electoral Act 1893[22]. With this, New Zealand became the first self-governing nation in the world to grant women the vote[18]. However, it is important to note that women still had not gained the right to stand for Parliament[22]. Women's suffrage only allowed women to vote for existing male candidates and as such, there was still a great deal of progress required until women had the same legal rights as men in these regards.

Second-Ballot System 1908-1913

The second-ballot system was introduced in the Second Ballot Act 1908 and was one of the first substantive reforms to the mechanism by which winning candidates are elected to Parliament to be seen in New Zealand[3]. This system modified the original first-past-the-post electoral system to require the winning candidate in each electorate to have gained over 50% of the overall votes cast within their constituency. When the leading candidate did not achieve this, a second ballot would be held a week later featuring only the two leading candidates, to assure an absolute majority of votes was achieved. However, this system only remained in place for five years as it was abolished in 1913 due to its supposed inequitable nature in the emerging party environment of Parliament[3].

Return to First Past the Post

Subsequently, New Zealand elections from 1914 to 1996 returned to the first-past-the-post system for parliamentary elections. However, in the newfound party context that had solidified throughout the second-ballot era it had somewhat unforeseen effects. While initially three main parties existed (the Liberal, Reform and Labour parties), the system quickly solidified into a two party system wherein the Reform and Liberal parties combined to create the National Party to oppose the Labour Party[23]. This ushered in an era wherein National and Labour parties dominated New Zealand politics, with only a small amount of independent and other party candidates being elected.

Debates around electoral reform

This ushered in an era of relative stability for many years, until the electoral reform debate began in earnest following two successive general elections in 1978 and 1981 in which the National Party won a majority in Parliament with less than 40% of the vote and a lower overall share of the vote than the opposing Labour Party [24]. Other examples of this are evident in both the 1911 and 1931 elections[25]. Furthermore, the Social Credit Party was a victim of disproportionality as while they won 16.1% of the vote in 1978 and 20.7% of the vote in 1981, they only won one and two seats in Parliament respectively[26].

In its 1984 campaign platform, the Labour party committed itself to appoint a royal commission on electoral reform if elected.[27] Labour won that election and in 1985 Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Geoffrey Palmer established a Royal Commission on the Electoral System. Palmer had promoted proportional representation as a law professor in his book Unbridled Power?, also published in 1984. The Royal Commission's 1986 report, entitled Towards a Better Democracy recommended the adoption of the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system.[10] Recognising that a parliament dominated by the major parties might fail to implement a sweeping reform of this sort, the commission also proposed a referendum on the issue.[10]

Ambivalence by the major parties and party politics led the issue to languish for several years, but in the meantime, an influential lobby group which had been formed, the Electoral Reform Coalition, continued to press for implementation of the royal commission’s proposals. During the 1987 election campaign, Labour promised to hold a referendum on MMP at, or before, the next election. Although Labour was returned to power in that election, it failed to proceed further on the matter due to its own internal divisions. In May 1990, Labour MP John Terris submitted a private members bill to force a binding referendum on the electoral system, but the bill was defeated.[28]

Sensing Labour’s vulnerability on the issue, the National opposition criticised the government inaction, and National Party Leader Jim Bolger promised to carry on with a referendum if elected in 1990 and do so before the next election in 1993 [29]. Although there was even less support for reform among National parliamentarians than in the Labour Party, the new National government elected in 1990 was, like its predecessor, stuck with a rashly made campaign promise.[30]

1992 electoral system referendum

In 1992, a non-binding referendum was held on whether or not FPP should be replaced by a new, more proportional voting system. Voters were asked two questions: whether or not to replace FPP with a new voting system; and which of four different alternative systems should be adopted instead (see question one and question two, below). The government appointed a panel chaired by the Ombudsman to oversee the campaign. The panel issued a brochure describing each of the voting systems appearing on the ballot, which was delivered to all households, and sponsored other publications, television programs, and seminars to inform the public. Meanwhile, the Electoral Reform Coalition campaigned actively in favour of the MMP alternative originally recommended by the royal commission. These measures made it possible for voters to make an informed choice on what was otherwise a complicated issue.

This led New Zealanders to vote overwhelmingly for change (84.7%) and to indicate a clear and overwhelming preference for the MMP alternative (70.5%). Such a result could not be ignored by the government, but rather than implementing MMP as the government was urged to do by the Electoral Reform Coalition, it opted to hold a second binding referendum on reform. This referendum featured a direct choice between FPP and MMP and was planned to be held to coincide with the next general election in 1993.

Question One in the 1992 Referendum

The first question asked voters if they wished to retain FPP or change electoral systems. The result was 84.7 per cent favour of replacing FPP, and 15.3% against.[11]

Voting method referendum, 19 September 1992: Part A
Choose one proposal:
Response Votes %
Retain FPP
I vote to retain the present First Past The Post system.
186,027 15.28
Change System
I vote for a change to the electoral system
1,031,257 84.72
Total votes 1,217,284 100.00
Turnout

Source: Nohlen et al.

