MMP With FPP Characteristics: New Zealand’s DIY Electoral System


MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about who “won” the 2017 General Election. Sharp differences have emerged between those who have judged the outcome as a clear National victory, and those who insist that Labour, with the assistance of the Greens and NZ First, has every right to anticipate forming a new government. In essence, this dispute turns on whether New Zealand’s political system is a straightforward creature of the Law, or something constantly emerging from the customs and practices of the people who inhabit it. I place myself among the latter.


In fairness to all the legalists out there, I must acknowledge that in terms of such formal constitutional conventions as New Zealand possesses (and there are surprisingly few) there is absolutely nothing to prevent the Labour Leader, Jacinda Ardern, from advising the Governor-General that she has negotiated an agreement with NZ First and the Greens which places her in command of a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives. Upon confirming that advice, the Governor-General would have no option but to invite Jacinda to form a government.


That Labour, NZ First and the Greens can do this is not in dispute. What is disputed, however, is whether such an agreement will be negotiated. The distance between “can” and “will” is vast – and filled with obstacles.


The greatest of these obstacles is the persistence of the electorate’s political memory. Although New Zealand has been conducting MMP elections for 21 years, the memories and expectations of voters old enough to have participated in elections conducted under the rules of First-Past-The-Post (FPP) continue exert a powerful influence on the public’s understanding of political events – as anyone who reads the Letters-to-the Editor columns will attest. The most persistent of these memories – that the party obtaining the most votes gets to become the government – is particularly tenacious.

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Augmenting the electorate’s persistence of memory, is the enduring resentment of those New Zealanders who have consistently voted to retain and/or restore the FPP system. A substantial minority, around 40 percent of the electorate, emphatically rejects the idea that New Zealand is well-served by proportional representation. These citizens remain firmly wedded to the simple plurality, single-member constituency, system of electing members of parliament. Among such voters, the legitimacy of the MMP system’s Party lists and List MPs continues to be hotly contested.


Even among those who support MMP, considerable confusion still exists as to the relative importance of the Party Vote and the Electorate Vote. Among voters there is a widespread misapprehension that Members of Parliament elected to represent their local communities deserve higher status than MPs elected off a Party List the public had no part in drawing-up. The key role of the Party Vote in determining the outcome of a general election continues to elude many voters.


It is tempting to argue that, when determining the political future of the country, the misapprehensions and ignorance of ordinary voters should not be accorded any special weight. Certainly, our electoral legislation makes no such allowance. If electors allocate their two votes according to the mistaken assumption that their Electorate Vote counts for more than their Party Vote, then that’s just too bad. They should have paid closer attention to the Law.


Unfortunately for the legalists, New Zealand’s politicians cannot afford to be so definitive. Our political leaders know that while the Electoral Commission must operate according to the strict rules of the Electoral Act, their own operations will be guided by those the electorate assumes to be in force. These DIY electoral rules have grown out of the custom and practice of the politicians whose job it has been, since 1996, to make MMP work. In making these political choices, our leaders have paid considerably more attention to what the voters think they should do, than to what the constitutional conventions laid down in the Cabinet Manual actually empower them to do. In doing so, they have created a whole new set of “unofficial” conventions.


The most important of these is that the party winning the most votes, and taking the most seats, must be allowed to form a government. To say this represents outdated FPP thinking is true – but irrelevant. Most New Zealanders balk at the prospect of being ruled by a “coalition of the losers”. In their minds, a plurality is as good as a majority – and that “majority’ must rule. This widely-held (albeit completely erroneous) view of electoral best-practice leads the voters inexorably on to the next-most-important convention: that it is the duty of whichever small party is best positioned, ideologically and practically, to do so, to supply the largest party with the votes it needs to give New Zealand “strong and stable” government.


The fact that the voters have got it all wrong is nowhere near as important as the fact that they believe themselves to be right. After all, this is how all previous MMP governments have been formed, and a consistently large majority of voters are firmly of the view that this is how the next MMP government should be formed. Perhaps the best way of describing New Zealand’s DIY electoral system is: MMP with FPP characteristics. It may not have the slightest justification in either law, or the officially-defined constitutional conventions, but woe betide any politician who sets his, or her, face against it.



    • Definitely and from his musings he has quite a soft spot for National and rarely if ever writes a single piece critical of them.

      Sorry Chris, the majority did NOT vote for National. We wait on Winston to see if that means anything.

      • Some people prefer quality over quantity but you too muppets seem to enjoy the casualisation of conversation.

        @62% voter participation there is no majority. Who ever forms government and for what ever reason will be unable to negotiate trade deals with less than 31% of eligible voters in support. Investors and nation states will just laugh when they relies 69% of eligible voters just aren’t into you, won’t participate with a vote so what makes any of you think the vast majority will even subscribe to a capitalist democracy kiwi style let alone buy into one. So when trade deals come up for renegotiation i.e TPP11 and South Korea FTA. Any capital or immigration controls will be laughed at.

