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Republican lessons from the NZ electoral system referendum

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Last year, New Zealand held a non-binding referendum on their electoral system. Lewis Holden, who was involved in the campaign to keep the current system, looks at what republicans can learn from the campaign.

Lewis Holden out on the campaign trail for MMP.

Since 1996, New Zealand's elections have followed the proportional system known as Mixed Member Proportional or MMP. MMP replaced the traditional British simple plurality system of First Past the Post (FPP). Held at the same time as the 2011 general election, the referendum was the product of a promise made by the National Party during its nine years in opposition (from 1999 to 2008). I was fortunate enough to be the Campaign for MMP group's Auckland spokesperson.

On 73.51 per cent turnout, the final result was 57.7 per cent to keep MMP, and 42.2 per cent to change from MMP to another system. The experience of being involved in the campaign taught me a lot — and there's certainly a lot the republic campaign can learn from both campaigns to keep or change the electoral system. In this series, I'll focus on what the referendum process itself tells us in terms of challenges to either side and what we, as republicans in Australia and New Zealand, can learn from both campaigns.

First, a bit of background.

As I mentioned earlier, the 2011 referendum on MMP came about as part of a policy made by the New Zealand National Party 10 years earlier, in 2001. Back then, a constitutional arrangements task force was created by the party to consider constitutional issues facing New Zealand. On the electoral system, the task force put this recommendation to the party:
'That the next National Government holds a referendum to determine whether the public supports a change from MMP and, if so, the preferred alternative. Should a change be supported, then a further referendum should be held at the time of the following general election to determine whether the preferred alternative is supported ahead of MMP. Both referenda would require a simple majority. The National Party should declare its preferred option.'

As readers of the taskforce recommendations will see, there was another recomendation on whether the National Party would support a referendum on a New Zealand republic following the end of the current Queen's reign. Sadly this policy did not pass the national conference, but the policy on abolishing the Maori seats and holding a referendum on MMP did. And so, once National won the 2008 general election, a referendum on the system was imminent. This, in itself, is a lesson for republicans. In order to win a referendum to create a New Zealand republic we will need a large degree of cross-party support — at least for the position that a referendum on a republic ought to be held. National voted as a block against a Bill for a referendum on the issue – Green MP Keith Locke's Head of State Referenda Bill – largely on the basis that "now is not the time" to deal with the issue.

Second, the campaign groups. Once the referendum was imminent, two groups were formed — the first of these being the Campaign for MMP. Discussions began following the 2008 general election and I became involved on the website side of things about this time. In 2011, the group advocating a change away from MMP, named Vote for Change, was formed


In many respects, the two biggest challenges faced by Vote for Change for the 2011 referendum campaign were similar to those faced by the republicans in our campaign, namely:

  • challenging the status quo: Vote for Change had to first show that status quo wasn't working; and

  • providing an alternative: Vote for Change had to then provide an alternative the public would support over the status quo.

  • These two challenges roughly correlated to the two parts of the referendum. By 2010, it was decided to split the referendum into two parts — A and B. "Part A" being the question of whether to keep or change (away) from MMP and "Part B" being the alternative model. Only Part A was binding, in that a vote for or against change would specifically lead to either a review of MMP in the advent that it was retained (the option that eventually won) or a second referendum, where the alternative system supported in Part B would go up against MMP, unmodified.

    As mentioned, it was the first option that won the referendum. The results make for interesting reading for republicans. The split in keep versus change by New Zealand's 70 electorates follows no specific pattern — of all of the urban seats in all of the main centres, only Tamaki and North Shore (both held by National MPs with large majorities) voted for change. Rural electorates were a mixed bag — many in the North Island voted to keep MMP, while almost all in the South Island voted for change. The Maori seats, and seats in South Auckland, voted overwhelmingly to keep MMP. There was no clear pattern to the  results; we had to fight for every vote.

    The results by alternative system were not surprising — the former electoral system, FPP, came first out of the alternatives; followed by Supplementary Member, the system eventually favoured by Vote for Change. In my view, the first mistake of Vote for Change was not backing an alternative system right from the start. I'll look into why I think this in my next post.

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