Economist Brian Easton says MMP may deliver a parliament which reflects us, but frequently the government does not

Economist Brian Easton says MMP may deliver a parliament which reflects us, but frequently the government does not

This is a re-post of an article originally published on It is here with permission.

At the heart of my recent history of New Zealand, Not in Narrow Seas, is the interaction between economic and social change. I could measure economic change via the – far from comprehensive – economic data base. Social attitudes were much harder, for there are less data.

There are written records about what people are thinking, but coverage is confined to writers and is selective. This social statistician wanted to use social surveys but they hardly exist before the 1970s. A common strategy is for the historian to impose their views and while I could not avoid that for myself – no one can – I wanted to minimise my personal view as much as possible.

I thought I had found an ingenious solution. Every three years or so we have general election, which is a kind of survey whose single question ought to throw light on our political attitudes. I knew there would be limitations from tactical voting, but hopefully the results would indicate some trends.

Covering elections is standard historical practice, of course. It would be a rare general historian who did not mention which party won a particular election and draw, often explicitly, inferences about the tone of the nation. What I was going to do was the much rarer approach of looking at party votes won rather than party seats won. There is a sense that Not in Narrow Seas is the first MMP general history.

I added one further wrinkle. It is usual to report on each party's share of the vote. The history uses share of total enrolment. That is because non-vote fluctuates from election to election., Bob Chapman, who was a pioneering professor of Political Studies, argued that the `non-vote party' sometimes determined electoral outcomes; ignoring it can be misleading. In 1951 the Holland-National Party was returned with an enhanced majority, despite having a reduction in its share of enrolled voters; Labour's share fell more. The reality of the Waterfront Dispute was not that the population turned its back on the wharfies - many turned their back on parliament.

When I looked at the voting data, I was surprised how often the number of seats did not reflect the party vote and hence the composition of the government. Having lived through the 1978 and 1981 elections I knew that Rowling's Labour party won more of the popular vote than Muldoon's National party, which became government because it still won more seats. (As an aside, those who grumble that Donald Trump became president of the United States on a minority of the popular vote overlook that a similar thing happened here – twice in their lifetime.)

I knew too, of odd outcomes in other elections, like the fact that despite Coates' Reform Party winning more votes in 1928 than Ward's United Party, the latter formed the government. What surprised me was how often there were such eccentric outcomes. It is arguable that had the vote on the right not split among three parties in 1935, the Forbes Coalition Government would have retained power; that would have rewritten the course of our history.

The same sort of thing happened in 1993 when the left vote split between Labour and the Alliance, Had that not happened, the Bolger National government would had been a short-lived three year term and Mike Moore would have returned to the premiership.

That does not happen so much today under MMP (although there is still some tactical voting because of the threshold provisions). However, there is another peculiarity of our political system.

The choice of government in 2017 was between National-NZF and Labour-NZF-Green, other options being ruled out. Each was some distance from the political centre. The first coalition was about 0.8 standard deviations to the right of the New Zealand on a left-right scale and the second about the same distance to the left. That meant that about 85 percent of the population were to the left of the first coalition (including those at the centre) and to the right of the second. On the social conservative-progressive scale the first coalition was also about 0.8 SDs on the conservative side, while the second was a slightly closer at 0.65 SDs on the progressive side, so that only 75 percent were less progressive than the government ruling them.

The sharp change in the politics of the government did not reflect a sharp change in the politics of the voters. Certainly there was a move to the left between 2014 and 2017 (of about 6 percentage points) but it was not as dramatic as the change in the politics of the government.

The old electoral system was called FPP - first past the post - a silly name as there was no post; one could win an electorate with less than 40 percent of the vote. I once called the voting system 'Winner Takes All' but I decided while writing my history that 'Front Runner' (FR) was an even better description, since whoever was in front on election day took the seat, even if they had 40 percent or less of the vote.

