Election day, October 12, 1996. Three years after New Zealanders voted for a new electoral system, they ticked their new and more confusing ballot papers and delivered 120 men and women into Parliament.

What their voting did not deliver immediately was a government.

Instead, negotiations would drag on until December 10, when National and New Zealand First announced a coalition deal to form a government; a government that would, after a fashion, survive the next three years.

At a referendum held alongside the general election in 1993, 53.9 per cent of New Zealanders voted to change to MMP, ditching the old first past the post (FPP) system.

The old system had its flaws - parties which weren't necessarily supported by a majority of New Zealanders could wind up with a majority in Parliament, and parties securing a large number of votes could get little, if any, representation - Social Credit in 1981 got about 21 per cent of the votes but just two seats in the House.

MMP brought major changes - two votes (one for a party, one for an electorate candidate) and an increase in the number of MPs to 120 from 99 being the most obvious.

The party vote meant MPs for the first time did not need to represent an electorate. It was used to determine how many MPs a party got, with numbers topped up with "list" MPs if the party got a higher percentage of the vote than it got MPs from winning electorates.

Leading up to the election, National was effectively in a minority government, holding on to power with a grouping of 49 MPs, as politicians prepared for MMP politics.

National lost MPs who went off to form the United Party, the Right of Centre Party, the Christian Democrats and the Conservatives.

There were also just 98 MPs, with New Zealand First's Michael Laws, who had also left National that term, forced to resign after misleading Parliament.

Jim Bolger had been Prime Minister for six years and was looking for more but faced difficulties, with polls suggesting he would struggle to form a government post-election with likely allies such as United, Act and the Christian Coalition.

All was not rosy inside Labour either - moves had been made against leader Helen Clark just three months earlier.

There were even suggestions from former Labour Prime Minister David Lange that some Labour MPs could defect to National after the election if they did not like any deal Labour did with the further-to-the-left Alliance.

Mr Lange said he had seen a change in politics, being harassed in the street and assaulted, something that would not have happened in the past, and he had some thoughts on MMP.

"We have in New Zealand people who hate politicians so much that they voted for another 21 of them."

He predicted the system would settle in and eventually deliver strong government, but not for the first three terms.

"You've got to have a shake-down, you've got to have a real centre party and a small core at the centre that's prepared to flick to either side and there has to be substance on each side."

NZ First, led by former National MP Winston Peters, was somewhere in the centre and looked likely to have a major say in which of the two traditional political powers would be in government.

Before the election, Mr Peters refused to say which way his party would go but he did distance himself from National, and in a moment of extreme, if understated, prescience, said he expected coalition talks to last as long as six weeks.

In campaigning, parties quickly clued on to the exigencies of MMP politics.

In Wellington Central, NZ First candidate Sarah Porter urged people not to vote for her but instead for the National or Labour candidates in a bid to stop Act's Richard Prebble gaining election and bringing more MPs to Parliament with him.

In the event she failed - Mr Prebble won after the rug was effectively pulled out from under National candidate Mark Thomas, and Act cleared the 5 per cent party vote threshold anyway.

Come October 12, the country voted and as the ballots were counted, it emerged that, unsurprisingly, nobody had a clear majority.

National won enough of the party vote for 44 seats, Labour 37, NZ First 17, Alliance 13, Act eight, and United, through Ohariu-Belmont MP Peter Dunne, got one seat in the newly renovated debating chamber.

There were 45 new faces in Parliament and among NZ First's MPs were a sweep of the Maori seats as Tukoroirangi Morgan, Rana Waitai, Tu Wylie and John Delamere joined Tau Henare, who had won his seat in 1993.

There was little doubt MMP had brought a more varied Parliament. Other new MPs in 1996 included Act's Rodney Hide and Donna Awatere Huata, who both joined a returning Mr Prebble.

For the Alliance, Green MPs and longtime activists Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald made their first appearances, alongside journalist Pam Corkery and the soon-to-be-infamous Alamein Kopu.

Tariana Turia got her first shot, with Labour, with Tim Barnett and Nanaia Mahuta.

For National, Arthur Anae became the party's first Pacific Island MP, and with Pansy Wong was one of the party's first two MPs of Asian extraction (Mr Anae also had Asian and European heritage).

After more than a week's hiatus following the election, coalition talks began - and carried on for weeks.

With NZ First in a position to go it alone with National, it could also join forces with Labour and the Alliance.

Polls showed most NZ First voters favoured a coalition with Labour - only 15 per cent fancied National - and policy comparisons showed a greater alignment with Labour.

But talks with Labour didn't begin promisingly - Mr Peters missed a phone call from Helen Clark and went fishing instead.

When talks eventually got under way, they were so secret that National MPs were not even given regular briefings on what was happening and the negotiating room was swept for bugs.

Journalists had to stake out Parliament to discover the venue of talks - negotiation leaders would not spill even that detail.

"Do you want to hire Athletic Park and have a free-for-all that could put the economy at risk or do you want to have things done responsibly?" an irate Mr Peters asked reporters.

He reiterated his belief that the talks would take six weeks, but the country was hungry for a government.

"No comment", was a frequent refrain from Mr Bolger, and Helen Clark went so far as to say talks with NZ First had been "good".

Alliance leader Jim Anderton waited in vain for the phone to ring, inviting him to the table.

Eventually, on December 10 - nearly two months after the election - Mr Peters announced his party would go into coalition with National.

Mr Bolger retained the premiership and Mr Peters became his deputy, as well as taking up the new position of treasurer.

NZ First got five seats at the Cabinet table, and more ministers outside the Cabinet.

Helen Clark labelled the deal a betrayal of NZ First's supporters.

"I think it's a disappointment to every New Zealander who voted for a government of change on October 12.

"I think many will see it as a betrayal and most will find it very difficult to understand."

It did not take long for cracks to appear in the coalition - there were Mr Morgan's infamous underpants, and then Jenny Shipley rolled Mr Bolger in December that year to become the country's first female prime minister.

In August 1998 NZ First left the Cabinet and Mrs Shipley sacked Mr Peters.

She remained as Prime Minister, with her National MPs, Mr Dunne and MPs from Act. Former NZ First MPs who had split from the party and Mrs Kopu gave her support on confidence votes, but the Government struggled to see out its term.

Before the election, Mr Anderton had said all his new MPs would have to sign a pledge to resign from Parliament if they voted against Alliance policies or left the Alliance.

Sadly for him, Mrs Kopu not only left the Alliance and failed to leave Parliament, she swapped political sides to prop up the right-wing National-led government.

Come 1999, the electorate punished National and NZ First for their term in government, NZ First returning just five MPs to Parliament, polling just 4.3 per cent and getting back in solely on the back of Mr Peters' Tauranga seat, which he held on to by just 63 votes.

National's caucus shrunk to 39 and a Labour-Alliance coalition became New Zealand's second government elected under MMP.

It too would run into trouble after a split in the junior partner ... but that's another story.

- NZPA