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Why did New Zealand change to MMP?


3. The political context

In 1986 the Royal Commission's recommendations on a change to MMP seemed the least likely to be accepted. Neither the Labour or the National parties supported a proportional voting system, although there were a few individual MPs in Labour (including the Deputy Prime Minister) and in National who did support a change.

So how did the change to MMP actually come about? A number of factors were at work. A pressure group, the Electoral Reform Coalition, was formed in 1986 to promote the case for a referendum on a change to MMP. In a live television debate during the 1987 election campaign, one of the leaders of this group extracted an undertaking from the Prime Minister that Labour would hold a referendum on the issue. It later emerged that the Prime Minister had misread his briefing notes and had omitted the word 'not'.427

In 1987 Parliament referred the Royal Commission's report to a parliamentary select committee. That committee reported in 1988 and recommended that the FPP system should remain. However the Labour majority on the committee recommended that a referendum should be held on a change to the Supplementary Member (SM) system.428 The Labour Government agreed that FPP should remain, but did not agree that a referendum should be held on a change to SM.429

However despite the lack of enthusiasm among the major political parties, the issue of the voting system refused to go away. It seems that a crucial factor provoking change was the prevailing public attitudes to politics and politicians in the decade from the mid-1980s. There was a widespread public perception that the Labour governments elected in 1984 and 1987 had deceived the voters by failing to carry out their election manifestos and by imposing new models of economic and state sector management against significant public opposition. Many people and groups began to look for ways to reassert popular and parliamentary control over governments. They saw the recommendation of the Royal Commission that there should be a referendum on a change to a proportional voting system as a means of doing so.

The strength of this public opinion was such that at the 1990 election all parties, major and minor, undertook to hold a referendum on the voting system.