Question Two in the 1992 Referendum

The second question asked voters which new system should replace FPP. Voters could choose between the following:

As noted earlier, an overwhelming majority of those favouring a new electoral system voted for MMP. The percentages of the vote cast for the four possible electoral system options offered in the second question were:

Voting method referendum, 19 September 1992: Part B
Choose one option:
Response Votes %
valid total
Preferential Voting (PV)
I vote for the Preferential Voting system (PV)
73,539 6.56 6.04
Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)
I vote for the Mixed Member Proportional system (MMP)
790,648 70.51 64.95
Supplementary Member (SM)
I vote for the Supplementary Member system (SM)
62,278 5.55 5.12
Single Transferable Vote (STV)
I vote for the Single Transferable Vote system (STV)
194,796 17.37 16.00
Total valid votes 1,121,261 100.00 92.11
Invalid/blank votes 96,023 7.89
Total votes cast 1,217,284 100.00
Turnout

Source: Nohlen et al.

1993 electoral referendum

A pro-MMP poster from the 1993 referendum campaign.

The second, binding, referendum was held in conjunction with the general election on 6 November 1993. Although reform had been strongly favoured by the electorate in 1992, the campaign in the second referendum was hard fought, as opposition to the reforms came together under an umbrella organisation called Campaign for Better Government (CBG).

Many senior politicians in both major parties and businesspeople were opposed to MMP: Bill Birch, then a senior National Cabinet Minister, had said MMP would be "a catastrophic disaster for democracy", and Ruth Richardson, former Minister of Finance in Jim Bolger's government said MMP "would bring economic ruin". Peter Shirtcliffe, chairman of Telecom New Zealand at the time and leader of the CBG, said MMP "would bring chaos".[31]

The Electoral Reform Coalition (ERC) was the main advocate for the adoption of MMP, and had support from several people, including the late Green Party co-leader Rod Donald. MMP faced an uphill battle, as acknowledged in the pro-MMP poster to the side, since the proposed model was for increase in the number of MPs from 99 to 120. The CBG responded to the proposed increase in the number of MPs with a controversial television advertisement showing 21 faceless list MPs with paper bags over their heads.[32]

The ERC also had a "David and Goliath" battle financially. With the CBG being backed by a large business lobby, they had large amounts of money to spend. While the CBG could spend large on television, radio and full-page newspaper advertisements, often with fear-evoking graphic images, the ERC had limited funds and concentrated more on advocating in communities.[33]

At the same time, the country's largest newspaper, The New Zealand Herald, came out in support of the MMP proposal in the last week of the campaign, and press coverage overall was extensive and largely favourable. The Alliance heavily supported MMP, featuring "vote MMP" on all of its election billboards.[33]

It was the combination of growing public anger with the operation of the political system and the successful efforts of the Electoral Reform Coalition to harness that dissatisfaction in the cause of electoral reform that proved crucial. [...] Politicians subsequently acquiesced as they lost control of the referendum process because to have done otherwise would have courted the full wrath of a public incensed by their own impotence in the face of years of broken promises.

Alan Renwick, The Politics of Electoral Reform: Changing the Rules of Democracy.[34]

The CBG's backing of business leaders and politicians proved to be damaging to their cause, giving the impression that they were "a front for the business roundtable".[33] The ERC capitalised on severe disenchantment with New Zealand's political class after the severe effects of the neoliberal reforms of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia. After three elections in a row in which the parties that won power broke their promises and imposed unpopular market-oriented reforms,[35][36] the New Zealand public came to see MMP as a way to curb the power of governments to engage in dramatic and unpopular reforms. Cartoonist Murray Ball reflected this perception in a cartoon starring his characters Wal Footrot and Dog, with Wal telling The Dog (and by extension the viewer), "Want a good reason for voting for MMP? Look at the people who are telling you not to..."[37]

Given the link between the success of the referendum and anger at the status quo, politicians took lesser roles in the 1993 campaign, realising that their opposition to reform only increased voters' desire for change.[34]

In the face of a strong opposition campaign, the final result was much closer than in 1992, but the reforms carried the day, with 53.9% of voters in favour of MMP. ERC spokesperson Rod Donald reflected in 2003, "Had the referendum been held a week earlier I believe we would have lost."[33] Lending additional legitimacy to the second referendum was the increase in the participation rate, which went from 55% in the 1992 referendum to 85% in the second one. The law had been written so that MMP came automatically into effect upon approval by the electorate, which it did.

