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Why did New Zealand change to MMP?

2. Royal Commission on the Electoral System

Labour's opportunity came after it won the 1984 election. In 1985 it established an independent non-partisan Royal Commission to conduct a wide-ranging inquiry into the electoral system.418 The Commission had 5 members: a High Court Judge as Chairman, a law professor, a political science professor, a retired Government statistician, and a Mäori woman who was a statistician and social researcher.

The Royal Commission invited submissions from members of the public, and travelled around New Zealand to hear oral submissions. Members of the Commission also travelled to Australia, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The Report of the Royal Commission was published in 1986. Two of its 69 recommendations were about the voting system that should be used to elect MPs: first, that FPP should be replaced by MMP, and secondly that the final decision should not be made by Parliament but by the people in a binding referendum after a period of public debate.

Why did the Royal Commission recommend a change from FPP to MMP? It tested FPP and other voting systems against 10 criteria:419

  • (a) Fairness between political parties. When they vote at elections, voters are primarily choosing between alternative party Governments. In the interests of fairness and equality, therefore, the number of seats gained by a political party should be proportional to the number of voters who support that party.

    (b) Effective representation of minority and special interest groups. The voting system should ensure that parties, candidates and MPs are responsive to significant groups and interests. To facilitate this, membership of the House should not only be proportional to the level of party support but should also reflect other significant characteristics of the electorate, such as gender, ethnicity, socio-economic class, locality and age.

    (c) Effective Mäori representation. In view of their particular historical, Treaty420 and socio-economic status, Mäori and the Mäori point of view should be fairly and effectively represented in Parliament.

    (d) Political integration. While the electoral system should ensure that the opinions of diverse groups and interests are represented it should at the same time encourage all groups to respect other points of view and to take into account the good of the community as a whole.

    (e) Effective representation of constituents. An important function of individual MPs is to act on behalf of constituents who need help in their dealings with the Government or its agencies. The voting system should therefore encourage close links and accountability between individual MPs and their constituents.

    (f) Effective voter participation. If individual citizens are to play a full and active part in the electoral process, the voting system should provide them with mechanisms and procedures which they can readily understand. At the same time, the power to make and unmake governments should be in the hands of the people at an election and the votes of all electors should be of equal weight in influencing election results.

    (g) Effective government. The electoral system should allow Governments in New Zealand to meet their responsibilities. Governments should have the ability to act decisively when that is appropriate and there should be reasonable continuity and stability both within and between Governments.

    (h) Effective Parliament. As well as providing a Government, members of the House have a number of other important parliamentary functions. These include providing a forum for the promotion of alternative Governments and policies, enacting legislation, authorising the raising of taxes and the expenditure of public money, scrutinising the actions and policies of the executive, and supplying a focus for individual and group aspirations and grievances. The voting system should provide a House which is capable of exercising these functions as effectively as possible.

    (i) Effective parties. The voting system should recognise and facilitate the essential role political parties play in modern representative democracies in, for example, formulating and articulating policies and providing representatives for the people.

    (j) Legitimacy. Members of the community should be able to endorse the voting system and its procedures as fair and reasonable and to accept its decisions, even when they themselves prefer other alternatives.

The Royal Commission concluded that FPP rated well in relation to effective representation of constituents, voter participation, effective government, effective Parliament, and general legitimacy. In its view, however, FPP had 'severe weaknesses' in relation to fairness to major and minor parties, minority representation and Mäori representation.421

Having concluded that FPP was inherently flawed, the Royal Commission examined a number of alternative systems, particularly the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system; the Preferential Vote system used to elect the Australian House of Representatives; the system used in Germany, which the Royal Commission called the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system; and the Supplementary Member (SM) system.422 It concluded that MMP was the most suitable alternative to FPP, since it would be fairer to political parties and would improve voter participation, representation of Mäori423 or other groups, and be seen as more legitimate. The Royal Commission believed that MMP had 'comparable, though sometimes different' advantages over FPP in relation to effective government, effective Parliament, representation of constituents, effective parties, and political integration.424

Some of the basic provisions of New Zealand's electoral law have been 'entrenched' or 'reserved' since 1956 in that they can only be repealed or amended by a 75% vote of all MPs or by a majority of votes cast in a referendum held for the purpose. The matters protected in this way are the term of Parliament, the minimum age for qualification as an elector, the method of voting, and the membership of the independent body responsible for deciding electorate boundaries and the criteria it must follow in doing so.

The Royal Commission concluded that fundamental matters concerning the constitutional framework of government should continue to be entrenched. It considered that some of those provisions should only be changed by referendum rather than by a vote of 75% of all MPs but concluded that the choice of the method to be used to change a particular entrenched provision should be left to political judgement.425

The Royal Commission's recommendation that a referendum should be held on whether FPP should be replaced by MMP reflected its view that a change to a country's voting system affects the most basic aspects of its democracy and is therefore properly a matter which the people should decide.426