Jonathan Milne is a former reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Jonathan Milne: Driven to drink over MMP

A young Jonathan Milne (L) celebrates the adoption of MMP in 1993.
Photo / Supplied
A young Jonathan Milne (L) celebrates the adoption of MMP in 1993. Photo / Supplied

MMP was the right answer to the wrong question. I know - I was there when the question was posed.

Digging through some back issues of the Listener, I found a photo of myself, a fresh-faced university student, gleefully celebrating the 1993 MMP referendum result clutching a near-empty bottle of Coruba. I was younger then. I was slimmer. But clearly, the tragic makings of a politics geek were already in place.

My mother is still surprised I ever got a girlfriend. And I don't think I've drunk Coruba since.

Aside from cheap liquor and frustrated teen ardour though, what drove New Zealand to turf out its old First Past the Post electoral system and replace it with a European-styled system of representation?

Here's the official reason: we were tired of an electoral system that allowed a party unrestrained control of the national purse-strings for three years at a time, when it might have won fewer than two votes in five. In 1978 and 1981 Labour won more votes than National - but FPP placed National leader Robert Muldoon in power regardless.

FPP rorted the public will. The Social Credit Party won 20.65 per cent of the vote in 1981 - one vote in every five - but obtained only two seats in Parliament. Bob Jones' New Zealand Party won 12.2 per cent of the vote in 1984, but didn't win a single seat.

Under FPP, a very small number of voters in an even smaller number of marginal electorates hold the nation's fate in their hands.

That is the reason New Zealand should have voted for MMP. But the real reason was quite different.

We were sick of politicians. We were sick to death of the lying, thieving bastards, who promised us one thing in their glossy, bound election manifestos, then romped into power and did exactly the opposite. And after 1992, when Labour leader Mike Moore and National leader Jim Bolger supported the FPP status quo - the system that had allowed their parties to alternate seats in the House through most of the century then drink whisky together at the Parliamentary bar afterwards - well, that was the final straw.

We couldn't vote both National and Labour out of government - but we could place some constraints on their power. And those constraints have worked. The Greens. Alliance. Act. The Maori Party. United Future. And yes, like it or not, Winston Peters' NZ First party. They have stopped the old Club of Two running roughshod over the electorate.

Has the tail wagged the dog? No, absolutely not. You could count the major policy wins of those small parties on your fingers. Paid parental leave and Kiwibank (Alliance). The SuperGold card (NZ First). Retrofitted home insulation (Greens). The Families Commission (United Future). The repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed legislation (Maori Party).

But they have tempered the grandiose ambitions of National and Labour, the big old parties who preached restraint to voters while suckling at the public teat and refusing any transparency or accountability for their big-spending, high-flying, whisky-sozzling, moustache-twirling ways.

According to today's Key Research poll commissioned by the Herald on Sunday, most decided voters still support MMP over FPP. But after former Telecom chairman Peter Shirtcliffe and Commonwealth Bank of Australia chief executive Sir Ralph Norris waded into the public debate yesterday, support may grow for FPP and its anaemic cousin, the Supplementary Member system. Eighty-two-year-old Shirtcliffe's first "Vote for Change" billboards are to be erected on Auckland's southeastern highway this week.

In 1992's initial indicative referendum, the majority of voters (84.7 per cent) wanted to ditch FPP. In the binding referendum that followed a year later, after Shirtcliffe had run an expensive campaign to save the old system, MMP snuck through on with just 53.9 per cent support - scarcely the most full-throated endorsement but it was enough.

Now, the big business and old money who supported the status quo in 1993 have again put their money behind dumping MMP at next month's referendum.

As a half-baked compromise, Prime Minister John Key has offered up the Supplementary Member system again - essentially an FPP Parliament, but with one or two seats thrown to the small parties like scraps to the dogs. Single Transferable Vote and Preferential Voting will also be on the purple ballot paper - but neither is a fully proportional voting system.

Only MMP - the system we already have - can ensure our politicians and parties are elected in accordance with the number of votes we give them. Really, it's that simple.

So here's my promise: If the electorate votes to turf out MMP, I'll crack open another bottle of Coruba - my first in 18 years. But this time, it will be to drown my sorrows.

- Herald on Sunday

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Jonathan Milne is a former reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Jonathan Milne is a former reporter and deputy editor of the Herald on Sunday. He specialised in politics and education. He won awards for his newspaper and magazine journalism in New Zealand and the UK.

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