Following the eight elections held under mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) from 1996 to 2017, no single political party was able to govern alone. Government was by coalition or by minority governments with agreements from minor parties for support on confidence and supply (matters to do with the government’s budget).
Changes in Parliament
Parliament became more open to the public and more autonomous of the government. A wider range of political parties were represented in the House. Its select committees became more active and provided a forum for MPs and the public to air alternative viewpoints. During the Level 4 phase of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Parliament did not sit, but an Epidemic Response Committee chaired by the Leader of the Opposition and with a majority of opposition members provided a check on the actions of the government.
Ethnic group representation
More diverse social groups and interests were represented in Parliament. The first Pacific Island MP (Taito Phillip Field) was elected in 1993 and the first Asian MP (Pansy Wong) in 1996. Ethnic diversity has increased over time. 18 Māori, five Pacific Islanders and two Asian MPs were elected in 2008. In 2017, 23% of MPs identified as Māori, compared to 13% in 1996. 6% of MPs were Pacific Islanders (3% in 1996) and 6% were Asian (1% in 1996).
The number of women in Parliament, which had been rising from the 1980s, settled at a level of about a third of MPs. Women attained many positions of high office. Replacing Jim Bolger in late 1997, Jenny Shipley became the first female prime minister. In 1999 Helen Clark was the first woman to be prime minister following an election. She remained in power until 2008. The first female speaker of the House of Representatives, Margaret Wilson, held office from 2005 to 2008. Following the 2017 election there were 46 women MPs, the highest number and proportion ever.
Under MMP, the number of Māori electorate seats was determined by the number of Māori who chose to be on the Māori electoral roll rather than the general roll. The number of Māori seats rose to five in 1996, six in 1999 and seven in 2002. In addition, other Māori were elected to general electorate or party list seats. Proportionally, the Māori presence in the House rose to slightly above the proportion of Māori in the population as a whole at the 2008 election. Peter Tapsell was the first Māori speaker of the House, from 1993 to 1996.
In 2004 the Māori Party was formed. It won five seats in 2008 and entered into a confidence and supply agreement with the National-led government following that election. It entered into similar agreements after the 2011 and 2014 elections, though held fewer seats – three in 2011 and two in 2014. No Māori Party MPs were returned in 2017.
In the late 1990s some MPs changed their party allegiance while in Parliament – a phenomenon described as ‘party-hopping’ or ‘waka-jumping’. The Labour-led government passed legislation in 2001 that required those resigning from their parties to vacate their seats. This legislation expired at the election of 2005, by which time the ‘party-hopping’ epidemic of the previous decade had diminished.
In the 2000s a number of MPs were prosecuted for criminal acts. ACT MP Donna Awatere Huata’s seat was declared vacant in 2004, and she was convicted of fraud in 2005. Labour’s Taito Phillip Field lost his ministerial position in 2005. He was then charged with bribery and corruption and convicted in 2009, after being defeated in the 2008 election.
Questioning MPs’ entitlements
Aspects of MPs’ remuneration, such as accommodation allowances and travel, and the parliamentary funding of political parties, have been controversial. Some argued that an independent body should set and administer MPs’ entitlements. Legislation to this end was introduced in 2002 but not passed. However, from 2009 information on expenses began to be released, and in 2010 the government expressed support for an independent authority to deal with MPs’ entitlements.
Adapting to change
After a period of flux when MMP was introduced, some minor parties struggled to maintain their presence and there was a shift in voter support back towards the two major parties. Despite an expectation that government would be less decisive under MMP, New Zealand adapted well and stable government resulted. However, minority governments have needed the support of other parties for legislation. This has made the legislative process more complicated and has reduced the amount of legislation passed.