Voting method referendum, 6 November 1993
Choose one proposal:
Response Votes %
First Past the Post (FPP)
I vote for the present First Past the Post system as provided by the Electoral Act 1956
884,964 46.14
Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)
I vote for the proposed Mixed Member Proportional system as provided by the Electoral Act 1993
1,032,919 53.86
Total votes 1,917,833 100.00
Turnout 82.61%

Source: Nohlen et al.

Noteworthy in understanding the New Zealand case is that the reforms were able to go forward on the basis of majority support. This stands in contrast to the 60% requirement imposed in some other cases, such as the 2005 referendum on this issue in the Canadian province of British Columbia that failed despite a vote of 57.69% in support of the reform. Late in the campaign, Peter Shirtcliffe had in fact sought to act on this and proposed that the referendum should require a majority of the whole electorate, not just those voting, to pass the reform, which the government rejected.[34]

Introduction of MMP

The first election using the MMP system was held in 1996. Under MMP, each voter has two votes: the first vote is called the party vote and voters use this vote to express their support for a particular party.[38] The second vote is the electorate vote, which is used to express support for a candidate to represent the voter's electorate in Parliament [39].

MMP uses an electoral threshold which sets the minimum level of support a party needs to gain representation at 5% of the nationwide party vote, or success in an electorate. Parties who meet this threshold are entitled to a share of the seats in Parliament that is about the same as its share of the nationwide vote [40]. For example, if a party gets 30% of the party vote it will get roughly 36 MPs in Parliament (being 30% of 120 seats). So if that party wins 20 electorate seats it will have 16 List MPs in addition to its 20 Electorate MPs.

Because the system is proportional, it is difficult for any single party to gain a majority in Parliament alone. Therefore, coalitions or agreements between political parties are usually needed before Governments can be formed. The 2017 Election is a good example of this, resulting in a Labour-led government with coalitions with New Zealand First and the Greens.

The 5% threshold has been criticised as a significant problem for minor parties, and impedes their ability to gain seats in Parliament. This has led to proposals to lower the percentage threshold.[41]

Coalition governments were rare, but not impossible under the FPP system. For example, in 1931-35 there was the United/Reform coalition. Following the 1996 general election it took six weeks to form a coalition, showing that this is not a quick process.[42] MMP is arguably a more democratic system than FPP. Supporters of MMP criticised FPP for creating elective dictatorships, and promoting the excessive power of one party government. Supporters consider MMP to provide increased representational fairness, and better-considered, wiser, and more moderate policies because of cooperation of the leading party and minority parties. Furthermore, MMP is considered to increase the representation of a diverse population, enabling a higher percentage of Maori, women, Pasifika and Asian people in Parliament. However, supporters of FPP believe FPP provides a more stable Parliament, and avoids a minority party “kingmaker”, as was the case in 2017 with New Zealand First determining who would lead the government.[43]

Prior to the switch to MMP, New Zealand largely had a two party system, with government interchanging between Labour and National since 1935. Under MMP, National and Labour lost their complete dominance in the House. Neither has yet been able to hold a majority within the House. Instead, electoral results have required them to form coalitions to govern. Indeed, since 1998 there have been minority coalition governments relying on supply and confidence from parties outside of government. With the introduction of MMP, particularly with New Zealand's unique provision for parties to win list seats despite getting less than the 5% threshold if they win one local seat, there has been a widening of political parties represented within the House. After the 1996 election, there were six political parties. The Greens separated from the Alliance for the 1999 election, and with the creation of the Māori Party in 2004, there became eight parties. The number of political parties was expected to fall [44](as happened in Germany after their adoption of MMP), but actually gradually increased to an average of seven parties (see the table below). This was the case until the 2017 election where the number of parties in Parliament fell to five, the lowest it has been since MMP was introduced. The 2017 election also saw a severe decrease in the vote share for the two larger minor parties that were returned to parliament, though this could be attributed to political scandals[45] and the popularity of the Labour leader candidate, Jacinda Ardern, and evidence of a beginning of an overall decline.

The transition to MMP has caused disproportionality to fall.[46]

Election Disproportionality Number of Parties in Parliament
1972 12.06% 2
1975 12.93% 2
1978 15.55% 3
1981 16.63% 3
1984 15.40% 3
1987 8.89% 2
1990 17.24% 3
1993 18.19% 4
1996 3.43% 6
1999 2.97% 7
2002 2.37% 7
2005 1.13% 8
2008 3.84% 7
2011 2.38% 8
2014 3.72% 7
2017 2.73% 5

2011 referendum

As part of the lead-up to the 2008 general election, the National Party promised a second referendum to decide whether or not to keep MMP. Upon gaining power, the party legislated that the referendum would be held alongside the 2011 general election, which took place on Saturday 26 November 2011. The referendum was similar to the 1992 referendum, in that voters were asked firstly to choose whether to keep the MMP system or to change to another system, and secondly to indicate which alternative system would, in the case of change, have their preference.