        So you can stick your majority hard up your ass.

        • The public proclamation of Steven Joyce (on Q+A) followed by Bill English that “46 percent of ‘New Zealanders’ voted National” was obviously overlooked by weary interviewers, but undoubtedly absorbed in the minds of uncritically receptive viewers.

          Would you buy a used car off this man?

          New Zealand does not need a Dr Joseph Goebbels.

          • Correction:

            What Steven Joyce actually said on Q+A was “almost one in every two New Zealanders voted National” which Bill English picked up and followed. This intentionally grossly misleading statement was impressed in the minds of susceptible listening voters.

            • But what ever dafuq fatty & xray are on about. Just dont get the hate hate boner you too hove for wanking each other off in public over Chris Trotter. But keep eating from the banana champs.

        • If only 62% of the Voting Public voted and National got 46% of the Votes of the Voting Public that voted, they only got 28.5% approval from the NZ Voting Public ?

      • More alarmingly, only a tiny number of voters (7% or thereabouts) voted for nz first. No nz first candidate won an electorate seat – and yet this incoherent mob have been handed the right to anoint the next government.

        This situation totally undermines our democracy.

        Accordingly National has a significantly greater moral right to form a government than NZ First to anoint one.

        • ccordingly National has a significantly greater moral right to form a government than NZ First to anoint one

          Really?, Ocon?

          And how do you propose National “form a government” with only 58 seats out of 60?

          Your call.

          • Yes Really Frank

            By negotiating with the Greens.

            Or; implementing a quite different strategy, which is to walk away from dealing with Peters and becoming the opposition for 3 years and using the time to campaign against a coalition of losers (labour,NZFirst and the Greens)

                • I take the point Geoff.

                  However in my opinion its a very myopic stance to take.

                  The Greens wanted MMP; were influential in bringing it about, but these days prefer to sit on the side lines like a bunch of timid 3rd formers and wait for the others to invite them to play.

                  They have a negotiation team but no one to negotiate with. Except themselves.

                  At this point in the MMP cycle there is a certain amount of power floating around. Some of that is available to the Greens, if they choose to use it. And its power in this situation that gets things that you want.

                  Instead of demonising National (as illustrated by Frank’s ludicrous comment above); they could in an open minded way at least talk with the Nats to see what is and is not possible. This doesn’t commit them to anything, but it may provide insight into new possibilities.

                  This also takes some power away from nz first, which is a good thing, and makes labour take notice, which is also a good thing.

                  It is ironical that from being such strong MMP advocates they prefer not to participate; except passively, when called upon by their lords and masters.

                  • Bill English should have thought twice about MMP before publicly decreeing NZ1st, Labour, The Greens as unfit to govern. Of course all this is water under the bridge because Bill’s National party has no mates.

                    • They’re Greens, so supporting dolphin-murdering, river-poisoning, National-Park-mining environmental vandals is off the table. And altho going thru the motions of listening to National would be the political gamesmanship thing to do.Just for the experience.
                      The Greens don’t play like troughing capitalist scumbags National do. So there is little chance of any worthwhile communication occurring.

    • It’s quite simple,the agreed parties forming a coalition having the nessassary parliamentary seats has the right to form a government ,regardless of which individual party received the largest number of votes.
      If National can not attract coalition partners , then they are unable to form a government.
      54 % of votes cast where not in favour of National’s quest to be the government.

      Chris smiles a lot more than Hooten, I find Hooten extremely depressing.

  1. I am not sure whether using terms such as, “coalition of the losers” is particularly constructive especially when in this election, the party with the most votes also looks as if it lost the most votes. Yep, MMP can be hard to come to terms with, and with partisan ambulance-chasing MSM often struggling to provide indepth analysis e.g. the trite comments even today about Peter’s arrival in Wgtn, there’s a fairly compelling case for civics education in schools – very compelling, when the interested-young tend to be far more idealistic than their elders.

  2. Chris Trotter is right in his assessment of what the public think. I should know – I’ve just had my ear chewed by my barber on precisely this issue.
    If they find MMP too hard, I shudder to think what they would make of the Single Transferrable Vote they use in Australia, where its possible for a candidate to start at second last and yet win the race if the votes of the discarded candidates fall in his favour.

  3. Come on you lot, Trotter is speaking from the mindset of an FPP voter with those quotes, ‘majority’ and ‘loser’.

    That’s how he roll!

