With PR, everyone has a voice

Former Valley resident shares her NZ experience

Editor’s note: Katie Betanzo was raised in the Comox Valley and New Zealand. She’s a former editor of The Breezeway, the now defunct award-winning student newspaper at G.P. Vanier High School. Betanzo moved to New Zealand in 2001 and now teaches media studies and English in Auckland. She’s agreed to write a series of articles over the next year about how proportional representative government works in her adopted country. This is the first of those articles.



It’s been a long time since I took Politics 101. It was 1996, the year of the first MMP (mixed member proportional) election in New Zealand.

And while I have banished much of the content of those university lectures to the attic of my mind, I remember one story clearly: that of Sir Bob Jones and the 1984 New Zealand national election.

Jones, a business tycoon, wanted to bring down the right-wing government. But instead of throwing his weight behind the major left-wing party, he founded an ultra-right-wing party that won 12 percent of the votes and no seats.

But he succeed in splitting the right-wing vote. That helped the left-wing Labour party form a government with just 42 percent of the vote, and 59 percent of the seats.

This was possible because of the rules of the first-past-the-post electoral system (FPP).

Jones was not left-wing — far from it, in fact. But he could not abide the ultra-protectionist policies of the right-wing Muldoon government. By openly supporting the left-wing Labour Party, whose neo-liberal economic policy was right up Jones’ alley, Jones would have gained little.

Before New Zealand’s electoral reform and conversion to proportional representation, minority parties gained as high as 20 percent of the vote, but won only one or two seats. These MPs languished on the back benches of the opposition, effectively powerless, and the voices of the people who voted for them reduced to inconsequential protest votes.

Fast forward 33 years. In the general election of September 2017, the National Party won 44 percent of the vote, but could not form a government.

This is a good thing made possible by New Zealand’s electoral reform.

Effectively, 55 percent of the population voted for a center-left or left-wing party. Opinions differed about just how left we were willing to go, but that’s reflected in the wide choice of parties and policies. We now have a center-left coalition government, and in the spirit of compromise, we will please some of the people some of the time.

CBC, Wikipedia and Facebook tell me that British Columbia has a minority NDP government. We Kiwis are not strangers to that concept, although coalitions between like-minded parties are more common than minority governments.

The thing is, though, under a proportional system, there would have been no question of Clark forming a government. The Liberals and NDP would each have had 35 seats, and the Greens with 15 would hold the balance of power. (The remaining two seats would either have gone to the largest of the minor parties, or been split between Liberals and NDP — MMP is a tricky beast.)

In a later column I plan to talk about the pros and cons of different types of proportional representation, from my obviously biased perspective. However, it’s worth facing one criticism head on: uncertainty.

In an FPP system, forming a government is pretty straightforward. The party with the most seats is in charge. Under MMP, any group of parties able to command the majority of votes can form a coalition government.

For most elections, this is straightforward: many smaller parties go into the election campaign having already declared which of the major parties they are willing to work with. However, in the event that an undeclared centrist party holds the balance of power, negotiations can take a while.

Case in point: our most recent election. Election Day was Sept. 23. The government wasn’t formed until Oct. 19. There were plenty of disgruntled people following the formation of the government, as I imagine there were in BC following the last election.

There’s a brilliant explanation of our election result here. It involves a group of politicians trying to buy a pie (we are Kiwis, after all). By applying the analogy to BC, it’s very simple to see that Clark would not have been able to “buy the pie” with her share of the seats; the Liberals and NDP would both have courted the Greens.

Still, in the eight elections since MMP was introduced in New Zealand, this sort of protracted wrangling has happened only twice. Situation normal is to cast your vote knowing you are supporting a coalition that will be headed by a major party on the left or right. The Greens will only ever form a coalition with Labour; the Act party (far-right neo-liberals) can’t abide Labour. Pretty simple.

In 1993, the final FPP election here, only 31.5 percent of votes cast were for the National Party, which formed the government with 50 percent of the seats. Eighteen percent of the votes went to the left-wing Alliance party, which gained only 2 percent of the seats.

Since 2002, all governments have been coalitions commanding 50 percent or greater of the seats in the house, as well as 50 percent or greater of the popular vote.

As rule by the people, for the people goes, I think we’re on the right track.

Further reading: The road to MMP; from the website, New Zealand History