As an American, I had no prior experience with proportional representation when I emigrated to New Zealand eight years ago. New Zealand has a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), adopted in 1993 as a result of a popular referendum. This followed a series of elections in which the “winner take all” system put governments in power that were opposed by a majority of voters. In 1978 and 1981 the National Party won Parliament and the Prime Minister slot, despite winning fewer votes than the Labour Party. Then in 1993 National formed a minority government, despite winning a plurality of only 0.5% – even though a sizeable minor party vote meant a majority of New Zealanders actually voted against National.
How MMP Works
Under New Zealand’s MMP electoral system each voter gets two votes for Parliament. One vote is for the candidate they wish to represent their electorate (New Zealand is divided, based on population, into 63 general electorates and 7 Maori electorates) and one vote is for the party they wish to represent them in Parliament. New Zealanders of Maori descent must choose prior to the election whether they wish to vote in their Maori electorate or in the general electorate in which they reside.
In addition to candidates who win their electorates, each party that receives more than 5% of the vote is allocated a percentage of 50 party seats, depending on the percentage of party votes they win. These party seats are filled, in order, from a democratically chosen list of candidates each party is required to file with the Electoral Commission.
For example the New Zealand Green Party received 8% of the party vote in the 2008 election and now has nine MPs (Members of Parliament) we chose for our party list prior to the election.
Having a Voice in Government (For the Very First Time)
After more than 20 years as an American grassroots organizer – where I practically sweated bullets for mostly invisible peace and justice issues (such as single payer health care and the Equal Rights Amendment – does anyone even remember the Equal Rights Amendment?), I can’t describe what a thrill it has been to work on two election campaigns (in 2005 and 2008) and both times see candidates representing my political views elected to national government.
It’s sad but true that the two major political parties (Labour and National) continue to dominate the New Zealand political landscape, owing to the disproportionate support they receive from both business and the (foreign controlled) media. At the same time, when voters are given a real choice, it often happens that neither of the major parties receives a majority of votes. Which means they are forced to negotiate with minor parties for the support they need to form a government (under a Parliamentary system, any government that can’t command a majority of votes on budget legislation is forced to resign and call a new election).
What MMP Has Meant for the Green Party
Although the New Zealand Green Party has never been in formal coalition with either National or Labour, both parties have needed our vote at times on their own bills – and in return have supported important Green Party legislation. In the last eight years, this has included legalization of prostitution, enactment of a national antibiotics surveillance program, a flexible working hours mandate, a school food and nutrition guide and a law allowing women to breast feed in prison; creation of a complementary health advisor position in the Ministry of Health; repeal of both the Sedition Law and a loophole that allowed parents to legally beat their children; and millions of dollars for government grants and guaranteed loans for solar water heaters and home insulation.
Perhaps even more important is the platform (and media attention) being in Parliament provides to advance Green issues and policies – and at the same time challenge the flagrantly pro-corporate policies and actions of the major parties.