RPM after 25 years: former MPs recall change in New Zealand electoral system


The change in New Zealand’s electoral system came after years of broken promises from political parties and growing frustration from voters. Photo / File

By Hamish Cardwell from RNZ

Today marks the 25th anniversary of New Zealand’s first-ever MMP election, the biggest change to the country’s electoral system since women won the right to vote more than a century ago.

Wal from Footrot Flats was used to explain the new system.  Photo / Election Commission
Wal from Footrot Flats was used to explain the new system. Photo / Election Commission

That’s the fame of Wal of Footrot Flats in 1996, practicing something New Zealanders were about to do for the first time – put two check marks on their ballot.

The creator of the cartoon Murray Ball had been brought in by the Election Commission to help explain the new MMP – mixed member proportional system.

The change came after years of broken election promises and decades of growing frustration from voters that the first past the post system was blocking small parties.

For example, the Social Credit Party won over 20 percent of the vote in 1981 – but only got two seats.

The new system meant that in 1996, after all the votes were cast, there was no clear winner. A kingmaker was needed.

Former Labor MP and political historian Michael Bassett remembers.

“The end result was that Winston [Peters] left the nation guessing for nine weeks as he circled around the place and went fishing, and made all the smiles for the media and teased like everything ruthlessly, finally announced he was going to form a coalition with National . “

MMP’s history is linked to its most astute representative – Winston Peters.

He said that it strengthens the cooperation between the parties, which makes the country stronger.

Peters said the media and the big parties just never really got MMP.

“I’ll give an example, when the 2017 elections are passed, we enter into negotiations with National and Labor, and within three days I’m accused of having ransomed the country – and the final votes have failed. not even been reported in.

“Now Germany had elections in 2017 … and it took almost five months to form a government.

“We, when the final votes took place, took 11 days. “

Peters argues that the MMP ensures that only parties that can muster a collective majority of votes can form a government.

MMP’s criticism has always been that it allows the dog’s tail to wag.

However, Bassett said Peters was a political force before the arrival of the MMP.

And he said the MMP also paved the way for some powerful political players, including Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald of the Green Party – who, as a pro-MMP activist, were instrumental in the MMP’s passage.

Alliance MP Liz Gordon entered Parliament in the class of 1996, last on her list.

She and Jim Anderton and left the Labor Party on its economic right wing, helping to form the Alliance Party.

She said the big parties never liked RPM.

“It was a very difficult time, the two main parties did not want to give up their authority.

“And in fact, this is one of the lasting lessons, the minor holidays [are] seen more as a nuisance than a partner, I think. “

Gordon said the MMP helped put in place policies like Paid Parental Leave, Kiwibank and Peter’s Gold Card – to name a few

She said it helped the country move away from aggressive deregulation and improve voter representation and choice.

And Parliament has diversified. In the 2020 elections, just under 50% of elected MPs – or 58 people – were women. Twenty-five are Maori, 11 Pacific and eight Asians among the 120 members.

And the MMP appears to be here to stay, it won majority support in the 2011 referendum and wholesale change is not on the table in a recently launched sweeping electoral law review.


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