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Lessons from the change to MMP


So what have been the lessons of New Zealand's change from FPP to MMP?

The first lesson is that some of the important effects of a change to a different type of voting system take longer to emerge than many expected and longer than was the case with the only other major constitutional change in New Zealand in recent years the abolition of the appointed upper house in 1950. Adaptation to a new set of fundamental rules cannot be swift when many of the key actors have had long history and experience under the previous system and hence find it difficult to adjust quickly to the new rules and their incentives. For example, some parties' campaigning in 1996 was still focussed on winning particular electorate seats rather than on winning Party Votes across the whole country. In general, however, parties' campaigning in 1999 was much more focussed on winning Party Votes.

Second, New Zealand's basic constitutional arrangements have been shown to be extremely flexible. Of course, a good deal of planning was done prior to the first MMP election, and the changes in the composition of government beforehand allowed some of those plans to be tested. On the whole, the processes of government and of Parliament have evolved to cope with the changed environment without themselves requiring fundamental change.

The third lesson is perhaps the most important. The change to MMP has revealed that there is a general lack of public understanding among New Zealanders of their parliamentary democracy. For the first time in recent years, there were systematic attempts to promote public understanding among New Zealanders about their system of government. Those attempts revealed that New Zealand is similar to other democratic countries in having significant gaps in public knowledge about electoral and parliamentary matters (particularly among some groups in the population) and that many New Zealanders do not really understand the principles and values of democracy New Zealand-style. It seems too that there were similar levels of ignorance of the previous FPP system. Perhaps because FPP seemed so simple, New Zealand had not felt the need for many years to educate and inform people about constitutional and electoral matters in any kind of systematic and long-term way.