New Zealand: What political changes have resulted from the switch to PR?

In 1993, New Zealand switched from the traditional British first-past-the-post, single-member-district system of electing members to Parliament, to a German-style mixed-member system, in which some members are elected from single-member districts and others are elected from a national “party list”.

I have long been a member of the Center for Voting and Democracy (, an organization dedicated to introducing pro-multipartisan electoral reforms, such as proportional representation and instant-runoff voting, in the United States.

I have a pet theory: The first-past-the-post system, by freezing out all but the two biggest parties, naturally produces a system in which the parties are big coalitions of several different factions. Here in the U.S., the Republican Party includes pro-big-business interests; neoconservative foreign-policy warhawks; religious-social conservatives; nativist-isolationist populist conservatives (like Pat Buchanan, who is trying to siphon these off into his own new America First Party); moderate libertarians, like Goldwater was (radical libertarians join the Libertarian Party but some continue to vote Republican anyway for strategic reasons); and a core of more traditional, middle-class, moderate conservatives. Obviously these groups don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but they all stay in the same party, because where else are they going to go? But if we were to switch to a PR system, so that a given faction would no longer have to work within a major-party “big tent” to get its own representation in Congress, then the Republican Party probably would break up, along its natural fault lines, into several medium-sized parties. And so would the Democratic Party.

At least, that’s my theory. It can be confirmed only by observing how things go in a democratic country that has had a first-past-the-post system for a long time and then switches to PR. But when I look around the world, I see only one such example: New Zealand. (There’s also South Africa, but the difference between the old Apartheid regime and the current system is too vast to control for just one factor like the introduction of PR.)

New Zealand Dopers, please enlighten me: After NZ switched to PR, what happened? Did any big parties break up? Did big parties lose ground to smaller ones? What practical political effects have resulted from the change?

Well, the newly-elected government here in Ontario has announced the Secretariat for Decomcratic Renewal (see the lower part of this press release), whose mission is to look at legislative reform. We may see such a thing as PR in the future.

Er, “Democratic”.

I no longer live in NZ but I was there during the transition from FPP (First Past The Post) to MMP (Mixed Member Proportional). MMP marked a major change in the political landscape, breaking the stranglehold major parties held over parliment, and freeing up the smaller political parties to have a more significant role.

First, some background.
NZ, with a population of about 3.5 million people, had ~90 electorates under FPP. Most were regional, but 4 seats were allocated as Maori seats, reserved for ethnic NZs. The seats were divided between National (Right of Centre) and Labour (Left of Centre). Elections were usually fairly close, and a small swing away from the sitting government usually triggered a change. In the late 80’s/early 90’s, a couple of other parties were also represented, as offshoots of the main parties. Generally they were represented by one or two MP’s who retained their seats by personal popularity in their electorates.

Under MMP, there were 120 MPs representing 60 Electorates. During an election, voters voted for an electoral representative, and a party vote. The 60 elected representitives were then complemented with another 60 MPs, who were selected from a prepublished Party List. The total number of MPs (Electorate and List) a party had in parliment is representative of the proportion of the Party vote that the party gained. The minimum threshold for representation is 5%, but if a party has an elected representative the minimum does not apply.

So, in the first MMP election no single party had enough seats for a majority. There was two weeks of negotiating as the major parties hammered out agreements with minor parties to try and form a government. In the end, a Labour government was formed with support from minor parties.

In the first term, MMP raised some issues. In particular, some MP’s felt that they could not align themselves with their parties final position. Under FPP, they were a representitive of the electorate, and could declare as an independent or change party if they wished. This is still the case for Elected MP’s. But List MP’s represent the Party Vote, and the legislative muscle was not provided to exclude List MP’s who changed allegience. This has been addressed.
Also, some voters felt cheated by the fact that high profile party representatives not only stood in an electorate but also had a high position on the Party list, thus having two chances to get in to parliment. Voters were of the opinion that if they were not voted in, they should not slip in on the Party list. This has not been addressed, but some MP’s have refused list positions, relying on Electoral support.
Finally, some of the electorate felt that 120 MP’s was too many - a referendum was held that supported reducing the number of MP’s, but it was not binding and no action has been taken by the current NZ government.

After two MMP elections, NZ parliment is different. Labour is still the coalition leader. The Green Party and the Alliance Party support the Government on issues of supply (ie fiscal policy) and confidence but are free to vote differently on other issues. The Government can (and has) be defeated. There must be far more consensus before legislation can pass the house. Consideration has to be given to coalition members own bills. However, small parties have realised that they must not hold the Government to ransom over their own policy positions - the one party that tried that was punished at the next election by the voters. The National party is a shadow of it’s former self, unable to gain much headway. Several smaller parties have also arisen, and continue to grow. People are more able to vote for what they believe, because small parties do gain representation. However, I believe that the proportion of voters is still falling.

Eventually. MMP in NZ will be reviewed. I hope it stays - consensus government is better than adverserial government any day.


I’ve just finished a book on the history of the vote in New Zealand, in which the democratic process is reviewed from around 1852 to the present day, including the last general election in 2002.

Interestingly, up to around the first decade of the 20th century, party politics didn’t play a large part. Members of the House of Representatives generally did local politicking to get elected, not relying on a national platform. Understandable when the state of communication around the country is considered. No national newspaper and limited internal transport means. Once radio broadcasting was introduced, it provided the means to promote a party’s policy. Whether one simply facilitated the other or had a more direct influence, I don’t want to say.

From the early 1930’s, MHR’s had grouped into two main parties, the Liberal-Reform coalition party, which eventually became the current National party, and the Labour party . There were still one or two independents, but you can say pretty much that NZ had a two party political system.

