The campaign against MMP

The campaign for New Zealand’s referendum on the electoral system is heating up. Voters will be able to cast two votes in the referendum: one for or against keeping the current mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, and a second to select from among four options for replacement in the event a majority opts for change. If the majority says change from MMP, another referendum in three years will pit MMP against the winner of the second part of this referendum.

The NZ Herald reports that the first anti-MMP billboards are going up this week “as a group of New Zealand’s richest businessmen launch their bid to turf out proportional voting.”

There is also an organized campaign in favor of one of the specific change options:

Vote for Change spokesman Jordan Williams announced yesterday the group would campaign alongside the conservative Maxim think tank for the supplementary member (SM) electoral system, the system preferred by Prime Minister John Key. ((Actually, the story also notes:

This weekend, Key said New Zealand’s electoral system was ‘ultimately a matter for New Zealanders to decide, and that remains the position”.


“Supplementary Member” is a system known otherwise as Mixed-Member Majoritarian (MMM) or a “parallel” system. Unlike with the compensatory allocation of list seats under MMP, the list seats under MMM (SM) are allocated without regard to the outcome in the nominal tier (of single-seat plurality contests). So the two large parties would tend to win not only most of the nominal-tier seats (as is indeed the case under MMP), but also a proportional share of the list seats as well. By contrast, under MMP, parties win a share of all the seats–nominal and list–that is proportional to their party-list votes. ((With some relatively minor “twists” that I will not get into here.)) The majoritarian bent of MMM (SM) would be even further enhanced under the specific New Zealand proposal because of the small share of the seats devoted to list-PR allocation–only 25%. ((The first link describes each of the alternative systems in the referendum.))

As I see it, MMM is a perfectly reasonable choice if one is trying to “fix” the problem of existing or anticipated high fragmentation of the party system–as was the case when it was adopted in Italy and Hungary. ((Yes, the former system in Italy and the current one in Hungary are MMM, not MMP, as some sources say. And, as long as we are tangentially on the topic, no, the changed (yet again) electoral system in Italy since 2006 is also not a form of proportional representation.)) However, if New Zealand has problems with the current system, excessive fragmentation is not one of them. So MMM would seem to be little more than the electoral system one opts for when one really misses the old days of plurality (FPTP) voting, but knows that option is not politically viable.

At this stage, as also reported in the same NZH article, polling suggests that MMP will be retained. A new poll released today by the NZH finds:

45 per cent of voters want to keep MMP and 28 per cent want it dropped. Only 1.2 per cent support SM, making it the least popular of the five systems that voters can choose from.

Plurality (First Past the Post) leads by a wide margin in the second part of the ballot, where the choice is among alternatives for change.

The referendum is 26 November, the same day as the general election.

4 thoughts on “The campaign against MMP

  1. Thanks, Matthew. The NZ Herald has a section on the referendum where relevant articles are placed. People might also want to check out TVNZ, which has news clips that sometimes will include debates on the topic (you can view these from outside New Zealand). It’s interesting to note, as you do, that most of the public advocates of change are calling for the hilariously named ‘SM’ (MMM), rather than SMP/FPP, perhaps because the latter would presumably be less attractive in the referendum that would be triggered if MMP loses. As it stands, it looks like MMP will win easily; indeed, some advocates of change have already conceded that their side will lose. Hence the discussion of the matters that will be investigated if MMP is retained.

    The retention of MMP, if this is the result, would be quite a public vote of confidence in an electoral system, one that was chosen in two referendums and then re-affirmed in a third. I do not know of any precedent for this elsewhere in the world.

    I may see you in NZ in November!

    Tom Lundberg

  2. Good article Matthew.
    Link for the NZH’s referendum section

    It’s a shame that the voting method in the second part (and subsequent, if needed) is simple plurality, the situation cries out for ranking.

  3. “… a group of New Zealand’s richest businessmen launch their bid to turf out proportional voting…”

    1992-93 all over again in NZ, with a touch of UK 2011 when Lord Ashcroft and Baroness Warsi descended from the House or Lords to explain to the smallfolk why counting second and third preferences is an undemocratic way to select members of any legislative body.

    I suppose it is rather frustrating when one has expended time and money wining and dining a Cabinet Minister or two to get approval for one’s latest billion-dollar project fast-tracked, only to find that parliamentary approval is not a rubber stamp and there is a real risk that backbenchers or cross-benchers might vote down the grand plan just because a few thousand of their constituents or branch members have complained about it.

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