MMP is not perfect, but it does produce a parliament which reflects the demography and ideology of voters reasonably closely, much more so than front-runner parliaments did. However, parliament selects the government on a winner-takes-all basis rather than a proportional one. So, unlike parliament, the government does not look like us.

(Moreover, parliament is not very good at holding the government it appoints to account - that argument belongs to a later column.)

Not in Narrow Seas recalls that, once upon a time, the elected government would decide in the interests of, say, 80 percent of the voters, because it feared it could not be sure that at the next election it could hold all the seats it won if it did not. You could argue that under MMP the government only needs to target a smaller proportion of voters. I am not saying that it always does. Sometimes we elect statesmen and stateswomen who do try to act in the nation's interest.

Brian Easton, an independent scholar, is an economist, social statistician, public policy analyst and historian. He was the Listener economic columnist from 1978 to 2014. This is a re-post of an article originally published on It is here with permission.

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


What I don't like under MMP is the apparent powerlessness of individual MPs, list in particular. At least with FPP you got the impression that MPs for particular electorates could directly influence government policy with respect to their constituents - not least of which because electorates were much smaller (if we used the same formula as in 1993, we'd have 142 electorates today, not 72).

Nowadays 'cabinet' has all the power - hence why the Greens didn't get much done this term - and backbench MPs from the governing parties seem mostly to be there to make up the numbers.

The Greens didn't get much done because when push came to shove, stuff like marijuana reform mattered more.

Why should Greens "get much done", with less than 6% of voter support.?

Because after years of dripping on about everything under the sun in opposition, they sat back and let things like fisheries and light rail in Auckland and all that core stuff that they supposedly care about just fall to bits. They had their chance and we found out what mattered most.

No , they don't , the greatest issue we have is housing AFORDABILITY crisis and none of the parties declare that as an issue they will tackle

The credibility of politicians of any creed has hit rock bottom and they continue to dig. Someone said of me that I don't suffer fools gladly - it's true but people make themselves look like fools all by themselves with no input from me.

* Apart from TOP and The Greens who have both stated they want to address it.


election is just an illusion.

western style democracy is a beautiful excuse to have an divided and confused society which can be easily ruled by capital owners.


a perceptive person once said, democracy is the worst form of government - except for all the others. The ability to rise up and make a change via the ballot box is something to be protected. The alternatives are awful.

....and the heading to this piece encapsulates it all:
"(We) may deliver a parliament which reflects us, but frequently the government does not"
For those who ask me with increasingly frequent frequency "So. You're wrong with your views! When are you going to admit it", here's the answer:
"If the next Government WE elect fails to deliver what most of us know we need in the name of the future of our Country, then my views will be out of step with what I see as sensibility. I shall be wrong."
This isn't about "The Coming Property Price Crash!!!" etc, never was. It's about "Where do we go from here, and where do we want to go?" and shackling ourselves and our descendants to increasingly unpayable amounts of debt all in the name of Growth and 'Wealth' , to me, isn't it.
John Key saw that in 2007 but regrettably 'saw the only light' in the years following. Jacinda Ardern has hinted at change, and it's been still-born. our last shot at productive, meaningful change for the better, of all of us. But we are so far down the wrong path, it's going to hurt.
I've always stated that the challenge in taking a view; making a stand or changing direction is "Being able to afford to be wrong" (in so many ways that aren't just monetary). I am protected against 'being wrong' but many; most are not as they will discover if we stick to the path we are on.

Well said.

I like your approach to taking stock and moving forward.

Although I think it's important to loo back and objectively state that "the last 20 years of opportunity to meaningfully capitalise on the abundance of global opportunity to produce, have been completely and utterly wasted".

Now we the people have to buckle down and work our way out.

I can agree with that David, you only need to watch Aljazeera news to see the mess many countries are in with dictatorships or seriously corrupt governments that have been in for decades due to rigged elections. Personally little has changed for me from one government to the next in New Zealand. If you sit about waiting for the "Government" of the day to change your life your going to go nowhere.

