Towards stability, Alan McRobie

Proportional Representation on Trial: The 1999 New Zealand General Election and the Fate of MMP   
Jack Vowles, Peter Aimer, Jeffrey Karp, Susan Banducci, Raymond Miller & Ann Sullivan
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1869402650

New Zealand’s voters have been through much over the last 30 years. Since the mid-1970s, they have experienced the weakening and eventual breakdown of an overwhelmingly dominant two-party system, the fragmentation of both major parties, and the adoption of proportional representation in 1996. Even then, stability did not return, as the acrimony surrounding the collapse of the country’s first PR coalition government in 1998 and the more recent imploding of the Alliance testify.

Proportional Representation on Trial is the fourth in a series of studies reporting results from the New Zealand Election Study (NZES), which is substantially supported by grants from the Foundation for Research, Science, and Technology. It is, arguably, the best volume so far. Jack Vowles and Peter Aimer, who have been involved in the project from its inception, have been joined this time by four other scholars, two of whom participated in the 1996 election study. Each contributes a specialist perspective to this work.


The book is organised around three main themes. The first, which dissects aspects of the 1999 election, begins with a useful chapter backgrounding the electoral politics of the 1990s before moving on to examine issues surrounding the campaign, media, gender and leadership, and Maori voting patterns.

Vowles’s study of nightly tracking polls suggests that the campaign did make a difference: Labour was seen as the better party on many of the key issues identified by respondents – unemployment, health, tertiary fees, superannuation, and income-related rentals, though not on law and order (where Act was the most-preferred party) and taxation (where National was dominant).

The media’s impact on the campaign was, according to the authors, mixed. While most election stories on the main television bulletins were broadcast during the opening segment, they tended to focus on the dramatic rather than on the issues seen by potential voters as important. The authors conclude that there was only a weak relationship between what the parties focussed on and what the news highlighted, although they did find evidence to suggest that the media had some influence on how voters perceived party leaders.

In her chapter on gender and leadership, Susan Banducci decides that neither Jenny Shipley nor Helen Clark appeared handicapped by stereotyped responses to leadership traits. She did, however, discover that the evaluation of leadership attributes was significant in moulding opinions about party leaders. “Strong leadership” stood out as the most noteworthy desirable trait, while “trustworthiness” was also important. Interestingly, the study findings indicated that Winston Peters’ “arrogance” put voters off while Jim Anderton’s positive attributes outweighed his negative ones and this transferred across to support for the Alliance.

The chapter on Maori voting is less satisfactory. The authors point out that Maori voter support for Labour had been declining since the late 1980s (statistics suggest that this trend actually began rather earlier), but after flirting with New Zealand First in 1993 and 1996, Maori “returned home” in 1999 because they were not persuaded that either New Zealand First or other minor parties offered a credible alternative. A crucial point appears, however, to have been overlooked: before the adoption of MMP, voters opting for the Maori roll were effectively penned in because the dedicated Maori seats were fixed at four. For 50 years these were Labour party fiefdoms. The adoption of MMP, along with a meaningful Maori electoral option, has resulted in a substantial increase in the number of Maori registering on the Maori roll. It seems highly probable, therefore, that many Maori believe that their vote counts for more under MMP and are thus encouraged to transfer to the Maori roll. At just under 49 per cent support for Labour in 1999, there is still some way to go before Labour’s support among Maori voters returns to its halcyon days.

The book’s second major theme focuses on the impact of MMP on New Zealand’s politics. The authors postulate that if MMP is seen as a more effective method of providing fair representation, then electors should be more ready to go out and vote. But although turnout was higher in 1996 than 1993, it dropped away again in 1999. Their data leads them to conclude that the expectation of a Labour victory, a change of focus from winning electorates to winning party votes, and continuing dissatisfaction with democracy (as encapsulated in Margaret Robertson’s petition for a smaller Parliament) combined to produce the lower turnout.

Raymond Miller’s chapter on coalition governments highlights problems surrounding public acceptance of the consequences of proportional representation. Smaller parties, he notes, have been less successful than anticipated while NZES data shows overwhelming support for pre-arranged coalitions. He concludes that considerable uncertainty surrounds the role, influence, and political viability of smaller parties, and suggests that future political contests are likely to be characterised by the “wholesale alternation of blocs” competing for power.

In practice, does MMP produce a Parliament that better reflects New Zealand’s society? The authors believe that it does, although they note that doubts still exist about whether voters are more satisfied than hitherto with the democratic process. Still, while they note that, overall, voters now hold a more positive view of the political process than before the adoption of MMP, the survey data is sending some mixed signals, particularly about the roles of constituency and list MPs.

The 1999 election was also the first serious test of citizens initiated referendums (CIR). The authors conclude that while two-thirds of respondents thought that non-binding referendums were “a good thing”, the “test” failed because of an abysmal lack of any public education programme. Thirty-five per cent of NZES respondents claimed that they were totally unaware that referendums were to be held in conjunction with the election.

The book’s final section attempts a tentative evaluation of MMP. Drawing on data from survey research commissioned by the select committee set up to review aspects of MMP, as well as from the NZES’s own mid-term surveys (including that carried out in June 2001), the authors report that although support for MMP has recovered from its low point shortly after the collapse of the first coalition government in 1998, much is still soft. Interestingly, they note that following the disintegration of that government there was a strong preference for single-party government, but by mid-2001 opinion was much more evenly balanced.

The final chapter reviews MMP in the context of the Select Committee’s 2001 report. After examining issues such as the size of Parliament, threshold level, and “open” versus “closed” party lists, the authors conclude that the transition to the MMP electoral system is not yet complete. This conclusion is warranted. They are also correct when they argue that the public “own” the electoral system; therefore any major changes proposed should be determined by referendum – “important decisions about electoral arrangements should not be left to political parties and politicians alone: they have too much at stake.”


The work undertaken by the NZES team is valuable. Inevitably, as with many multi-authored books where authors cover much the same ground, there is some repetition. There are also some curious omissions: for example, Roger Douglas is credited with spearheading the formation of the Act Party but no mention is made of the role played by Derek Quigley, even though both men had spent years on opposite sides of the political fence. Nor is any mention made of the fact that both National and New Zealand First had good reasons of their own to end their coalition agreement. While New Zealand First felt it was not getting the recognition it deserved, Jenny Shipley was very aware that if the coalition still existed at the end of September 1998, New Zealand First would expect her to honour the coalition agreement to elevate three New Zealand First MPs to the Cabinet at the expense of National’s own MPs. These, however, are minor points and do not detract from the overall findings of the study.

While the authors are right to assert that proportional representation is still on trial, the use of the word “fate” in the subtitle is suspect. The 1999 election has not determined the future of New Zealand’s electoral system – that is much more likely to be settled through a gradual, incremental process. Vowles has suggested that this election may become a landmark because it brought about the replacement of one coalition government with another. Surely it is too soon to claim this. The second election following a change of government seems more likely to warrant such a claim, if only because it has the effect of cementing in place programmes initiated by a new government in its first term – witness 1938, 1951, and 1987.

Some may ask whether another continuing series on New Zealand elections is warranted since Victoria University’s “New Zealand Political Change Project” covers much the same territory. But the two studies approach their task in different ways. The “New Zealand Political Change Project” is more descriptive, the NZES studies more analytical. Taken together, they complement one another nicely.


Alan McRobie is a political analyst specialising in electoral systems and electoral analysis. He is also a Waimakariri District Councillor.


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