My interest in electoral reform began in New Zealand in 1987, taking me to London and Berlin to campaign and research. MMP won out but National and Labour still do not like changes that might threaten their dominance

Comment: We sat around a table in Austin Mitchell’s Westminster office stuffing envelopes. It was a good space for the back-bench Labour MP for Greater Grimsby, three storeys up, book-lined, big desk, a large window with a view – if you craned your neck – of the Victoria Embankment.

This is what you did, even if you were a visitor: muck in with the necessary chores that kept the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform going. Stuffing envelopes with newsletters for members and media and anyone else that might be pinged on electoral reform.

Quarter of a century of our MMP voting system
The MMP dilemma: are you the lap dog or the tail?

By January 1993, the campaign had been going for over a decade and Mitchell had been its first chair, so his office had become admin centre for the annual lectures, workshops and AGM.

I did wonder how I had ended up there. Just trailing after the others following lunch and a pint at the Red Lion, through security at Derby Gate, “Here, just hang this round your neck”, and being offered a cup of tea by the author of The Half Gallon Quarter Acre Pavlova Paradise.

But it was part of belonging to a fellowship, no matter the distance between fellows, a bit of a crusade, to change the rules of democracy.

First Past the Post and ‘elective dictatorship’

For me, it began in 1987. I was outraged – a rare expostulation then – by the pain and social disruption a so-called Labour government had been inflicting on New Zealand. Nothing less than an ambush by neo-liberals in socialist clothing.

Austin Mitchell scornfully recounted how Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble and Michael Bassett had turned up in London, inordinately pleased with themselves at starting an economic revolution they reckoned had caught the attention of the world. “As if no one else had ever heard of Maggie Thatcher or Reaganomics or the Chicago School.”

Thatcher’s rare third election victory in 1987, with a minority of the First Past the Post (FPP) vote, had kickstarted the LCER into action after modest beginnings.

But at that time I was unaware there was such a thing as electoral reform. I was just angered by the betrayal of a party I had voted for in 1984 to get rid of the dictatorial Rob Muldoon and return New Zealand to something like an updated version of the Pavlova Paradise that Mitchell had written about a decade before. I could not bring myself to vote in the 1987 election, although this was as much to do with my own existential crisis in Berlin.

Austin Mitchell, the British Labour MP for Greater Grimsby, in 1980. Philip Temple worked with Mitchell on the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

The following year a friend in London heard my complaints and suggested I join the New Zealand Labour Party to help change its policies. I put this aside when I found that Labour in government did not take much notice of remits from the conference floor or the petitions of party members, or even arguments from its own MPs. The struggles of Jim Anderton, ex party president, and outspoken critic of Rogernomics, proved the point. He finally left in 1989 and formed his own party, New Labour.

When I returned to New Zealand and moved to Dunedin in 1990, an election year, I had already decided he would get my vote. As expected, Anderton was returned only in his safe seat of Sydenham, despite his party winning more than 5 percent of the national vote. But under the FPP electoral system this was meaningless. I decided I was the lonely one at the end of the 94,171 votes New Labour accrued.

By this time, my complaints about Labour had introduced me to the author Neville Peat who was chair of the Dunedin Branch of the Electoral Reform Coalition (ERC). The coalition had been formed in 1986 to bring together a variety of groups that had been pushing for reform. The unfairness of FPP elections had been highlighted by the Social Credit Party receiving 21 percent of the vote in 1981 but only two seats in Parliament; and the New Zealand Party receiving 12 percent in 1984 but none at all.

Neville supplied me with the literature, including the December 1986 Report of the Royal Commission on the Electoral System, “Towards a Better Democracy”. I devoured it all and soon decided, “This is it”. Change the electoral system to a proportional one that would see better, fairer representation in Parliament. One that would “slow the bastards down”, foster coalition and considered compromise as essential ingredients of government policy and action.

