The results of the 1978 and 1981 general elections led to widespread criticisms of the first-past-the-post electoral system on two main accounts. First, on both occasions the Labour Party won more votes than the National Party, but the National Party retained power. Second, the then third-party in New Zealand politics, Social Credit, won a significant share of the votes on each occasion, but it won very few seats. Social Credit won one seat in a 92-member Parliament in 1978, and just two seats (also out of 92) in 1981.
Royal Commission on the Electoral System
Responding to a growing sense that the first-past-the-post system was unrepresentative, the Labour Party promised to establish a royal commission to consider whether New Zealand should introduce a proportional representation electoral system, or some other variant. A Labour government was elected in July 1984, and early the following year appointed a five-member Royal Commission on the Electoral System. It released its report, Towards a better democracy, in December 1986. Three of the key recommendations were:
- to adopt a mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system
- to hold a referendum on the adoption of MMP at or before the next general election after 1987
- to increase the number of members of Parliament to 120.
There was little enthusiasm among members of Parliament for adopting the royal commission’s recommendations, and the matter might have ended there but for two crucial circumstances.
Labour Prime Minister David Lange, in a party leaders’ debate on television shortly before the 1987 election, pledged to hold a binding referendum on electoral law reform. This was not official Labour policy, and during its second term in office the Labour Party ignored Lange’s pledge.
Largely to highlight Labour’s broken promise, National’s 1990 election manifesto pledged to provide for a binding referendum to be held prior to the end of 1992, including questions on the method of electing the House of Representatives. The National Party won more than two-thirds of the seats in the 1990 election, but also began to break promises. Desperate to be seen to be keeping some of its election promises, the government held a referendum on electoral reform on 19 September 1992.