Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – Celebrating and critiquing 25 years of MMP

Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – Celebrating and critiquing 25 years of MMP

Over the last week, MMP has been in the spotlight, given that it’s now been 25 years since the first general election was held under this proportional representation system. This has produced some important commentary and storytelling about the introduction of MMP and about the various pros and cons of how the system has worked out. This discussion has come at an apt time, as the Government announced a week earlier that they are setting up a review of the electoral system.

The most important commentary published over the last few days is a four-part series by political journalist Henry Cooke. The first part, How an academic dream from West Germany changed New Zealand forever, examines the origins of the movement for electoral reform and how the MMP system was recommended, campaigned upon and adopted.

Cooke explains how the option of MMP came to be put to a public referendum “despite almost everyone in power hating the idea”. The article details how the previous electoral system of First Past the Post caused much distortion and political unfairness, leading to a Royal Commission to recommend the adoption of the German system. Part of the explanation falls to David Lange promising at the 1987 election, allegedly by mistake, to provide a referendum on the issue, which was never held yet subsequently picked up as a promise by Jim Bolger at the 1990 election.

Cooke’s second part of the series, How politicians let voters destroy their way of life in three short years, looks at the referendum process that led to the adoption of the news system. He explains how 80 per cent of MPs opposed MMP, and Bolger’s government attempted to gerrymander the referendum process so that it would fail, but they didn’t get away with it.

Why did MMP win? Cooke says the key factor was the strong anti-politician atmosphere of the early 1990s: “the general mood of the public at the time was strongly against politicians in general, and the major two parties in particular, who had spent the last decade promising one thing and delivering another.”

The MMP electoral system that the Royal Commission recommended was, according to Cooke, “quite different to what we actually ended up with. It proposed abolishing the Māori seats, with the commissioners arguing that the new party vote system would see plenty of Māori entering Parliament without the need for special seats. It also set the party vote threshold at 4 per cent for entering Parliament – not 5 per cent.”

Commission member Richard Mulgan explains the thinking behind the abolition of the Māori seats: “There was a sort of minority view amongst Māori academics, that the Māori seats were sort of ghettoising for Māori people in that it encouraged the major parties to ignore Māori issues…. We wanted to bring Māori issues into mainstream competition”.

After the 1993 referendum was won, the major parties of National and Labour started to fragment and reorientate towards the new electoral system, and this changeover is all detailed in Cooke’s third part of the series: The chaotic transition into a new political world almost killed off Labour.

Labour, in particular, looked like it might fade away or die. For example, the leftwing “Alliance easily outpolled Labour for much of 1994, with Labour dropping as low as 15 per cent. As the election neared, NZ First emerged as an even larger threat, often outpolling Labour throughout 1996.” And then plenty of Labour and National MPs split away – such as Peter Dunne (from Labour), and Michael Laws, Ross Meurant and Graeme Lee (from National).

The most important of Cooke’s four-part series is the last one: MMP has changed Parliament for good. But has it stopped Parliament changing New Zealand?. This discusses the future of MMP, noting that although MMP has brought about more demographic diversity of MPs, the party system remains somewhat moribund and overly dominated by the two major parties.

Cooke notes two important factors in the new party system: “Only two brand new parties have sprung up and made it to Parliament under MMP: Act in 1996, and the Māori Party in 2004.” And: “every party that has been elected to Parliament under MMP – bar the Greens – is a direct descendant of either Labour or National, and the Greens got their first ride into Parliament as part of the ex-Labour Alliance. NZ First was formed as a breakaway from National; Act and United Future were breakaways from both Labour and National; and the Māori Party was a breakaway from Labour.”

What’s more, Cooke says: “these parties have remained small. Labour and National still dominate politics, and the vast majority of political life is structured around the opposition between the two, even if they actually agree on a lot.”

The most important critique of MMP raised in Cooke’s article is that the current electoral system has led to timid governments that don’t deal with intractable and difficult problems. Our governments are now centrist and disinclined towards any boldness or radicalism.

Arguably, this is because political parties have become incentivised to chase centre voters. As former prime minister John Key is quoted saying, “You shoot where the ducks are. I mean most New Zealanders on a normalised bell curve live in the middle.”

Cooke puts it like this: “MMP’s centralising impulse… comes from the fact that a party vote under MMP truly does matter, wherever you live. This has changed the big two parties: Labour cannot ignore a possible party vote in a deep-blue rural district, just as National cannot ignore a potential party vote in a deep red urban seat. Under FPP, these votes would have been useless, meaning politicians would pitch themselves very solidly at a specific geographic subset of voters who could go either way. Now that ‘swing district’ is the entire country.”