So there had been at least one good guy in the fourth Labour Government, Geoffrey Palmer, who had declared that the FPP majoritarian system resulted in an “elective dictatorship” with cabinets driven by powerful in-groups who pursued agenda not necessarily in a party’s manifesto, nor what the party at large wanted. He had picked up the phrase from the Tory minister Lord Hailsham whose use of it in a BBC lecture in 1976 prompted the founding of the UK’s Electoral Reform Society (ERS). 

As Minister of Justice, Palmer initiated the Royal Commission but, although the ERC promoted its recommendations, especially the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system to replace FPP, its report seemed destined to disappear under the weight and confusion of more urgent political issues. It was not seen as any kind of priority by Labour and National politicians in pursuit of FPP’s absolute power. So even Palmer was surprised when Prime Minister David Lange accidentally promised a referendum on the electoral system when misreading his notes before the 1987 election.                      

Germany was the home of MMP, and as serendipity would have it, I was, as a New Zealand writer, uniquely placed to research the system

But nothing happened, and as the 1990 election approached, National leader Jim Bolger accused Labour of reneging on Lange’s promise and declared that if he were prime minister he would keep the promise for them. Mike Moore, briefly Labour Prime Minister in late 1990, said of course Labour would keep its promise. But it is unlikely that either saw any real danger in this sparring over electoral reform because few in Parliament saw any likelihood of the system being changed.

A mood for change 

But Bolger’s government doubled down on Rogernomics when it came to power and broke its own promises. Anger and anguish in the community increased as more economic and social sanctions left more and more people behind.

There was a gathering mood for change, for some way of getting back at the “elective dictatorships” that had been gaining more power since the loss of national consensus after Muldoon’s three terms as Prime Minister and Finance Minister, and the corruption of Labour Party values from within.

The campaign for MMP was to prove a major vehicle for expressing change, a way of taking back some people power.

Prime Minister Jim Bolger. Photo: Getty Images

Aware that it could not break yet another promise, the Bolger government announced that in September 1992 there would be an “indicative” referendum when voters would be asked if they wanted change from FPP and, if so, which of four options they would prefer – MMP, Single Transferable Vote (STV), Supplementary Member (SM) or Preferential Voting (PV). The Electoral Reform Coalition swung into action, its most prominent members at the time being chair Colin Clark, spokesperson Rod Donald and secretary Phil Saxby.

I was in Berlin when Bolger announced the referendum and I decided I should play an active role in the MMP campaign as an established writer. I had been coming and going to West Berlin since New Year 1987, visited East Berlin several times; been there soon after the Wall came down; walked through the Brandenburg Gate on the day it opened for the first time since 1961; attended the Lustgarten concerts by the departing Soviet troops.

I was well aware of the role German writers had played in discussing the options for the reunification of Germany, influential speeches and articles by authors such as Gunter Grass, Christa Wolf, Stefan Heym and Hans Magnus Enzensberger. This was not the kind of role that writers in New Zealand and other Anglo-Saxon countries played or even bothered with.

But I was convinced our electoral system had to change, that MMP was the best option, and that I had almost a duty to use my writing skills to help achieve it. Germany was the home of MMP, and as serendipity would have it, I was, as a New Zealand writer, uniquely placed to research the system.

I met with electoral experts at the WZB (the Berlin Science Centre for Social Research), in particular with Professor Dr Hans-Dieter Klingemann who gave me an exhaustive (and exhausting) rundown on how German MMP worked and its values and shortcomings. Then, when I was in London in December, I visited the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) and made my first contacts with the LCER, in particular parliamentary and political officer Mary Southcott.

By the time I returned home to Dunedin at the end of January 1992, I was armed with enough information to bury a political science scholar.          

The LCER was still ambivalent about which reformed system they supported. The ERS had for years been campaigning for STV and they made a good case for it being more suitable for British and Commonwealth parliaments than German MMP. STV had been used for elections in Ireland since its independence in the 1920s and it seemed to work well there. Unsurprisingly, I became a tad unsure about the virtues of MMP.

