After 13 years of Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) representation, Prime Minister John Key has said it is time to ‘kick the tyres’ and see how much support the system enjoys. New Zealand will hold a referendum on the electoral system coinciding with the next election, which may well be a close contest. With this referendum looming, it is both desirable and necessary to revisit New Zealand’s electoral system, its peculiarities, and its history. Beyond that, this is also the time to consider alternatives to MMP.
MMP was introduced in New Zealand in 1996 to bring proportionality to the electoral system through the ‘mixed member’ system. The ‘party vote’ would determine the overall number of seats a party could hold in Parliament, and the ‘electorate vote’ would elect the local MP. This mixed member system was supposed to provide the best of both worlds: accurate national representation and a quality local candidate.
The new world of politics and equitable representation, however, never quite materialised. In fact, MMP created many perverse incentives and largely unforeseen consequences, such as increasing the power of political parties, the cessation of MPs being legitimised by their local electorate, and a reduction of political accountability for laws passed. The compromises that MMP encourages have led to a more consensual style of government, but it has also contributed to ad hoc lawmaking, an inability of government to take proper charge of a legislative programme, and pork barrel politics and ‘back room deals.’
MMP is a system concerned with process rather than outcomes. Although MMP has brought proportionality to parliamentary representation, it has produced political results that can hardly claim to be representative. This is because minor parties have a greater say in contentious legislation than their vote warrants. MMP was also designed to give women and ethnic groups more representation in Parliament. Maori and women’s representation has somewhat improved under MMP, but there is little or no evidence that it was MMP itself that led to this improvement.
Further, the 5% or one-seat electorate threshold that a party needs to be represented in Parliament has created discrepancies in the proportionality of election outcomes. Due to strong local support, the Maori Party won more seats than its party vote warranted at the last two elections. In the 2008 election, the ACT Party won five seats with 3.65% of the vote due to just one electorate seat, while New Zealand First won zero seats with 4.07%. This clearly breaches the principle of proportionality. Indeed, the threshold is designed to include only those with a big enough proportion.
Before adopting the current system, New Zealand had a First Past the Post (FPP) electoral system, which it had modelled on the British system. The most obvious problem with FPP was the immense amount of power invested in the cabinet, which could act as an elective dictatorship with the aid of a traditionally strong party whip system.
A new electoral system should provide for appropriate checks and balances on executive power while still making it possible to govern effectively. These are, admittedly, often contradictory goals. However, we believe MMP fails to satisfactorily deliver either.
Stating the failures of MMP should not be necessarily taken as an endorsement for going back to FPP. Instead of returning to FPP or creating another system such as single member or single transferable vote scheme, we advocate the formation of a bicameral Parliament consisting of a lower house (House of Representatives) and an upper house (Senate) for New Zealand.
• The House of Representatives would consist of 79 members elected by local electorates on the FPP basis for a three-year term. The Senate would consist of 31 members elected on a proportional basis for a three-year term by party vote. As a result, the number of local MPs would increase, while the total number of MPs would reduce to 110. Each voter would still have two votes: one for their local MP in the House of Representatives and one for a party in the Senate.
• The Senate would act as a house of review. All bills would have to pass through both houses, but the Senate would not be able to amend money bills or initiate legislation. Due to the small size of the Senate compared to similar institutions in other nations, relevant Ministers from the House of Representatives would appear before Senate question time.
• Senators would be able to serve as government ministers.
• Maori electorate seats and the Maori electorate roll will cease to exist under this system because they are inconsistent with a modern liberal democracy’s commitment to equal rights and a robust democracy.
To a certain extent, the Senate will suffer from the difficulties arising from parties presiding over list selection, but it will bring the following advantages:
• Provide far more transparency through the higher public profile of senators.
• Allow for the representation of minority parties, albeit different to their current role.
• Allow for minority parties to play an important role in the Senate and pass laws but incentivise responsible withholding of support due to their publicly visible role.
• Balance accountability with effective law making and governance.
Luke Malpass is a Policy Analyst with the New Zealand Policy Unit of The Centre for
Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich is a Research Fellow with the Economics Program at The Centre
for Independent Studies.