New Zealand gives B.C. a lesson on proportional representation

When New Zealand pitched a switch to proportional representation in the early ’90s, it triggered a wave of conjecture and confusion similar to what B.C. is experiencing now.

New Zealanders voted in favour of mixed-member proportional representation in 1993, a switch from the first-past-the-post electoral system that B.C. still uses. Next election, in 1996, voters would cast one vote for a local candidate, but also a second for a party, to decide what proportion of seats each party would have in parliament. Meantime, electoral maps would be redrawn and parties would have to make ranked lists to fill out those second seats with “list MPs” of their choosing.

“Last year’s decision to change New Zealand‘s voting system has turned Kiwi politics into a confusing game of musical chairs as politicians panic over secret maps which chart their route to oblivion,” Agence France-Presse’s Michael Field reported in 1994.

“The ruling National Party only narrowly holds onto power, political parties are fragmenting and MPs are scrambling for fewer seats. But there is so much confusion that New Zealand may not be able to organize a general election for at least another year — an unusual situation for a country which has had continuous and stable Westminster-style representative democracy since 1855.”

But two decades later, New Zealanders have got used to it, said Jennifer Curtin, a professor and political scientist at the University of Auckland. In fact, 58 per cent were happy enough with the new system in 2011 that they voted in a referendum to keep it.

New Zealand’s electoral system was mentioned several times in Attorney General David Eby’s report and recommendations on electoral reform in B.C.

In 1985, following two elections in which New Zealand’s Labour party got more votes yet fewer seats in parliament than the National Party, a commission was formed to study other ways of voting. It unanimously recommended mixed-member proportional the following year.

When the government held a non-binding referendum in 1992, asking voters whether they wanted to keep first-past-the-post or ditch it, 85 per cent voted for change. A second question on the ballot asked them to choose one of four new systems. Overwhelmingly, New Zealanders chose MMP (70 per cent), over single-transferable vote (17 per cent), preferential voting (seven per cent) and supplementary-member systems (six per cent).

Similarly, Eby wants to ask two questions: Should B.C. use first-past-the-post or proportional representation and if B.C. does adopt proportional representation, how would you rank MMP, rural-urban and dual-member systems? The last two systems have never been used.

New Zealand also held a binding referendum during the general election in 1993, which pitted MMP solely against first-past-the-post. MMP took 54 per cent of the vote.

“For the older folks, the hardest part to get a handle on was the ‘list MPs’ and who are these faceless people, who are these party hacks and what do they really do?” Curtin said. “That’s started to decline now.”

In New Zealand, the party lists and rankings of the names on them are made public. Curtin said that has proved to be an incentive to make the lists diverse to attract as many voters to the party as possible, which has led to a significant increase in Māori people and women in parliament.

Critics of proportional representation in B.C., including the B.C. Liberals and the No B.C. Proportional Representation Society, argue the system will cause harm.

“Proportional representation will lead to more minority coalition governments, like the mess we have in Victoria right now. It will create uncertainty for the investment community, negatively impacting jobs, growth and our prosperity,” B.C. Liberal MLA Michael Lee said last fall.

In the eight elections since New Zealand switched to MMP in 1996, the National and Labour parties have each formed government four times, though none with an outright majority of seats. Each time, they’ve had to form coalitions or reach confidence and supply agreements with another party to operate as a minority.

New Zealand’s worry over the political fallout of carving out new electoral maps — now a topic of concern in B.C. — was handled by an independent commission, which convenes after every census to review and redraw boundaries and consider changing the names of constituencies. B.C., too, is proposing an independent electoral boundaries commission.

“They were quite good in not changing too many names, really trying to keep a sense of community,” Curtin said.

— With files from Vaughn Palmer

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