The road to MMP

Page 5 – 1996 and beyond - the road to MMP

The three years following the 1993 referendum, before the first mixed member proportional representation (MMP) election in 1996, were ones of transition and uncertainty. The main parties tried to reposition themselves for the new environment, and a number of new parties emerged.

Electoral rules and procedures were overhauled, and in 1995 the boundaries of the 60 general and five Maori electorates were finalised. Electoral officials (especially the newly established Electoral Commission) also initiated a massive, ongoing publicity campaign to inform voters about the new system.

The 1996 election

The 1996 election produced a close and indecisive result. After two months of negotiations a coalition government was formed (to the surprise of many) between the previously antagonistic National and New Zealand First parties. As this was New Zealand's first coalition government since the 1930s, the arrangement took some getting used to.

Subsequent events – in particular a spate of defections (termed 'party-hopping' or, in the case of Maori members, 'waka-jumping') by Members of Parliament (MPs) and the messy collapse of the coalition – sapped public confidence in the new voting system. In the late 1990s opinion polls suggested many people wanted to turn back the clock to the old first past the post (FPP) era or try an alternative system.

Assessing MMP

As the Royal Commission and pro-MMP campaigners had predicted, Parliament has certainly become more diverse and representative of modern New Zealand society. Following the 2005 election, there were 39 women, 21 Maori, 4 Pacific and 2 Asian MPs among Parliament's 121 members. The 2008 election returned 42 women and 31 members of Maori, Pacific or Asian descent.

But MMP has its critics. Many argue that it gives too much power to smaller parties and to 'unelected' list MPs. Others point out that, despite claims that proportional representation would promote consensus, New Zealand's political scene remains highly adversarial. The mainstream media still tend to portray election campaigns as a two-horse race for power. Although MMP has brought many changes, it is clear that a new voting system cannot by itself radically alter a nation's traditional political culture.

The comparative stability of New Zealand politics since the turn of the 21st century suggests that voters and politicians have largely adapted to life under MMP, taking some of the heat out of the issue. In 2009 the National government announced plans to hold another referendum on the future of MMP. Held at the same time as the 2011 general election, this poll resulted in a comfortable win for MMP, with around 57% of voters in favour of retaining the current system. Following the referendum the Electoral Commission undertook an independent review of MMP. Its report, issued  in October 2012, recommended several changes, including lowering the threshold from 5% to 4%. These proposals have not been enacted by Parliament.

How to cite this page

'1996 and beyond - the road to MMP', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/fpp-to-mmp/1996-and-beyond, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 12-Jul-2016