But I was aware that the ERS’s enthusiasm was largely driven by the dictates of its founder and financier of a trust whose terms restricted its activities to promoting only STV. When I dug deeper, I also realised that STV was not specifically designed to achieve proportional representation. This was usually its effect, but sometimes election results were not proportional. STV focuses on electing candidates that voters prefer, as much as the parties they belong to.

It seemed ideal for local body elections in New Zealand, where parties were mostly absent; but national politics were driven by parties and their policies. The other options being presented on the 1992 referendum paper, PV and SM, were clearly just FPP with knobs on and would make little difference to the shape of Parliament.

I began writing press articles on MMP and I proposed to publishers that I write a concise (56-page), plain-English guide to the four systems, aimed at a wide public. The text would properly assess the pros and cons of the four but would leave readers in little doubt that MMP would be the best, as the Royal Commission had recommended.

At the time I knew I had an advantage in putting forward the case for reform and MMP in the media because of my experience in Germany and because there was only one NZPA correspondent over there who had more beats to cover than the arcane subject of the German electoral system. I also decided that, although I was a member of the ERC, I would not present myself as one of their spokesmen but as an independent expert.

My main publisher at that time, Geoff Walker of Penguin NZ, was incredulous at the idea that I should write a guide to electoral reform. I was not a political scientist and nearly all of my books had connections to mountains and the great outdoors. So it was no go there. But Barbara Larson of John McIndoe’s in Dunedin knew me rather better and saw I could make it work in a market that had nothing to match what I was proposing.

I worked fast and hard, and Making Your Vote Count appeared in June 1992. The first edition of 3000 sold out almost immediately and a reprint was rushed out a month later.

There was an official information campaign overseen by a neutral Ombudsman’s panel, but people across the country seemed keen to read my independent views, grounded in German research. Especially people in the media who found my concise comparisons and assessments of the systems easy to access and digest. It was gratifying to hear or read my own words being repeated on radio, TV and in the press.

The 1993 election and referendum

The turnout for the 1992 referendum was only 55 percent but the results were decisive: nearly 85 percent voted for change and 70 percent for MMP. There had been a belated interest in STV that saw it reach 17 percent. But what now? With such a clear result, the ERC pushed for MMP’s implementation in time for the 1993 election.

But Bolger and his Minister of Justice, Doug Graham, decided it should be tested further with a binding referendum in conjunction with the election. The turnout would be much greater, favouring a more conservative vote, and it would allow campaigners against MMP, who had been virtually absent in 1992, a year to marshal opposition.

Apart from stuffing envelopes in London in January 1993, I attended the LCER’s annual conference, met the then chair Jeff Rooker (later Labour Minister of Agriculture) and reform supporter Robin Cook (later Labour Foreign Minister). At a separate LCER meeting in a House of Commons committee room I was able to give an account of the 1992 referendum and the nature of ERC activities promoting MMP.

I urged the promotion of a Royal Commission on the Electoral System for the UK as the best foundational tool for change; but the LCER seemed only committed to change within the Labour Party, then led by Neil Kinnock, who seemed open to electoral reform. A general election was not far off, and Labour was anticipating a victory after 13 years of Margaret Thatcher’s and John Major’s Conservative rule.

This did not happen, and Kinnock was replaced by John Smith as Labour leader, who was also sympathetic to reform. But I began to feel that constitutional inertia, under the weight of history and convention, would make any changes to the electoral system in the UK difficult, although rising demands for independence in Scotland and Wales promised more.

With the support of the Goethe-Institut I was able to travel from Berlin to Bonn, then the seat of German government, and interview representatives of the different political parties, political scientists and journalists. One conservative political commentator wryly illustrated what he considered the tendency of MMP to create stasis in government. He told me that every four years there was an election when either the CDU/CSU (Christian Democrat/Christian Socialist party) or the SPD (Social Democrat Party) won most seats “and Hans-Dietrich Genscher was elected Foreign Minister”.

