The referendum on the voting system that accompanies Saturday's general election has failed to generate much heat. There has been less passionate comment than in the past from those yearning for a return to first-past-the-post politics and only sporadic words of support for the poll's other options - preferential voting, the single transferable vote, and supplementary member voting.

This absence of a large groundswell for change carries its own commentary on the mixed member proportional system that has served New Zealand since 1996. By and large, and after a shaky start, it has proved satisfactory.

Change would be justified only if MMP had failed to produce governments that voters recognised as an expression of their collective will. That has not been so. And if optimism that it would introduce a new style of consensus politics has proved overblown, nor has it delivered the weak governments forecast by its detractors. Without exception, each of the MMP elections has rewarded the dominant party.

Fears that the minor-party tail would wag the dog have proved largely unfounded. As the system has bedded in and management of it has improved, Helen Clark and John Key have been able to lead strong administrations.


Many people are, however, justifiably irritated by aspects of MMP. As much has finally been recognised. A vote for MMP at the referendum will be the catalyst for a review of the system by the Electoral Commission.

A vote of more than 50 per cent to change the system would mean that Parliament would decide if MMP is to be pitted in a 2014 poll against the most popular alternative in Saturday's referendum. It is not clear, however, if a review would be done if a majority vote to discard MMP. That, however, should go ahead whatever Saturday's outcome. It would be unfair to throw MMP, with all its present wrinkles, into a binding run-off.

Among the aspects of the system that would be canvassed by the Electoral Commission are the threshold parties must meet to be eligible for a share of list seats, whether voters should be able to change the order of candidates on a party list, and whether candidates should be able to stand in both an electorate and on the party list.

At the moment, and particularly because of Epsom, many people's concern centres on the wheeling and dealing that arises from small parties with an electorate seat, but less than 5 per cent of the party vote, getting list MPs into Parliament.

This situation, unique to our form of MMP, could be solved in large part if parties always had to secure at least 5 per cent of the party vote - irrespective of any electorate wins - to gain list seats. Other fairly obvious changes could be made to ease the widespread annoyance over list MPs entering Parliament without an endorsement from an electorate. A party's list seats could, for example, go to its candidates who came closest to winning an electorate.

MMP would be much improved by such modifications. The teeth of the smaller parties would be drawn somewhat and the prospect of strong government enhanced. Such changes should have been put in train much earlier.

Parliament's failure to do so has allowed cynicism about political conduct to grow and fester. Tellingly, however, this has come nowhere near the level of disquiet over the unbridled power afforded by the first-past-the-post system, which triggered the introduction of MMP.

In Saturday's referendum, voters need to look at the big picture. Irksome aspects of MMP can be addressed in a year or two. The immediate task is to assess the present system against the others on offer. On the basis of what has happened over the past 25 years, change hardly seems warranted.