  4. Strong parallels can be drawn between the English Rugby Team and The National Party.
    Both fist pump the air , hug and congratulate each other even when they lose.
    Yes ‘Parties’ is the term used during electoral terms and at election time to differentiate the various political groups, but come time to decide who gets to govern in an M.M.P environment, the term gets changed to ‘Blocs’.
    As a political scientist, ( whose name escapes me), said on the A.M Show the other morning when asked “who won the election?” , he replied, ” no one ” has yet won.
    The winner will be the group of ‘Parties” that can put together a ‘bloc’ that will get them across the line,
    It’s not rocket science and anyone who can’t ‘get it’ really should not be voting.
    I’ve heard a few people, ( not many), from certain circles say that National won. I don’t know what planet these people inhabit or whether they have been asleep for the past 22 years or maybe they just didn’t make it pass year 10 maths, but they are wrong not matter which way you look at it .
    Then they come with the airy fairy moral argument…..ah remind me again who repeatedly , through a propaganda advertising campaign corrupted the election by advertising blatant lies.
    If there is a more real moral argument to be had ,it would be that National should be disqualified from the negotiating process for cheating and thus forfeit the right to have a go at governing for another 3 years!!

    • Too true ! So much for National having a ‘moral majority’ – when they lied and cheated all the way to Election Day.

      How ‘strong and stable’ was the National Government, when they covered up Todd Barclay’s misdemeanours, to keep him in Government in order to get legislation passed with a one percent majority?

      As one commentator has said “the winner will be able to put together a coalition which will have 61 seats in order to pass legislation in a 120 seat Parliament”

  5. The same folk who thought after 3 MMP elections there would be another referendum. The ignorant deserve to be convinced but not cow-towed to. Politicians are no longer in the business of persuasion, as so opinion is a solid fact.

    My doubts are about the solidity of Peter’s MPs. Whether he can hold his party together.

  6. We have a proportional representation MMP voting system and a majoritarian FPP parliamentary system.
    Once voting is over, the next step is to reduce the plurality of representation into two blocs – the so-called “government” and Her Majesty’s loyal “opposition”.
    The 51-53% of seats in the House gives the accumulated majority, despite a minority of votes at the ballot now inflated by redistributed “wasted votes”. This “majority” controls the legislative agenda for the next three years while the “opposition” get the occasional private member’s bill from the ballot.
    And we wonder why people are disengaged.

  7. Often critical of Chris Trotter as I am, I feel that most of you are missing what he actually said.

    The whole process of whom gets the most votes is now (mostly) irrelevant. It has been replaced by a system that gives governance to whomever can command the majority of seats in Parliament.

    To continually judge the competition between the National Party and the Labour Party is grossly erroneous and is rooted firmly in that God awful FPP system.

    The beauty of MMP is that smaller parties become important as the Parliamentary seats they have adds numbers to the group of parties seeking the Treasury Benches.

    The majority of votes doesn’t matter. The Germans have the same system as we do and Merkel has managed to retain power although being a minority. I can only assume the system seems to work well for them; so far they have avoided annexing Austria and the Sudetenland…

    It is quite possible that the increasing years of dotage creeping up on me have caused me to misread Chris’ column but I’m sure the sharper of you will point this out to me.

    For once he doesn’t seem to be wobbling around on the magic mushroom fringes…

    • Fundamentally disagree that the majority of voters don’t matter. They do matter because when over 30% of eligible voters remain silent, thats when the Hittler type personalities are possible. We end up with a bunch of dud politicians that emerge from a less representative population.

      • Exactly Sam.

        It is those 30 odd % of voters who have been hammered into silence by neo liberalism, that has corrupted the voting system, which is exactly what breeds fascism and the ring wing money men love it.

  8. The question boils down to whether it makes sense and will work, and whether it is politically sensible, to offer an alternative arrangement between Labour, NZ First and Greens. There need to be policy differences sorted out, there needs to be enough in common, all parties need to gain from it, and that is unlikely to happen, as there are significant policy differences.

    Just remember some attacks that occurred during election campaign, by the Greens on NZ First and vice versa. Also has NZ First been criticising Labour as being as bad as National, listen to Peters’ last speeches in Parliament, and the questions asked during question time over recent months.

    There are real differences, serious ones, and while some are now backing down, even if an agreement is made, it will turn off many voters, who feel betrayed. They will ask, why did you campaign on this or that, and now give it up for convenience to be in government?

    We will have an even higher num ber of non voters and undecided come the 2020 election, if we have too much compromising between coalition or confidence and supply agreement parties.

  9. “After all, this is how all previous MMP governments have been formed…”

    The NatACT-UF-Māori government was soundly defeated. It lost its working majority (which excluded NZ First let’s remember), two of its support parties disappeared from parliament because of their association with it, and the party vote of the third dropped so low it’s effectively ceased to exist. Yes, they managed to suppress the Labour-Green vote (more homeless = less left voters managing to get registered and vote) to the point that the Labour-Greens block didn’t get a clear mandate. But neither did the NatACTs.

    The whole reason we adopted MMP was to stop minority governments being able to operate as elected dictatorships, despite losing the popular vote. Whether NZ First choose to swing left or right, a new government will be formed. Why should the party whose current government was just rejected by the majority of those who cast a vote get to lead it?

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