He was leader of the FDP (Free Democrats) minor party that had been in coalition with either of the major parties since 1957 and its leader always held that post. This had been Genscher for 20 years! I was also able to meet Edelgard Bulmahn, who later became an SPD minister, and who was soon to travel to New Zealand as part of an interparliamentary visit. She agreed to be interviewed on radio and TV, speak at ERC meetings in Wellington and Christchurch and talk about MMP in action.

As a relief to the intensity of interviewing earnest Germans, I visited the New Zealand Embassy to hear familiar accents and drink a decent cup of tea. The second secretary also added biscuits and asked me how I had been getting on. As I waxed enthusiastic about MMP and how it would work for New Zealand, a small, tolerant smile appeared on his face.

When I paused, he said, “Oh well, that’s very interesting but the Minister [of Foreign Affairs, Don McKinnon] was here a couple of weeks ago and said it was nothing to worry about. A bit of a storm in a teacup.” I put mine down, furious at his condescension, and said, “Is that right? Well, you might just be surprised” and left. 

By the time I returned home, the MMP campaign was picking up momentum and polls began to suggest it might win. The conservative establishment became alarmed, and an opposition group called the Campaign for Better Government (CBG) was formed in early September which argued that parliamentary reform was needed rather than electoral reform. But this was sheep’s clothing for the FPP wolf.

The group was made up almost exclusively of businessmen and National Party supporters: its patron was senior ex National Party minister Sir Brian Talboys. The group was founded by the chair of Telecom, Peter Shirtcliffe, who had profited from the sweeping neo-liberal, free-market changes made to the economy over the previous decade. Its chair was Owen Jennings who had just completed a term as president of Federated Farmers.

Shirtcliffe said MMP would “bring chaos”. Senior National minister Bill Birch said it would be a “catastrophic disaster for democracy” and Finance Minister Ruth Richardson said it would “bring economic ruin”. Edelgard Bulmahn commented on radio that MMP brought quite the reverse. But some of the CBG responses to this reflected a streak of anti-German racism lingering from the Second World War. 

National and Labour try to hold onto FPP

Anti-MMP sentiment ran across both main parties as they worked to avoid a change that would stop either from achieving their “elective dictatorships” with so-called landslide victories with, say, 43 percent of the vote. In 1981 Muldoon had been returned to power with only 38.8 percent of the vote, less than Labour’s.

Nevertheless, Helen Clark, then deputy leader of the Labour Party, decided to team up with Simon Upton, then National Minister of Health, to tour the country promoting FPP. Until the ERC, with me leading the charge, publicly told them that the electoral system belonged to the people, not politicians, and they should butt out of the campaign. Members of all parties then realised that to promote FPP would prove counter-productive with a disillusioned electorate.

The campaign became tough going. The CBG was able to raise an estimated $2.5 million from rich list businessmen to buy TV, radio and press advertising, although the exact amount was never disclosed. Prime Minister Jim Bolger, when asked if he thought donations to such a crucial referendum campaign should be made public, laughed and said people should be free to use their own money as they pleased. The ERC was up front in stating it was able to raise only $181,000, mainly from small donations.

MMP required an increase in the number of MPs from 99 to 120 for its proportionality to be implemented. The CBG tried to exploit public distrust of politicians with the extra costs involved, and with the prospect of more “faceless” list MPs.

They ran one notorious TV ad of men with brown paper bags over their heads. Another ad declared that list MPs were not elected but were “appointed” by parties. This was manifestly untrue and a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority was upheld. This proved a useful lever for supporters of MMP to press home the point that nothing the CBG said could be believed.

With little money for advertising, the ERC focused on community meetings, press articles, letters to the editor, posters and interviews on radio and TV. We also compiled and published lists of different occupational groups who were in favour of MMP, in my case 20 leading “Writers for MMP”.