Nearly 58% of voters voted to keep the MMP system, a four percent increase on 1993. Nearly one-third of voters didn't vote, or cast an invalid vote on the second question, and of those who did vote, nearly 47% favoured the former FPP system.


e • d  Voting system referendum 2011: Part A[47]
Should New Zealand keep the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system?
Response Votes %
valid total
YesY Yes - keep MMP
I vote to keep the MMP voting system
1,267,955 57.77 56.17
No No - change system
I vote to change to another voting system
926,819 42.23 41.06
Total valid votes 2,194,774 100.00 97.23
Informal votes 62,469 2.77
Total votes 2,257,243 100.00
Turnout 73.51%
Electorate 3,070,847[48]
e • d  Voting system referendum 2011: Part B[47]
If New Zealand were to change to another voting system, which voting system would you choose?
Response Votes %
valid total
First Past the Post (FPP)
I would choose the First Past the Post system (FPP)
704,117 46.66 31.19
Preferential Voting (PV)
I would choose the Preferential Voting system (PV)
188,164 12.47 8.34
Single Transferable Vote (STV)
I would choose the Single Transferable Vote system (STV)
252,503 16.30 11.19
Supplementary Member (SM)
I would choose the Supplementary Member system (SM)
364,373 24.14 16.14
Total valid votes 1,509,157 100.00 66.86
Informal votes 748,086 33.14
Total votes cast 2,257,243 100.00
Turnout 73.51%
Electorate 3,070,847[48]

2012 review

On the back of the majority of voters voting to keep the MMP system, a review into the workings of the system by the Electoral Commission was automatically triggered. The Commission released a public consultation paper on 13 February 2012 calling for public submissions, with particular emphasis placed on six key areas. On 13 August 2012, the Commission released its proposal paper, recommending changes to some of the six areas.[49] After submissions on the proposals were considered, the final report was presented to the Minister of Justice on 29 October 2012.[50][51] It is up to Parliament to decide whether to enact any of the recommendations.[52]

Area August proposals October report
Basis of eligibility for list seats
  • Reducing the party vote threshold from 5 percent to 4 percent.
  • Abolishing the one-electorate-seat threshold.
As August; also
  • There should be a statutory requirement for the Electoral Commission to review the operation of the 4% party vote threshold and report to the Minister of Justice for presentation to Parliament after three general elections.
By-election candidacy Status quo: sitting list MPs can stand in electorate by-elections As August
Dual candidacy Status quo: someone on the party list can simultaneously stand in an electorate As August
Ordering of party lists Status quo: closed list rather than open list As August; also
  • Political parties should be required to give a public assurance by statutory declaration that they have complied with their rules in selecting and ranking their list candidates.
  • In any dispute relating to the selection of candidates for election as members of Parliament, the version of the party’s rules that should be applied is that supplied to the Commission under section 71B as at the time the dispute arose.
Overhang seats Abolishing the provision of overhang seats for parties not reaching the threshold. The extra electorates would be made up at the expense of list seats to retain 120 MPs Abolish, provided the one-electorate-seat threshold is abolished
Proportionality Identifying reduced proportionality as a medium-term issue, with it unlikely to be affected until electorate MPs reach 76, around 2026 based on 2012 population growth. Consideration should be given to fixing the ratio of electorate seats to list seats at 60:40 to help maintain the diversity of representation and proportionality in Parliament obtained through the list seats.

Proposed electoral reform

In response to generally declining voter turnout, a number of commentators have proposed changes to the electoral system.

Former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Geoffrey Palmer, has expressed support for the introduction of compulsory voting in New Zealand, as has existed in Australia since 1924.[53] It is believed that such a measure will improve democratic engagement, however not all agree, with current Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern considering that citizens should vote because they're engaged, not because they are compelled to.[54]

Palmer has also expressed support for lowering the voting age to 16, considering that this may provide a platform for increased civic education during high school years.[53]

Local government elections

Up until the 2004 local elections, all territorial authorities were elected using the bloc vote (although often referred to as first-past-the-post). In 2004, at the discretion of the council, they could use the single transferable vote. Eight local bodies used STV in the 2007 local body elections.[citation needed] However, only five territorial authorities used STV in the 2013 local elections.[55]

Almost all regional authorities in New Zealand use FPP. However the Greater Wellington Regional Council used STV for the first time in the 2013 elections, becoming the first time that a regional authority used STV.[55]

All District Health Boards must use STV.[55]

See also

References

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External links

  • Electoral Commission New Zealand
  • Campaign for MMP
  • New Zealand's Change to MMP by Paul Harris
  • Proportional Representation in NZ – how the people let themselves in
  • NEW ZEALAND: A Long-Established Westminster Democracy Switches to PR by Nigel S. Roberts
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