The 1992 referendum
The 1992 referendum was not a binding one, and only 55.2% of registered electors turned out to vote. However, the results were conclusive.
The Royal Commission on the Electoral System called its recommended electoral system mixed-member proportional representation, which it shortened to MMP. Another of the voting systems it examined, supplementary member, was abbreviated to SM. Other voting systems in the 1992 referendum were also known by their initials: first-past-the-post became FPP, preferential voting was called PV and the single transferable vote system was abbreviated to STV.
In response to the first of two questions posed in the 1992 referendum, 84.7% of voters opted for a change to the voting system. Answering the second question, 70.5% of voters indicated a preference for the mixed-member proportional system (MMP) from amongst the four options on the referendum ballot paper. The three other reform options were single transferable voting (a form of proportional representation), which was supported by 17.4% of voters; supplementary member (a semi-proportional electoral system), supported by 5.5%; and preferential voting (a majoritarian electoral system – the winner needs a majority of votes), which was supported by 6.6% of voters.
Labour Party leader Mike Moore captured the mood when he said, in response to the referendum results, ‘The people didn’t speak on Saturday. They screamed’.1
The 1993 binding referendum
In light of the results of the 1992 indicative referendum, the National government held a binding, run-off referendum at the same time as the 1993 general election. This time 85% of eligible electors voted, and MMP was supported by 53.9% of them, while 46.1% voted for the existing first-past-the-post system.
The results of the 1993 referendum meant that the Electoral Act 1993 became law and three years later, on 12 October 1996, New Zealand held its first general election using MMP.
What is MMP?
Mixed-member proportional representation is, as its name suggests, a proportional representation system in which there is a mix of electorate MPs and ‘list’ MPs. It was pioneered in Germany after the Second World War. MMP – as it operates in both Germany and New Zealand – gives electors two votes: one for a political party (known as the party vote in New Zealand) and one for a local electorate member of Parliament.
Parties are awarded a proportional share of the 120 seats in the New Zealand Parliament on the basis of the number of party votes they receive. However, they must first reach one of two thresholds – by getting at least 5% of the total valid party vote, or winning at least one electoral district.
In the 2008 general election the National Party won 1,053,398 party votes (44.9% of the party votes). This meant National was entitled to 58 seats in the House of Representatives – 47.5% of the total number. Because the party had won 41 electoral districts it was allocated another 17 seats, which were filled by list MPs. List MPs are drawn from party lists, with candidates ranked, which are announced before the election.
The Green Party won 6.7% of the party vote in 2008, but it won no electorates. All nine Green MPs (7.4% of the MPs in the 2008–11 Parliament) were thus list MPs.
National, the Greens and Labour all won a slightly higher proportion of seats in Parliament than their share of the party vote because New Zealand First won 4.1% of the vote, but no electorates. Its party vote was therefore ‘wasted’, to the benefit of other parties. The Māori Party, on the other hand, won five electorates but just 2.4% of the party vote – worth three seats on a pro rata basis. This resulted in an ‘overhang’ – the number of MPs was increased from 120 to 122 to accommodate the two extra electorate winners.