New Zealand does not have a single written constitution – a variety of laws and long-standing conventions have created its constitutional structures. Until 1993, the Electoral Act 1956 provided the basis for the voting system. Entrenched clauses in the act could only be changed by either a vote by at least 75% of all the members of Parliament or by a majority vote in a referendum. One of these clauses entrenched the three-year parliamentary term. New Zealand has twice held referendums on whether the maximum term of Parliament should be three years or four.
Referendums on parliamentary terms
The first referendum on the term of Parliament was held on 23 September 1967, at the same time as the referendum on hotel opening hours. Of those who voted (69% of registered electors), 68% favoured retaining a three-year parliamentary term. In the second referendum on this matter, in 1990, 69% of those who voted supported the three-year term. This referendum was held in conjunction with a general election, with 85% of registered electors voting.
Neither referendum was conducted directly under the provisions of the Electoral Act 1956. As a result, had a majority in either referendum favoured a four-year term, the public will could only have been formally implemented by a vote of at least 75% of the members of Parliament. The results of both referendums made this issue irrelevant.
The Campaign for Better Government
The 1993 constitutional referendum campaign saw the emergence of an anti-MMP lobby group, the Campaign for Better Government (CBG), led by Telecom chairman Peter Shirtcliffe. The CBG reportedly spent over $1.5 million on its campaign, compared to $181,000 by the pro-MMP Electoral Reform Coalition. The CBG’s campaign may have increased support for first-past-the-post (FPP), which received 46% of the vote in 1993. On the other hand, it has been argued that the CBG was seen by many as a lobby group for business interests opposed to proportional representation.
The referendum on voting systems (1993)
New Zealand’s only constitutional referendum held directly under the provisions of the Electoral Act 1956 – and therefore binding – took place in November 1993. It asked voters whether they wanted to replace the first-past-the-post voting system with the mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting system. A majority of electors (54%) said they did. The referendum was held in conjunction with the general election, and 85% of registered voters participated.
The result had important constitutional consequences. The Electoral Act 1993 replaced the Electoral Act 1956 as the legislative basis of New Zealand’s voting system. The number of MPs increased from 99 to 120. The voting system became proportional (parties’ shares of seats in Parliament reflected their share of the nationwide vote). Until 2020, every subsequent administration was either a coalition government or involved one or more small parties promising to support a large party.