I was also able to ask Footrot Flats cartoonist Murray Ball to contribute something and he came up with a memorable picture of Wal asking Dog, “Want a good reason for voting for MMP? Look at the people who are telling you not to.” 

This was used widely and became an iconic symbol of public resentment of the severe effects of Labour’s Rogernomics and National’s Ruthanasia. It contributed to the view that the CBG was really a front for free marketeers and the Business Round Table.

National government takes steps to slow MMP progress 

As referendum and election day on November 6 approached, debates became increasingly acrimonious, the ERC began to run out of money and volunteers all over the country started to tire after months of incessant work. Polls showed that MMP had a small lead over FPP but it was becoming clear that it would be a close run thing. It was hard to remain optimistic.

The CBG threw more and more money into advertising, and the National government, now aware that MMP might just win the day, took two steps to slow its progress but which did not look like political interference in the neutrally managed official information programme.

First, the 1986 Royal Commission had recommended a party vote threshold of 4 percent, or the capture of one electorate seat, for a party to gain representation in Parliament. The threshold was now formally increased to 5 percent, the argument being that this was what applied in Germany, the only other country to have MMP.

But the one electorate rule, later seen as flawed by Royal Commission chair Justice Wallace was left unchanged. National saw that a higher threshold might soften support for MMP or, if it did win, make it more difficult for smaller parties to enter Parliament.

Second, responding to the clear protest that was registered by the rejection of FPP in the 1992 referendum, Justice Minister Doug Graham introduced a bill to allow for Citizens Initiated Referenda (CIR), and saw it passed into law only six weeks before the 1993 referendum. He publicly couched it as a more democratic way for voters to make their views made known on key political issues than changing the electoral system.

The problem was that 10 percent of eligible voters would need to sign a petition to make it valid meaning that, at the time, at least 350,000 signatures would be required. Petition organisers would also be allowed to spend only $50,000 promoting their cause which, as the CBG was spending undisclosed millions, was seen as cynical. As was the killer clause that the results of CIR would not be binding on government. The results of the few CIR that occurred in the 20 years that followed were completely ignored.

The government ruled that referendum campaigning on TV must cease one month out from election day. Rod Donald and I appeared several times as a team on radio and television, he as the lead campaigner for the ERC, me as an independent commentator. The opposing team was Peter Shirtcliffe and Owen Jennings. For the last live television broadcast debate from Avalon studios, I contacted the supportive producer of the show and arranged for him to set up a satellite link with Professor Dr Klingemann in Berlin.

This was tricky in 1993 because the system only allowed booked windows of connection within a limited time frame before key satellites disappeared behind the curvature of the Earth. I was apprehensive because if there were technical problems or if Klingemann was cut short in mid sentence, it could rebound on the credibility of MMP. I held my breath while host Ian Fraser fired questions to Klingemann on the other side of the planet. He was dry but convincing and the interview finished with seconds to spare.

The studio debate went back and forth and was indecisive, as usual, for both sides as key questions were left unanswered and blatant untruths from the CBG people went unchecked. Fraser gave the last word to Owen Jennings who spoke with deep mock sincerity to the camera, stating that no matter what the result of the referendum was, the CBG would continue its fight for better government.

As soon as referendum and election night was over, the CBG disappeared forever. Owen Jennings then took advantage of MMP, joined the ACT Party led by Roger Douglas and had six years as a list MP before departing under a defamation cloud.

After the Avalon programme, Rod Donald and I had a late-night drink at our Wellington hotel. We both felt we had done our best that evening but knew that a favourable result for MMP was still in the balance. He asked me what I would do if we won, saying he had to make up his mind whether to join the Labour Party or the Greens. He had been a Values Party member in the 1970s when still a teenager, and then a Labour Party member in the 1980s before resigning when he became the ERC’s official spokesperson.

Maybe it was his colourful braces, shock of blond hair and beard but I said he was a natural Green and should go for it. He was just turning 36. I was exhausted and not far off being old enough to be his father. After my experience of the campaign stresses I said, “If I go into politics it will kill me and I will never write another thing!”

In New Zealand, we had a predictably bumpy ride with the first MMP election in 1996 and the following term of government. But, as time went by, the system bedded in and parties and policies became more attuned to the realities of coalition compromise and every vote counting under MMP

An agonising month passed as Nicky Hager somehow kept the ERC office functioning in Wellington and the branches faded under the stress. I had a feeling of increasing helplessness. Rod began to think we were going to lose. But in the last days, there was a boost as the New Zealand Herald and the Listener came out in strong support of MMP. The Otago Daily Times, on the other hand, took the unprecedented step of printing an editorial on its front page urging voters to reject it.

The MMP victory and bedding in 

Election and referendum day seemed to last forever. I went down to my local primary school at mid-morning to vote. I was in my booth, ticking the box for MMP, when I saw a frail, partially blind gentleman being assisted into the adjacent booth by his wife. I overheard him say, “Tick the box for First Past the Post”.

I had to smile, ruefully I expect, but we lived, after all, in a democracy. That evening a crowd of friends gathered to watch the results on TV. The worms for FPP and MMP slowly inched forward, with nothing to separate them at the start until, by midnight, it became clear we had won. The final count was 53.9 percent of votes for MMP, 46.1 percent for FPP: People Power by a neck.

Colin Clark, chair of the Electoral Reform Coalition,  celebrates the success of MMP in the November 6, 1993 referendum. Photo: Paul Fisher/NZ Listener

I returned to Berlin soon after and gave a presentation on the 1993 campaign to a large audience at the WZB and to my shock, but gratification, received a standing ovation. I then made a flying visit to London to attend the LCER annual conference where ex London Mayor and Brent Labour MP Ken Livingstone gave an address that more or less promoted MMP for the UK. This may have partly explained the considerable numbers who attended my workshop.

But I left London knowing in my bones that electoral reform for the House of Commons was unlikely in my lifetime.

A few months later, Labour’s new leader, John Smith, died of a heart attack and LCER hopes for reform seemed diminished. Tony Blair took office with reform promises in 1997 but, like all main party leaders, he relished the absolute power that FPP had given him. He reformed some aspects of the House of Lords and also initiated limited forms of self-government for Wales, and Scotland which chose a form of MMP.

Much later, as part of the coalition agreement between David Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, a referendum on the Alternative Vote System (the same as PV) was held in 2011 and rejected by two to one.

In New Zealand, we had a predictably bumpy ride with the first MMP election in 1996 and the following term of government. But, as time went by, the system bedded in and parties and policies became more attuned to the realities of coalition compromise and every vote counting under MMP. Peter Shirtcliffe, however, was a sore loser and his influence with the National Party saw Prime Minister John Key promise another referendum in 2011.

Some of us approached the then Justice Minister Simon Power to ensure that, if MMP won again, there would be a thorough review of the system, in particular of the 5 percent threshold and the one-electorate rule. MMP did win again, by a somewhat better margin than in 1993, and the review took place, but few of its recommendations were implemented. National and Labour still do not like changes that might threaten their dominance.

The rare absolute majority that Labour achieved under MMP in 2020 has since demonstrated how governments easily drift into the old habits of FPP’s “elective dictatorship”, but we can rest in the knowledge that it is unlikely to be repeated.

In 1993, the CBG tried to demolish the argument that MMP would see more women in Parliament by playing around with examples of electoral results overseas, so that I took great satisfaction from the balanced representation of the 2020 result: 48 percent of MPs were women (now 50 percent), 20 percent Māori, various other ethnicities represented, and some say it is the most Rainbow Parliament in the world.

Long before that, in 1998, I had also been able to take satisfaction from being given the Wallace Award by the Electoral Commission for my “significant contribution to public understanding of electoral matters”. Writers could, after all, make a difference.           

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