The transition to MMP, 1993-1996
Once the 1993 referendum had been carried, preparations for the new system had to begin in earnest. Two factors influenced the urgency of those preparations. First, because the number of electorate seats under MMP would be reduced from 99 to 65, an election under MMP could not be held until all the electorate boundaries had been re-drawn by the independent Representation Commission. That was completed in 1995. Second, four parties were elected to Parliament at the 1993 election and the National Party government had a majority of one.
The preparations for the coming of MMP took place on several fronts. First, MMP would almost certainly bring coalition or minority government, which would in turn bring significant changes to the ways the public service carried out its responsibilities in relation to governments and to ministers. The State Services Commission and the Cabinet Office therefore began work on the nature and scope of those changes, including sending senior personnel to Europe to study the operations of the public service under different types of proportional system.
Second, the Standing Orders Committee of Parliament undertook a major revision of Standing Orders to prepare for a multi-party Parliament elected by proportional representation. It too travelled to Europe to gain first-hand knowledge of the workings of different Parliaments elected by proportional representation.
Third, MPs and parties also began to prepare for MMP. Once it was known that one of the glues holding the old parties together was to be weakened, some MPs left their former parties to join other parties or to form new ones. That affected New Zealand's governing arrangements for 2 years prior to the 1996 election, and during that period the country experienced all the forms of government that are possible within its type of constitution. These changes passed largely unnoticed by the public. These pre-MMP changes also provided the public service and Parliament with invaluable pre-MMP experience of a multi-party majority and minority government. Nevertheless the government survived in its various forms until the first MMP election was held in October 1996.
The two MMP elections
As expected, no party won a majority of seats at the 1996 election. Two parallel coalition negotiations took place for nine weeks after the election, one between National and New Zealand First, the other between Labour and New Zealand First. Contrary to many expectations, New Zealand First decided to form a coalition with the National Party.
The coalition agreement between National and New Zealand First was signed on 11 December 1996, exactly 10 years to the day since the members of the Royal Commission on the Electoral System signed the letter of transmittal of its report to the Governor-General. Public opinion polling shows a marked public preference for FPP over MMP dating from about that time in 1996 until the 1999 election.
The period from 1996 to the 1999 election marked another stage in New Zealand's transition to MMP. The National-New Zealand First coalition ended in August 1998, but National continued to lead the government to full term with the support of newly-Independent MPs who had been members of New Zealand First. These and other defections from parties provoked considerable public and political resentment. The 1999 election resulted in a change of government, with the new coalition between Labour and the Alliance being formed shortly after the election. There were signs of increased public support for MMP during the 1999 election campaign.