I was fortunate enough to attend a talk last Wednesday in Parliament. The hosts were the NZ-UK Link Foundation and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Presenting were Professor Margaret Wilson, former Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives, and Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at the University of Oxford. Both speakers are firmly in favour of proportional representation.
The two speakers discussed New Zealand’s experiences with PR since its instigation in 1993, and the lessons the UK could learn from it. Originally using FPTP like the UK, New Zealand now uses what it calls ‘Mixed-Member Proportional’ (MMP), which is better known within Europe as the ‘Additional Member System’ (AMS). The basis of the voting system is that each voter gets two votes: one for a constituency and one for a party list. The calculated combination of these two votes allows broad proportionality of votes while ensuring a constituency link.
In deference to the speakers, I have chosen to refer throughout this post to MMP, but in other posts, when dealing with electoral reform, I will most likely resort to the more familiar AMS.
NZ’s relevance to the UK
Professor Bogdanor hoped that there was much for Britain to learn from NZ’s experiences. As in NZ, he felt that the adoption of PR in the UK wouldn’t require any drastic changes in how governments are formed or Parliament works.
NZ and the UK both have unwritten constitutions and, like the UK (and now Australia, as well as Canada) has a hung parliament. The difference in New Zealand however is that hung parliaments are now the norm, with no party having gained an absolute majority since MMP was adopted.
There are differences too. New Zealand has a unicameral Parliament (no Upper House), and fewer minor parties than the UK. Of 19 minor parties in NZ in the FPTP era, only 7 received MPs. There is also a slight difference in political culture – while in the UK, the largest party is expected to get the first shot at forming a government, there is no such expectation in NZ.
The 1992 and 1993 referendums
Professor Wilson explained that the adoption of PR in NZ was quite accidental. Before 1996, NZ elections were carried out with first past the post, but there had been occasions in which the largest party in terms of votes did not get the most seats, resulting in calls for reform. Additionally, respect for Parliament and politicians had declined sharply, with 44% expressing respect for them in a 1992 poll.
In the 1987 General Election, David Lange, the then Prime Minister, announced he would support a referendum on electoral reform before the 1990 election. Professor Wilson suggested Mr. Lange misread his briefing notes when he made the announcement – oh dear. It didn’t transpire, but the National Party leader, Jim Bolger, made a similar pledge in 1990.
There were two referendums in the end; the first referendum, in 1992, was principally advisory, and gave the electorate two questions to answer. Question 1 asked if they wished to abandon FPTP as a means to elect the Parliament; question 2 then gave them a choice of four different systems with which to replace it – AV, MMP, STV, and List.
As you might have guessed, Question 1 was endorsed, and Question 2 had MMP/AMS adopted by 84% of those who voted – but with only 55% turnout. Nonetheless, 84% was a clear endorsement, and in 1993 a second, ‘binding’ referendum was held, which would decide firmly whether the change was to take place. On a turnout of 82% (as the referendum was held simultaneously with the General Election that year), 52% endorsed MMP.
New Zealand’s PR Experience
There were fears that a Westminster system would not be able to handle PR too well, and there were questions in particular about the role of the Governor-General, New Zealand’s representative of the Queen. In the event, these fears were unfounded, and the parliamentary apparatus adapted with few hiccups. The Governor-General kept well away from government formation, and Professor Bogdanor felt that the same could be said of the Queen here.
In the run-up to the change taking effect, scheduled for the 1996 General Election, a bipartisan select committee was established in the Parliament to rewrite the House’s Standing Orders to accommodate the new system. Additionally, the Cabinet Office took the initiative and prepared a living document, known as the Cabinet Manual, to inform the means by which government would be formed and change after each election. This Manual continues to evolve with each new situation.
The Cabinet Manual provides guidelines on how civil servants are expected to behave during minority governments, coalitions, and in the period of government formation following the collapse of a government, namely absolute neutrality. Not much changed from their role here in the UK, then.
Government formation tends to be in the form of informal back-room negotiations between party leaders and advisors, and the final deal is approved by party caucuses. For the two major parties, Labor and the Nationals, the priority is to become a governing party. For minor parties, the priority is to be in a position to exert influence over the major parties, by threatening security of supply and/or confidence, or perhaps even to join the government itself.
