The Battle of Porta-loo

At the next election New Zealanders will decide whether or not to keep MMP or replace it with something else. So what does history tell us about our voting system and why did we change to MMP?

It was Winston Churchill who said, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Like the names of loves long lost, we often forget, and so it is with politics. Politicians hungry for power often prey on this weakness of human nature and give us the opportunity to make the same mistakes over again. Yes indeed, we do have short memories, especially on political matters.

At the next election New Zealanders will decide whether or not to keep MMP or replace it with something else. So what does history tell us about our voting system and why did we change to MMP?

For a start, in 1978 and 1981, the Labour Party received more votes than the National Party but National remained the government, because they held more electorate seats. In 1978 the Social Credit Party received 16 percent of the vote, but only one MP, then 21 percent of the vote in 1981 which gave them only two seats in Parliament. In 1984 the New Zealand Party received 12 percent of the vote, but no MPs. In other words, many votes were “wasted votes”. These results, along with a growing distrust of politicians due to many broken promises, and New Zealanders' innate belief in fairness, led to calls for change.

I also remember Garry Knapp, leader of the Democratic Party (formerly Social Credit, now Democrats for Social Credit), and a number of supporters barricading themselves into one of Parliament's Select Committee rooms, as a protest to highlight the unfairness of the First Past the Post (FPP) system. They remained there for a number of days, even taking a porta-loo in with them. Knapp was seen on the six o'clock news waving from the balcony in defiance, after removal requests from the Speaker of the House and Police. Eventually a referendum was held and an overwhelming 84 percent of voters voted for change.

Many opponents at the time claimed that MMP would cause unstable governments. National Cabinet Minister Bill Birch said MMP would be "a catastrophic disaster for democracy". Former Minister of Finance Ruth Richardson said MMP "would bring economic ruin". None of this eventuated. MMP has produced a more diverse representation, as expected. A record number of women were elected, along with an increase in the number of Maori and Pacific Island MPs.

Does New Zealand really want to go back to the old two party club, the fastest law makers in the west, as Geoffrey Palmer referred to New Zealand? Or does MMP just need tweaking? Can we improve it by overhauling the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act (CIR) as well as making referendums binding?

In Switzerland, where referendums have been in use for over 130 years, they are binding on the government, not so in New Zealand. When the CIR Act was first introduced there was much discussion. Cabinet Minister Sir Douglas Graham said in Parliament in 1993: "The Citizens Initiated Referenda Bill gives the freedom to engage the entire nation in any topic of our choosing. …. any Government that fails to respect the outcome of a non-binding referendum will have to convince us at the next general election that its decision was justified. It is my belief that we will rarely witness by Parliament the rejection of a referendum result.”

Referendums have continually been ignored by government. An example was the referendum to reduce the number of MPs to 99, with 81.47% agreeing. There have  been others. Cabinet Minister Murray McCully was quoted back in 1992 as saying,

“To those who want to step immediately to binding referenda, I say that they will have their opportunity when the legislation is in force to express that view by the mechanism that the bill will provide. In other words, those who wish to promote that referenda shall be binding will be able to initiate a non-binding referendum to demonstrate public sympathy for their view. I commend that course to them.”

Well, that is exactly what is about to happen. Larry Baldock, a former MP, has initiated a new referendum to make referendums binding on the government. Whether or not Mr Baldock is successful in collecting the huge number of signatures required to trigger this referendum remains to be seen. However, if New Zealanders want this change, this is their opportunity to get in behind the referendum process by signing Mr Baldock's petition to have a referendum, helping to collect signatures, voting and putting pressure on our politicians.

Steve Baron is founder of Better Democracy NZ, and a regular contributor to publications throughout New Zealand