Opinion: There was a lot about election night that took me back to when I was 30 and entering Parliament for the first time. I had not expected to be a candidate let alone end up being elected an MP when the 1990 election campaign started. The Labour Prime Minister had only been in the role for seven weeks and I had only been a candidate for five weeks.
I was only one of seven new Members of Parliament elected to a caucus of just 29 out of 97 MPs. It was the biggest electoral defeat Labour had suffered since it was first elected to government in 1935.
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The caucus meeting where we said goodbye to 23 departing MPs who had stood for re-election was salutary. There were many high-profile names in that group, including several ministers and the speaker. Even though I was sure Labour was going to lose the election it was still a shock to see so many people go. It was a sombre occasion indeed.
I have listened to some of the commentary this time and I should remind people that a number of ‘Labour strongholds’ fell into National hands back then, including Te Atatū and Mt Roskill. This was reversed in 1993 and has remained so for 30 years.
MMP made an immediate difference to the diversity of Parliament where in 1996 the number of women increased from a quarter to a third straight away. We had a magic moment earlier this year where women made up 50 percent of Parliament for the first time
This was the penultimate first-past-the-post election, so there was no party list to secure seats for these key MPs. And of course, there was no mechanism to ensure proportionality. It was all based on the number of seats won.
It was fascinating to go back and read the proportion of votes versus the seats each party won in 1990. National won close to 48 percent of the vote but gained 68 seats; Labour won 35 percent of the vote but only 29 seats; the Greens won 6.8 percent of the vote but no seats; and New Labour just over 5 percent, with one seat, Jim Anderton easily holding onto the Sydenham seat under the New Labour banner.
I do think this election result added to the frustration at the lack of proportional representation. The Royal Commission Report into the electoral system had recommended such a change in 1996, and although a referendum on the electoral system was expected in Labour’s second term, it was National that campaigned in 1990 on holding such a referendum.
True to their word, an indicative referendum was held in 1992. This let voters decide whether they wanted to preserve the status quo or change the system and then to indicate which system they would prefer in the event that change was supported. If the system was to be changed, first-past-the-post would then go up against the preferred option in 1993. The preferred option was the Mixed Member Proportional system, and the rest is history.
MMP made an immediate difference to the diversity of Parliament where in 1996 the number of women increased from a quarter to a third straight away. We had a magic moment earlier this year where women made up 50 percent of Parliament for the first time, something that has dropped back to 43 percent with the leading parties bringing in only a third of the female MPs between them.
This is something Prime Minister-elect Christopher Luxon will need to think about as he shapes his Cabinet. Diversity is good when dealing with complex issues, and there is no question there will be many such challenges to address.
Returning to the 1990 election, that was when we last voted on the length of the Parliamentary term. My view remains that this referendum was in the wrong order. It should have followed the introduction of MMP. People were pretty distrusting of politicians in 1990 and couldn’t really contemplate an extension to the Parliamentary term which given the absolutism of first-past-the-post would simply hand over control to a single party for longer.
I know the dust hasn’t even settled on this election but is it too much to hope we could get a cross-party commitment to holding a referendum on increasing the electoral term to four years at the next election?
I really think it is well overdue.
I have heard people say that no matter the length of the term, it’s too short when you’re in government and too long when you’re in opposition. But the reality is it’s the too-short-in-government that matters. We need to give governments time to do their job, and an increased term would allow for a more engaged approach. The same for local government as well.