Electoral reform in New Zealand

This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
New Zealand

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.

Parliamentary electoral reform

All New Zealand elections from 1914 to 1996 consistently used the British system of first-past-the-post (FPP) for parliamentary elections (bloc voting and runoff voting were also used in some elections before 1914). This system had consistently favoured the two largest parties. From 1936 on, these were the National and Labour parties.

The electoral reform debate began in earnest in New Zealand following two successive general elections in 1978 and 1981 in which the National Party won majority status with less than 40% of the vote, even though it won a lower share of the vote than the Labour Party. The Social Credit Party was also finding that the system worked against them, winning only one seat out of 92 in 1978 and two seats in 1981 as against 16.1% of the vote in 1978 and 20.7% of the vote in 1981. Governments had been previously formed despite the opposition winning the popular vote in both 1911 and 1931 as well.

In its 1984 campaign platform, Labour committed itself to appoint a royal commission on electoral reform if elected.[1] Labour won that election and in 1985 Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Geoffrey Palmer established the 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 representation (MMP). Recognizing 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.

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.[2]

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. 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.[3]

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 to coincide with the next general election, due in a year’s time in 1993, in which voters would choose between FPP and MMP.

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.[4]

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

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

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".[5]

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.[6]

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.[7]

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.[7]

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.[8]

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".[7] 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,[9][10] 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..."[11]

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.[8]

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."[7] 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.[8]

Introduction of MMP

The first election using MMP was held in 1996.

As a result, National and Labour lost their complete dominance in the House. Neither has yet been able to hold a majority within the House under MMP. 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.

Prior to the switch to MMP, New Zealand largely had a two party system, with government interchanging between Labour and National since 1935. 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 (as happened in Germany after their adoption of MMP), but has in fact increased.

The transition to MMP has caused disproportionality to fall.[12]

Election Disproportionality Number of Parties in Parliament
1946–1993 average 11.10% 2.4
1996 4.36% 6
1999 3.01% 7
2002 2.53% 7
2005 1.11% 8
2008 5.21% 7
2011 2.38% 8
2014 3.74% 7

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.

  Voting system referendum 2011: Part A[13]
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
N 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[14]
  Voting system referendum 2011: Part B[13]
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 16.3 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[14]

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.[15] After submissions on the proposals were considered, the final report was presented to the Minister of Justice on 29 October 2012.[16][17] It is up to Parliament to decide whether to enact any of the recommendations.[18]

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.

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. However, only five territorial authorities used STV in the 2013 local elections.[19]

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.[19]

All District Health Boards must use STV.[19]

See also


  1. For a good summary background on the referendum, see pp. 3-5 in LeDuc, Lawrence; et al. "The Quiet Referendum: Why Electoral Reform Failed in Ontario" (PDF). University of Toronto. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  2. MMP Or SM? A Big Decision Looms For New Zealand Voters scoop.co.nz, 30 June 2011
  3. pp. 3-4 in LeDuc, Lawrence; et al. "The Quiet Referendum: Why Electoral Reform Failed in Ontario" (PDF). University of Toronto. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  4. Nohlen, D, Grotz, F & Hartmann, C (2001) Elections in Asia: A data handbook, Volume II, p723 ISBN 0-19-924959-8
  5. "Decision Maker - MMP's First Decade". 2006. Retrieved 2009-02-05.
  6. "Cartoon from the MMP campaign - Government and Politics". Retrieved 6 July 2011.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Donald, Rod (21 August 2003). "Proportional Representation in NZ - how the people let themselves in". Retrieved 6 July 2011.
  8. 1 2 3 Renwick, Alan (2010). The Politics of Electoral Reform: Changing the Rules of Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 207. ISBN 978-0-521-76530-5. Retrieved 22 July 2016.
  9. Eyley, Claudia Pond; Salmon, Dan (2015). Helen Clark: Inside Stories. Auckland: Auckland University Press. pp. 145–146. ISBN 978 1 77558 820 7. Retrieved 20 July 2016.
  10. Jack Vowles (2005). "New Zealand: The Consolidation of Reform?". In Gallagher, Michael; Mitchell, Paul. The Politics of Electoral Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 296–297. ISBN 978-0-19-925756-0. Retrieved 22 July 2016.
  11. Ball, Murray (1993). "Pro-MMP poster" (poster). Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 4 July 2016.
  12. Jonathan Boston, Stephen Church, Stephen Levine, Elizabeth McLeay and Nigel Roberts, New Zealand Votes: The General Election of 2002 Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2003
  13. 1 2 "2011 Referendum on the Voting System Preliminary Results for Advance Votes". Electoral Commission. Retrieved 10 December 2011.
  14. 1 2 "Enrolment statistics for the whole of New Zealand". Electoral Commission. 26 November 2011. Retrieved 10 December 2011.
  15. "Review of the MMP voting system: Proposals Paper" (PDF). Electoral Commission. 13 August 2012. Retrieved 13 August 2012.
  16. "MMP review details". Television New Zealand. 13 February 2012. Retrieved 16 February 2012.
  17. Electoral Commission New Zealand. "Report of the Electoral Commission on the Review of the MMP Voting System, 29 October 2012" (PDF). Retrieved 25 January 2014.
  18. Electoral Commission New Zealand. "The Results of the MMP Review". Retrieved 25 January 2014.
  19. 1 2 3 "STV Information". Department of Internal Affairs. Retrieved 29 September 2013.
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