That lasted until the mid sixties when a Social Credit MP was elected, but was there for only one term. In several elections of the 60’s and 70’s, third parties gained a reasonable proportion of the vote but never enough to win a seat in Parliament.

After the referendum which introduced MMP for the 1996 election, new parties started popping up like weeds. The theory in the OP certainly seems to have some support based on the experience here. MPs from the two parties split to form their own parties with policies that they couldn’t get support for within either of the big two. On the right, we have ACT, on the left, New Labour and a string of others. See here for a list of links to various parties.

This is the current makeup of Parliament.

By the way, si_blakely, the population is now over 4 million.


Thank you, si_blakely. But from what your telling me – neither the National nor the Labour Party split after PR was introduced, they simply remained largely intact while losing some of their Parliamentary vote share to smaller parties. Have I got that right?

Is ther any reason to believe it would play out differently in a larger country, such as Australia, the U.S., Canada, or the U.K.?

Oops, just finished reading a book on the history. I’m no political writer.


They didn’t split as such, but there were lots of MP’s that raced off to make new parties. Party jumping has become some MP’s favourite hobby.

What I would like to know is have the remaining parties grown ideologically purer? Did, for example, the Labour party become more doctrinaire socialist (assuming that any party that calls itself Labour is fundamentally socialist)? Or have they remained a coalition of widely varying groups?

In Canada it appears that the Liberals and the old Progressive Conservatives (the latter in the process of either taking over or being taken over by a far right party) had no ideology and it was hard to even tell them apart on the basis of their views. So what I am interested in knowing is if the NZ parties were like that and have they changed since.

I know it’s 4 million now - it wasn’t 4 million back then when MMP came in. I haven’t been away that long :wink:

The major party splits (Labour split off New Labour - eventually Alliance, National split off NZ First) occurred before the shift to MMP. MMP reinforced the divisions and allowed the smaller parties to survive and grow. Also, under MMP the loose coalition of the Alliance (Green Party, New Labour, Mana Matahake) which was needed under FPP grew and split into seperate parties (Greens and Alliance, maybe some others still survive).


Well, I think it would be a Very Good Thing for the U.S. to have half-a-dozen-or-so medium-sized parties, each ideologically purer and more homogeneous than the Reps or Dems are now, because then the party labels would really mean something and voters would really know what they’re voting for. But that’s for GD (and I’ve already started several GD threads on it over the past year).

Tell me, are the Kiwis generally satisfied with the results of PR? Do any of them want to go back to the old system? Has the multiplicity of parties caused any logjams in policymaking, or have they all learned to adapt? Has anything gotten done since the change, that couldn’t get done before? What about voter turnout? Has it gone up or down?

It appears that voter turnout has fallen with MMP

General Elections 1853-2002

There have been logjams, but the smaller parties have learnt that the electorate will not tolerate parties that hold the Govt to ransom over their own issues. I think that the parties have become more idealogically pure, if only because parts have split off them. But by the same token, the individual parties have more competition and are trying to broaden their appeal to survive.

I am not a political animal. I do like MMP, but NZs are pretty conservative and they may reject it when the review date comes up. I hope not - as it makes parliment more reactive and diverse.


I think MMP is here to stay now. Who would want to go back to the old “Labout-National-National-Labour” thing?

More parties means more bun fights but that’s a good thing.

Posted by si_blakely:

When is the “review date”? What does it involve? Will there be a national referendum on whether to keep or scrap MMP? A vote in Parliament?

I’m not sure if there’s a fixed review date as such. In 2001 a parliamentary committee made a review of the MMP system. Here’s the govenrments response to their coments.

As for BrainGlutton’s earlier comments:

There have been some calls for MMP to be scrapped, this old News Article said that 67% of those polled favoured a review, with just 30% wanting MMP retained unchanged.

As for getting things done, legislatively speaking, there’s no question that MMP limits the ability of governments to push through their legislative programme. There’s a lot more horse-trading going on. But this governmnets managed to pass some pretty controversial legislation (legalising prostitution, scrapping appeals to the Privy Council) without too much trouble.

Overall I’m personally in favour of MMP and think its been a net beenfit to our country. As calm kiwi points out there’s more bun fights, which makes politics all the more entertaining.

What, pray tell, does “PR” mean?

Proportional Representation.

What does gripe at folk here is the concept that came in with MMP of the “list MP”. Instead of the voters having a fairly good shot of deciding who goes in (or at least the tenuous belief in that happening), we now have political parties drawing up ranked lists of people who get in purely based on how well their party does proportionally. Few know who these people are, but we still pay for their bums to be on the seats in Wellington.

Personally, I voted for us to have STV or Single Transferable Vote, similar to Australia’s system. The party that stood to benefit most from MMP however, the Alliance (which, BTW, formed before MMP from disgruntled factions within Labour, joined by the Greens) were the ones to promote MMP like mad with posters, billboards, and even stickers on bus shelters before the MMP vs. STV vote. They won. And now, they are split asunder too.

Politics is a strange thing.

I actually voted STV too, but the concepts of STV are hard to get your head around - people (in general) understand how MMP works, and thus it was selected.

I don’t have a problem with list MPs - the party gets to rank its candidates as they see fit. And they often don’t have the visibility in the public eye, but I don’t think that electoral MP’s have a great deal of local visibility anyhow - or maybe I just lived in the wrong electorates.


Definitely a case (IMHO) of perception being at odds with reality – and I have to agree with your tenuous belief comment.

For several elections before the introduction of MMP I was living in electorates that were “strongholds” of one or other party. In these cases if I was voting against the favoured party candidate I might as well not have bothered – in the final tally it just wasn’t going to make a difference. By the same token, the party could have had a chimpanzee for a candidate and there would still have been a better than even chance of Bonzo getting elected. :slight_smile: