Why MMP Is Still The Best Option

MMP has flaws, but the alternatives to the current voting system are much worse

by Gordon Campbell

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this year’s referendum on the voting system is that it is being held at all. There was no legal obligation on the government to conduct a poll on the voting system – an exercise that could potentially cost $23 million all up, at a time when funding for public services is being squeezed. Nor is there much in the way of discernible public dissatisfaction with the current voting system. Auckland University Political Science Associate Professor Raymond Miller traces the origins of this year’s poll back to a promise made by Jenny Shipley in 1999 that National, if re-elected, would hold such a referendum.

After National’s election victory in 2008 Key, Miller says, John Key came under pressure from two directions to revive that commitment. “The first was from among National’s constituency, from the membership and activists in particular. And also I think, from members of the business community who had never been happy with MMP. I have the impression that he was never particularly enthusiastic about a referendum himself, but he felt it was a campaign commitment that he should keep.”

So…. thanks to National diehards and a few corporate chieftains, the public is being required to spend money and time on revisiting the battles of the early 1990s. At this year’s election, voters will get two votes on the voting system. Firstly, they will be asked whether they want to retain MMP, and – separately – they will also be asked to choose an alternative system from a list of options. If a majority fails to say “yes” to MMP the issue will be revisited at the 2014 election when there will be a run-off between MMP and whatever alternative system won the most votes this year. This underlines the necessity for even those who tick to retain MMP, to also vote in the second part.

It seems a big ask to expect that after a month of brochures in the letterbox and occasional 30 second ad on television that most voters will be well enough acquainted with the voting systems on offer – Supplementary Member, Single Transferable Vote, Mixed Member Proportional and First Past the Post – to make an informed call about their relative strengths and weaknesses. Is a referendum a good way of dealing with issues of such complexity?

It is, Miller replies, if is there a widespread mood for change, as there was in the early 1990s. “ While it is always difficult putting something as complex as this to a referendum, I think it’s the appropriate way to deal with an issue such as electoral reform. But the context in the early 1990s was so different from now. This time, there doesn’t seem to have been any public clamour for it at all.”

Not so in the early 1990s. At that time, the public had been battered by three successive waves of heavy-handed government : the Muldoon era, the Lange-led Labour government, and the Bolger-led National government. The cumulative effect was that voters felt themselves to be at the mercy of elected representatives who kept on enacting policies for which there was little or no public support. The inherent unfairness of the First Past the Post system, the lack of adequate checks and balances in New Zealand’s single chamber Parliament and the ideological extremism of both major parties had all served to create a perception that the voting system was delivering the public into the hands of an elected dictatorship.

“There was a widespread belief that successive governments had let the public down, that politicians were not listening, that they had broken their promises,” Miller [pictured left] says. “There was even a feeling that politicians were corrupt.” By the early 1990s, the government of the day was seen as being no better than its predecessors. “The Bolger government was deeply unpopular, particularly on issues around the [1991] Ruth Richardson Budget.”

Crucially, the hostile public mood had been given focus and intellectual firepower by the 1986 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform which had analysed the range of voting systems on offer. It had measured each voting system against its ability to promote democracy, and ended up strongly in favour of MMP. Therefore, when it came time to vote in the referendums of 1992 and 1993, the public had the Royal Commission’s endorsement of MMP readily at hand, for guidance. Moreover, the Royal Commission findings helped to unite the pro-change forces under the one banner of MMP, as the best reform option. Now, nearly 20 years later….the public is being asked to repeat exactly the same task of evaluating the various voting systems that it carried out during the first referendum in 1992 – but this time, the public has nothing like the same expertise on hand to help out.

That’s one of Miller’s chief worries. In his view, the advertising being put out by the Electoral Commission so far this year simply hasn’t been up to the job. “I’ve got in front of me the handout circulated to householders as a guide to the voting referendum. All they basically do is outline in the very broadest of terms what each of the systems happens to be. There’s very little on what the implications of what each of those options would be for the nature of Parliament, and for the business of government.” Surely, that is a major concern – given that the meat of the Royal Commission report was the way it examined the gist of each system, and analysed how fair and democratic the outcomes would be in each case?

“Oh, absolutely.” Miller replies. “They were looking at what they considered a good and fair electoral system to be. And they worked it out in terms of fair representation – including for minorities – and in terms of an effective Parliament, and an effective government. But all of that is lost in history now.” Note : the Royal Commission report can still be found on the shelves of the nation’s libraries. Even 25 years down the track, it is still the best guide to voting in this year’s referendum. Chapter two is the essential part, and is available online here.

The country has moved on. An entire generation of voters up to the age of 33 or thereabouts have voted only within MMP-style elections. Among older citizens, memories of the unfairness of the FPP system have faded. “We have an older age group,” Miller says, “ who are in their 60s and 70s and beyond – some of whom look back with nostalgia to FPP because they thought it led to more effective and decisive government.” Those two factors form part of the cultural backdrop for this year’s referendum.

While the public will always feels some degree of disdain and hostility towards politicians, there is little sign that the bulk of today’s electorate are feeling like taking that out on the voting system. “Its much less of an issue now because we have a popular government in power,” Miller says. “Had this referendum been put by a Labour government in its third term at the election in 2008, there may have been more likelihood of a judgement being made on politicians. But attitudes to politicians are far higher now, than they were in the early 1990s.”

As mentioned, the referendum this year has been foisted on the public by a few diehard members of the business elite, and by elements in the two main political parties who are seeking to claw back some of the power they lost 18 years ago, to MMP. “Yes,” Miller says, “ I think they see it that way. And in that respect, it’s interesting that they haven’t gone for FPP as the preferred option. That’s what they wanted in 1992 and 1993. This time, I think they are realistic enough to believe the public would smell a rat and see it as an attempt to get rid of all the small parties in Parliament and return New Zealand to a single party, majority government. That would not go down well with a lot of voters. There’s a very realistic view [among the anti-MMP camp] that they should look for a system that gives small parties some representation, but not enough to do too much harm.”

And therefore the anti-MMP campaign has settled on the Supplementary Member (SM) system as their alternative? “ Yes, they’ve ended up with SM. ” Around the country, National MPs appear to be being whipped into speaking out in support of SM. Tauranga’s Simon Bridges and Nelson’s Nick Smith for instance, have become public advocates for SM, which is not a proportional system. This could pose a problem for backbench colleagues such as Dunedin’s Michael Woodhouse – who, in order to be consistent, would need to vote for either MMP or STV, given that he recently described himself in Parliament as “a supporter of proportional representation.”

The Supplementary Member System

The word “ supplementary” is the tip-off here. Under SM, it is envisaged that there would be 90 electorate seats, and 30 list seats. SM is essentially a FPP electoral system in the electorates but with a limited – some would say token – number of seats allocated to each party in proportion to the number of votes they’ve won.

Put that another way : under the SM system, proportionality is confined only to the small minority of list seats. Therefore if a political party like the Greens got 20 % of the vote nationwide it would win only 20% of the token number of list seats, and not 20% of all the seats in Parliament, as would be the case under MMP. If there are only 30 list seats in a 120 seat Parliament such a party would get 20% of the vote, but only six seats. (Under MMP, they would get 27.) By the same arithmetic, if the 2008 election had been carried out under the SM system, the Greens would have got only two seats, and not their current tally of nine seats.

The same fate would befall almost every other small party under MMP. All of which makes it bizarre that National MP Simon Bridges has been touting SM as “ the moderate and balanced” option that combines the best elements of MMP and FPP. It is no such thing. Essentially, SM repeats all of the unfair, undemocratic aspects of FPP while adding only a thin veneer of proportionality. This may explain why, in the nicest possible way, the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform was utterly scathing about SM. Using the example of the Bob Jones’ New Zealand Party – which won 12. 3 % of the vote but got no seats at all in the 1984 election – the Royal Commission points out under SM, the same 12.3% tally would have still delivered the Jones party only three seats. The Royal Commission concluded by dismissing SM as a desirable option, calling it a “palliative” rather than a true prescription for improvement.

Miller agrees. SM is fine, he says, if you want a system that is not fair and not proportional, and that gives only token representation to small parties. “It really doesn’t fit the bill in a number of respects. The Royal Commission believed that fairness would be reflected in the diversity that came though in the party lists. A disproportionate number of women and ethnic minorities are on the party lists. It is those lists that have been responsible for increasing the representative nature of Parliament. SM can’t do that really, because its got such a small list component. Women, Maori and others would lose ground…”

Small parties would be severely disadvantaged by SM, Miller believes. “If you had 30 list seats and you’re only basing the proportions on the number of list seats then if the Greens got 10% of the vote – which they’ve never got – then they would get only 3 seats. That would deliver a mortal blow to them.” SM would not deliver an immediate blow to the Maori Party, he adds, but only so long as it managed to hold onto all of its electorate seats. If it couldn’t, it would begin to suffer the same fate.

Under SM, Miller concludes, the 2008 election result would have delivered a single party majority government with no need to go to the small parties. National’s haul meanwhile, would have increased under SM from the 58 seats it won under MMP to 67 seats under SM. (No wonder National MPs all around the country have become SM supporters overnight!) “ Under SM, we would have something very similar to what he had under FPP.”

For that reason, SM would sound the death knell to small party policy initiatives such as Kiwibank, which was a concession wrung from the Clark government, in the face of opposition from both the major parties. The role of small parties in a check and balance on streamroller executive power would also be lost. Under SM, the compromises negotiated with the Key government over its proposed video surveillance interim legislation would simply not have happened. If SM had been in place in 2008, National would have been able to ram through its initial draconian set of proposals unopposed.

Single Transferable Vote (STV)

Back in the early 1990s, the Single Transferable Vote system enjoyed a good deal of support, even among those who wanted to change to a proportional representation system of voting. It is used in some local body elections in New Zealand, where it is well recognised that aspects of STV help to foster grassroots democracy and independence. It does so by enabling voters to rank individual candidates and thereby minimises the role of the party ticket. That can work well in limited metropolitan areas, or in small countries like Ireland, which – in geographical area – is only half the size of the South Island. STV’s qualities may be less desirable (and less able to foster coherent government) at a national level.

Essentially, STV is a system that combines a level of proportional representation – which it achieves via preferential voting rather than by party lists. People rank the candidates in order of preference. Under STV, one’s vote is initially allocated to his or her most preferred candidate, and then, after candidates have either been elected or eliminated, any surplus or unused votes are transferred by means of the preferences that the voter has stated. Arguably, one downside of STV is that the electorates are far larger – there would be about 25 for the whole of the country and only five or six for the entire South Island. Each of these mega-electorates would have several MPs – up to five at the most, and almost certainly coming from several different parties.

As Miller says, STV doesn’t involve list MPs. “ So it has that attraction for those who don’t like list MPs. Its not as proportional as MMP, so it doesn’t deliver for small parties as much representation.” Because each large electorate has several members, there would not only be competition between parties, but also competition within each party as say, the five candidates in Labour vied with each other to get visibility and reach the top of the voter’s rankings. The potential for intra-party squabbling was seen by the Royal Commission as a significant drawback of STV.

If people have problems with party lists… wouldn’t it be almost as problematic that STV enables MPs to be elected on the preferences of voters who didn’t actually vote for them as their main choice ? Yes, Miller says – given that a designated quota of votes would be required, and these would usually be achieved by dropping off losing candidates and having their votes re-distributed. “So a lot of votes would not go towards the most preferred candidate, but to someone else. “

As in any system of preferential voting, STV would also skew the election campaign against the sort of parties unlikely to attract second or third preferences. Some parties could be scapegoated out of Parliament entirely, by missing out on preferences. In fact, couldn’t the whole climate of political advertising and campaigning be skewed under STV, as parties jockeyed for preferences just as much as they sought to promote their own policies? “This is a problem not only for STV, “ Miller says. “ but for preferential voting as a whole. Voters will be guided by political parties as to how to cast their second and third votes and so on. Deals are done between political parties on that basis – and that’s why the Liberal-National coalition has done so well for long in Australia.”

Seen in this light, STV hardly offers a spotless alternative to the deal-making over party lists and post-election coalition negotiations that some voters find objectionable about MMP. Arguably, STV also makes voting an intrinsically more cumbersome process. Since the ballots have to be far bigger to enable voters to rank their preferences, voter fatigue – or voter ignorance- can kick in, early on.. “We have this problem with STV in local body elections, “ Miller points out. “You can use up your top few ranks without knowing who it is that you’re voting for.”

Mere alphabetical order can become all important. “However you rank or weight the list, people start at the top and begin working on through.” In some jurisdictions, the names on the ballot paper are randomly rotated for this very reason, to try and compensate. Even so, Miller says, the candidates higher on the ballot paper under STV are likely to end up being ranked higher than the people further down the list. Moreover : ‘Overall, it is very hard for people who may have only voted for one party, to rank candidates from parties other than the party that they support.”

To repeat : the best thing about STV is that it creates the potential for more independent-minded people to be elected. “Under STV, it is easier to be elected,” Miller says, “without having been attached to a political party. That’s because [candidates] are putting themselves forward more often as candidates, than as representatives of political parties. “ Opting for STV would therefore mark something of a break from the tradition of party-based government that has been evident in New Zealand since the end of the 19th century. For that reason, it would have implications for the degree of unity of stability of government, since MPs with little or no party attachment would be more likely to take a stance on particular issues on a case by case basis. Some would see that as a virtue : others, less so. “ We saw a lot of party-hopping in the early days under MMP,” Miller says. “Under STV, there would be a greater inclination for that to happen. ”

So, in that sense, STV could feed the fragmentation of government that the current MMP threshold was supposed to prevent ? “ I think so,” Miller replies. “I think it would be inclined to lead to very small parties and independents.” As a consequence, wouldn’t it mean that backroom bargaining and inter-election deal making would increase under STV? “Oh, I think it certainly would. And the reliability of any election outcome would be in question, simply because the party wouldn’t exercise as much control as it currently does.”

First Past the Post

These days, First Past the Post has few friends. It is a winner take all system, even if that victory has been achieved by dubious means. More than once in New Zealand’s history, FPP has delivered outcomes whereby parties have won elections with fewer votes than their opponents, which is an impossibility under MMP. FPP is not only the least democratic system on offer in this year’s referendum. By its very nature, it generates a vast number of wasted votes – in that all the superfluous votes needed to win an electorate contest are wasted, just as much as the votes for the losing opposition are tossed in the dustbin. By contrast, almost every vote under the MMP system has some bearing on the final distribution of seats, and the election outcome.

FPP is also a system where the bulk of the electorates are ignored, as campaign resources are focussed on the small number of marginal electorates that decide the entire election outcome. Few people have lamented the demise of FPP – which was in essence, a vehicle for shutting out small parties and for passing the baton back and forth between National and Labour, who once elected, could wield unchecked power. No wonder the business elites who benefitted from this arrangement in the 1980s and early 1990s feel nostalgic about FPP and want it – or its SM lookalike – to be re-installed, at this year’s referendum.


Nothing in the above is meant to suggest that our current version of MMP is a perfect system. At the same time, nothing has emerged from the 15 years of New Zealand’s experience with MMP to alter the Royal Commission’s basic judgement – that of all the options available, MMP is the most fair system, and the one that delivers the most democratic outcomes. Essentially, its flaws are fixable – and those flaws are not as grievous as the ones in the systems vying to replace it.

Luckily, the mechanism for fixing MMP is already on the rails. The Key government – in the shape of outgoing Justice Minister Simon Power – has already signed off on an independent review of MMP to be conducted next year, with a view to addressing aspects of the system in need of fine-tuning. This review is likely to focus for instance on such issues as the one seat threshold – whereby if a party wins an electorate seat, it gets the bonus of extra seats according to the percentage of its vote, nationwide. Currently, that bonus kicks in even if the percentage is less than the 5% threshold that disqualifies those parties that fall below the threshold ( and don’t win an electorate seat) from getting any seats at all.

This unfair scenario was played out in the wake of the 2008 election. New Zealand First got 4.07 % of the vote and no seats, which meant that all of its 95,356 votes were wasted. At the same time, the Act Party got only 85,496 votes and won five seats, thanks to Rodsney Hide winning the electorate seat of Epsom. Similarly this year, the Mana Party is being expected to bring at least one other MP into Parliament, on the coat-tails of Hone Harawira’s likely electorate win in Te Tai Tokerau.

There are a couple of possible solutions to this problem. The simplest solution would be to abolish the one-seat trigger. This would reflect the reality that some small parties ( Progressives, United Future) have really just been one man bands for the likes of Jim Anderton and Peter Dunne. Another possible tweaking of MMP would involve reducing the MMP threshold from the current very high 5% level, and setting it back at the 4% level originally recommended by the Royal Commission. This would reduce the incidence of wasted votes. Miller believes that taking both steps at the same time would be the most desirable way for the review next year to proceed : “If you were going to abolish the one per cent threshold [ ie, the bonus for electorate seat gains] there’s a strong argument for reducing the 5% threshold, in order to reduce the incidence of wasted votes.”

The other, less substantial “problem” with MMP is the one highlighted by outgoing Labour MP George Hawkins in his valedictory speech this year – namely, that candidates rejected by their electorate can get back into Parliament on the party list. It is doubtful whether this is a problem at all. The Royal Commission actually commended the party lists, given they enabled people to enter Parliament from different backgrounds and with valuable forms of expertise that may not be the same as the skills needed for electorate work. Moreover, as Miller points out, there are relatively few examples where the alleged problem occurs. There were only four cases, he believes at the 2008 election – and George Hawkins neglected to mention that over the past 15 years, many of the beneficiaries ( Lynn Pillay, Damien O’Connor, Jim Sutton) have come from the Labour Party

Superficially, there would be an easy fix for this aspect of MMP : ie, forbid it by law to happen. Yet given that some small parties – such as the Greens – contest elections only as list parties, that cure would be worse than the disease. In order to maximise their list vote, parties such as the Greens stand their MPs in electorate seats.. Those MPs are being deployed solely as vote magnets for the party vote. (In Ohariu this year, the Greens have all but told Green supporters to vote for Labour’s Charles Chauvel in the electorate contest. ) Therefore, any tweaking of MMP that forbade electorate candidates from entering Parliament on the list would rule out the entire Green Party caucus, and would thus disenfranchise the 157, 613 New Zealanders who voted for the Greens at the last election. Arguably, even those who want to see changes in MPP should still vote “ Yes” to retain MMP in the upcoming referendum – if only because that is the only way to ensure that the promised independent review of the current voting system will actually take place.

Finally, how much knowledge of the various systems is needed, before voters can get to make an informed choice? Once again, the Royal Commission got that right too. At para 2:150, the Royal Commission conceded that not everyone would understand the full details of how votes are allocated under either STV, or MMP. “But we do not however, believe that it is necessary for every voter to understand all the intricacies of any voting system so long as voters can be confident that the system is fair, that counting is carried out by impartial officials under the scrutiny of candidates and parties, and that there are effective and impartial avenues to deal with any allegations of malpractice or unfairness.”

Even so, and as mentioned at the outset, there is no compelling reason for this year’s referendum to be taking place at all. There is little sign of public discontent with the current voting system, and a lot of satisfaction with how MMP has made Parliament far more representative. The point has been made throughout this article that no serious flaws have emerged sufficient to invalidate the Royal Commission’s verdict that MMP is the best and fairest of all the options that are available.

The Royal Commission’s conclusion is currently being supported far beyond the centre-left wing of the electorate. In an editorial earlier this year (called “MMP Deserves to Survive Referendum”) the normally conservative New Zealand Herald reached the same conclusion:

Proportional representation has changed less than its advocates hoped or its opponents feared. Minority governments still rule, tails have not wagged dogs, stability remains. The previous Government lasted nine years; polls suggest most voters want the present Government to have a second term…..

MMP is working well, and could be better with some refinements.

Most voters would probably agree with the Herald. Most of them are likely to vote to retain MMP, send it off to an independent review next year, By doing so, they will have frustrated the latest corporatist attempt to return New Zealand to the bad old days of the 1980s and early 1990s….when a largely unrepresentative bloc of white middle aged males ruled this country unchecked, largely for the benefit of their friends in the corporate sector. As it was in 1993, support for MMP is a vote for the future.


Footnote : one of the least understood aspects of the referendum this year is that there are two discrete parts. Therefore, it is essential that even people voting “ Yes” to retain MMP, should also vote in the second part, because that second vote would determine what system would be put up against MMP in any subsequent referendum in 2014.

Unfortunately, it is likely that a lot of MMP supporters who vote in the first option, will neglect to vote in the second part. Perhaps they may even think it would cancel out their first vote to do so. That would be a mistake. It would do no such thing.

The reason why it is important? Because if, against the odds, MMP failed to win next month, the contest in 2014 will be between MMP and the most preferred option chosen from section two this year. The centre right is being told to vote SM. Most MMP supporters will probably tick STV, which is the next most proportional system after MMP. Personally, I think there is an argument – for tactical reasons – for MMP supporters to vote for First Past the Post, on the grounds that it would be the easiest option to defeat if it should come down to a second and decisive referendum, in 2014.