Criticism of the unfairness of the first past the post (FPP) voting system intensified after the 1978 and 1981 general elections. On each occasion the Labour Opposition actually secured more votes overall than National, but National won more seats in Parliament and remained in government.
During the 1981 and 1984 campaigns, Labour promised to set up a Royal Commission to look into a wide range of issues relating to the electoral system. Following Labour's victory in 1984, a Royal Commission on the Electoral System was established in early 1985.
The Royal Commission's report, completed in December 1986, was surprisingly radical. It recommended New Zealand adopt the German-style mixed member proportional representation (MMP) system, in which each elector would get two votes: one for an electorate Member of Parliament (MP) and one for a party.
The size of Parliament would increase to 120 MPs: half would be elected in single-member constituencies (as before); the other half would be selected from party lists so that, in general, each party's share of all 120 seats would correspond to its share of the overall vote.
The politicians respond
Few of Labour's leaders welcomed the commission's recommendations, however, and the government tried to sideline the issue. Although National's leadership also disliked the idea of MMP, they saw an opportunity to embarrass the government over its failure to respond to the commission's proposals. As each party tried to outmanoeuvre the other, both entered the 1990 election campaign promising to hold referenda on electoral reforms that they did not really want.
The Labour government was heavily defeated in the 1990 election, but its National successor was soon under fire for breaking election promises. Confidence and trust in politicians and Parliament plunged to new depths. Polls showed that politicians ranked alongside used-car salespeople as the least-respected occupational group in the country. Public support for electoral reform continued to grow.