Political commentator Matthew Hooton is quoted: “We’ve had a meandering process where the median voter gets to apply a veto on anything”. He argues that the “tyranny of the median voter” means that “National and Labour pay too much attention to what a voter in the middle of the spectrum thinks, as they need them to win power.” Hooton points to lack of action to deal with climate change and rampant house price inflation as outcomes of this.

Hooton expanded on this argument in his Friday column for the Herald, in which he bemoaned that “If politics was Tweedledee and Tweedledum before MMP, it’s worse now. Our ability to make transformational change has been destroyed, whether the challenge is climate change or reforming the tax system” – see: Why MMP is our worst mistake (paywalled).

Amongst many complaints about various democratic deficits in the current electoral system, Hooton says “MMP’s worst effect is the pandering to the median voter as the decider of elections, and the transformation of Labour and National into near-identical servants of the status quo. The median voter is by definition doing okay.”

He argues that on things like house prices, governments are incentivised to keep the prices rising to please property owners. He concludes: “Clark, Key, English and Ardern have had no incentive to stop it. Whenever house-price inflation slips, the median voter gets grumpy and the Government falls. The same is true for every other crisis. Without MMP, a Labour Government would surely have come in and boldly tackled climate change the way Roger Douglas addressed the economic crisis. Similarly, a National Government would have fixed the Resource Management Act. Instead, we drift.”

For a contrary view, see 1News’ Trevor Mallard: Parliament a better place since MMP. This report is based on a Q+A interview yesterday with Parliament’s Speaker, in which he explains that he was originally opposed to MMP: “I thought it would result in sort of the tail wagging the dog and I thought Governments couldn’t do policy.” Now Mallard says you no longer see the “wild swings in policy that you might have got in the past.” And the improved demographic diversity has led, he says, to better policy: “We get better debate. We get more informed opinions though having that representative Parliament.”

The improved demographic diversity is celebrated by virtually all media items on MMP. For one of the most interesting items on the increasing ethnic diversity under MMP, see Kate McMillan’s Asian political representation in MMP history.

McMillan argues that Māori and Pasifika representation in Parliament is “greater than those groups’ proportion of the total population”, but “Asian New Zealanders, however, remain under-represented on a per-capita basis. Only 6 percent of current parliamentarians identify as Asian, compared with 15.1 percent of the total New Zealand population.”

She puts this down mostly to the fact that “over half of Asian New Zealanders had been in the country for less than ten years” and “it is common for immigrants to take a few years to settle into a country before engaging with its electoral system”. McMillan says that Asian representation is now becoming “normalised” and she forecasts it to increase.

But does greater demographic diversity actually improve things on the ground for marginalised ethnic groups? An article from Jamie Tahana presents some views that it increased ethnic representation doesn’t automatically translate to better outcomes – see: More Māori in Parliament: Sandra Lee reflects on introduction of MMP. This reports former Māori Party co-leader Tariana Turia arguing “that while MMP had created opportunities for Māori, she wasn’t sure it had actually produced anything better”. Turia says: “I think that a lot of people may think a lot more Māori in Parliament, a lot more gains to be made. But that remains to be seen really.”

Most commentaries on MMP in the last week have given the electoral system the thumbs up but have suggested reforms are required to make it more democratic. For example, see today’s Otago Daily Times editorial, MMP set to stay. And on Friday a Stuff editorial was favourable but argued that the five per cent MMP threshold was too high, and that the major parties dominate too much – see: Not perfect government but better than the others.

This is a theme also for former United Future party leader Peter Dunne, who wrote last week that the Government’s apparent intention to abolish the “one-seat rule” or “coat-tail” arrangement that gives some small parties an exemption from the five per cent threshold would be undemocratic and worsen the representativeness of the Parliament – see: 25 years of MMP – and the government wants to make it harder for small parties.

Dunne argues strongly that electoral systems should be designed for fairness and democracy: “The basic role of the electoral system is to provide a fair process for the election of our Parliament. An inherent part of that is ensuring that the system is so designed to enable the widest possible expression of political opinion, which is more than just looking after Labour and National.” He says that if the one-seat rule is abolished, then the threshold would correspondingly need to be reduced to as low as two or three per cent.

Finally, for a blast from the past, the Spinoff has republished the Electoral Commission’s classic TV ads that explain MMP, and they’ve added in some older expert commentary on the value or otherwise of the current electoral system – see: As MMP turns 25, here are the ads with the original orange guy: Wal from Footrot Flats.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.