An innovation in making these negotiations easier has been the rise of what is called ‘agree to disagree’ provisions, which allow minor coalition partners to officially dissent from government policy in specified areas, but are still duty bound nonetheless to vote in favour of the policy they oppose. Dissent in policy areas outside of ‘agree to disagree’ provisions is unacceptable: they must be arranged in advance.
Professor Bogdanor was dismissive of the very principle of such provisions, although he observed that it could already be being used here, in the shape of the Lib Dem exemption from support on trident renewal. He felt it makes the government of the day appear ridiculous and only undermines its credibility. It can only be a temporary measure. It can also be problematic to tell when the party is speaking for itself or for the government. There was deep embarrassment, for example, when an NZ foreign minister dissented from the government line and caused a bit of a stink with foreign governments. Since then, it has been made clear that foreign policy is exempt from ‘agree to disagree’ provisions.
There have been some frustrations for the electorate. In the 1996 election, voters for the small party, New Zealand First, expecting the party to coalition with Labor after the election (and encouraged by NZ First’s savage attacks on the Nationals), gave their List votes to Labor. They were, unfortunately, let down – NZ First joined with the Nationals. At the next election, in 1999, NZ First lost most of its seats.
The impact on Parliament
Under New Zealand’s MMP system, the FPTP-side candidates are chosen by constituency parties, and List-side candidates by the central party. Professor Bogdanor disliked the List side of MMP (he personally favours STV), as it puts too much power in the hands of the central party, reinforcing party control over MPs. Memberships of political parties continue to decline, making parties more and more like elites.
I have since posting been corrected slightly in my description of List – it’s not in fact centrally operated, but operated by regional conventions as per each party’s internal constitutions.
Professor Wilson noted no reduction in the degree of partisan, confrontational politics in New Zealand following the adoption of MMP. There have been, however, a number of defections between the parties, and some conversions into Independent MPs, principally among the constituency MPs. There have been complaints that this has undermined the main principle of proportionality, and it was proposed in the early 2000’s to require MPs that defect to resign their seats and face re-election. Fortunately, this wasn’t adopted.
Committees in the NZ Parliament have become more assertive with the onset of permanent hung parliament. As in the chamber, none of the parties have a majority on any committee. Private Member Bills, also, have a (marginally) higher chance of succeeding. MMP has, in Professor Wilson’s view, slowed down lawmaking (which is a positive), but not by a great deal.
Has MMP Worked?
The goal of NZ’s pro-PR reformers was to create a more representative parliament with more checks and balances on the Executive. The MMP Parliament has 34% women, 15% Maori, and another 9% Asian and Pacific. The parties use the List to improve these numbers, but it is clearly still poor as regards female representation at least.
In terms of checks and balances, the small size of Parliament, rather than the voting system, makes MPs there more effective in making a difference, as numbers are more important. Whips are still powerful, as the potential independence inherent in a small parliament is offset by the presence of List MPs.
The frequent presence of coalition and minority governments also means more leverage for the Opposition and minority parties, but a consequent side-effect has been that much more decision-making is taken behind closed doors, with senior politicians relying more and more on specialist advisers (the notorious SpAds). The effect has been a decline in the amount and quality of debate in Parliament, and less transparency.
Professor Wilson also pointed out the NZ Parliament has had its own expenses crisis, although not on the same scale as Britain’s.
Professor Wilson felt that MMP changed the nature of decision-making, slowing it down, but has also made it less open and increased the influence of unaccountable SpAds. Select committees have enjoyed an increase in influence. On the whole, Professor Wilson, while reiterating her support for MMP, felt the changes were ‘not revolutionary’. As it stands, there is a referendum due in 2011 on whether to retain MMP or adopt another system, and it’s not clear what the result will be.
Professor Bogdanor found it curious that major constitutional change, normally a low priority, is now being considered in the UK now, only after a huge crisis of confidence in politics and Parliament following the expenses revelations last year. He also observed that despite the main call by the public being for greater control over MPs, such as could be attainable through primaries and recall votes, the changes being proposed, such as PR, fixed-term parliaments, and primaries, would not address this one jot.
I found the talk very interesting. It should be remembered, however, the AMS/MMP is but one possible option for PR that could be adopted, and Bogdanor himself favoured STV. AMS isn’t on the cards at next year’s referendum, but it’s always useful to learn a bit more about the options.