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 overwhelmingly 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 the first of the two questions posed in the 1992 referendum, 84.7% of voters opted for a change to the voting system. In 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 – where the winner needs a majority of votes), which was supported by 6.6% of voters.
Labour Party leader Mike Moore captured the feelings of Parliament 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 vote for a local electorate member of Parliament.
Parties are awarded a proportional share of all 120 seats in the New Zealand Parliament based on the number of party votes that they receive. However, they must first reach one of two thresholds – either getting at least 5% of the total valid party vote, or winning at least one electoral district.
For example, in the 2008 general election National won 1,053,398 party votes (44.9% of the party votes). As a result, the National Party was entitled to 58 seats in the House of Representatives – 47.5% of all the seats in Parliament. Because the party had won 41 electoral districts in the election, National was allocated another 17 seats in Parliament, which were filled by list MPs – to bring its overall complement up to 58 MPs. List MPs are drawn from party lists, which are announced before the election.
The Green Party, by way of contrast, won 6.7% of the party vote in 2008, but had no electorate MPs. All nine Green MPs (7.4% of all the MPs in the 2008–11 Parliament) were thus list MPs.