As I commented long time ago and repeatedly, election by general public is suitable for deciding who is a funnier comedian, a more beautiful miss, a better singer, or a better chef, but absolutely not suitable for deciding who is a better dentist, surgeon, plumber, electrician, professors, a company's CEO, or your company's board chairman.

Of course, election by general public to decide on who runs a country makes a perfect sense if you admit that the elected person provides the same of sort of services as what a comedian, a miss, a singer or a chef does.

That is a very cynical view, one often promoted by autocrats and despots. In my view, quite separated from New Zealand realities.

Who does select the leader in China? the wise philosophers who know everything better than everyone else? the historical alternative to democracy has been this:
1) the most competent (competency being the ability of exercising violence and brutality in the most effective and efficient way) chieftain of the most violent tribes gets the power by crushing everyone else.
2) the decedents of the founder continue his ways, often improving the "empire" using the wisdom and knowledge of their advisors but becoming less and less effective and efficient in exercising violence (being domesticated in pleasures of plunder)
3) The establishment becomes weak and a strong, ruthless chieftain starts a new dynasty.

China, Russia, Syria, North Korea, Cuba and all other dictatorships of the world are all in various stages of the above cycle. They are far less stable than democracies, far more likely to abuse their subjects (as they do not care what their "subjects" think about them as opposed to democracies where comedian politician still needs to win the popularity contest by getting majority vote)

Your comment prolly has way more relevance to countries like Thailand, Philippines etc than NZ.

How about this ? Rather than issue policy declarations, each major party should say before the election who would be in their cabinet with what portfolio. Minor parties should clearly state who they would go with in forming a government.
Then let the people vote for who they want to form the government.
It will also incentivise people to do some research on the prospective Ministers and MPs.
Policies are all same same except for small wrinkles here and there.

Do we have a consensus on what we want ?

I don't believe there is a shared vision anymore. There used to be but since the fall of USSR that has been eroded and today we are left with polarization of the lunatic left and the rabid right.

Interesting insights. So, does that mean MMP is more polarising? Who would have thought?

There does seem to have been a breakdown in the sytem of representative democracy in the West. Governments no longer seem to care about the people, but just about their funding and their job security.

There was talk in the UK that changes to the candidate selection process were a likely cause. Instead of candidates being chosen locally by the local party members, on the basis that they were known to be of good character, fair minded and competent, the candidate selection process fell into the hands of Party Central. Thus candidates became selected on the basis of ideology and conformity to Party Central Groupthink. I'm talking about the Conservative Party here, in case you think I am being partisan.

To me MMP has been another of those ideas I thought was a good thing at the time, but turned out to be a disaster. It has encouraged stagnation and decline.

I am encouraged that others are trying to evaluate it in a more systematic manner.

MMP isn't the reason for stagnation and decline, but it's an easy scapegoat. In the absence of an upper house, how else do we maintain checks and balances on executive power? Germany elects politicians via MMP at the state and national level and far from breaking down, its democratic institutions are stable. Of course Germany never got rid of their manufacturing base and instead added value to it. They also maintain well-funded and progressive housing, health and education programmes.

My biggest problem with our MMP is appears to overtime consolidate power to the established parties. We keep loosing parties and none of the new ones appear to have a change of replacing them. Both main parties are aware of this and ignore the Electoral Commission's recommendation to lower the 5% threshold. They both knew that if neither of them came out with any real policy we could not punish them for it. The Greens or ACT are never going to bring down the government because all that could happen is they give the other side power.
Getting 1 in 20 of the electorate to vote for someone who they have never herd of and risk a wasted vote is too hard (quite a few have tried now) and defections from existing parties are so much harder as parties can punish a descenting member much more effectively.

Overseas comment, up until now delighted in.

"However, she has still been a poor Prime Minister, elected almost by accident under the Byzantine protocols of her country's eccentric electoral system, though she won far fewer votes than the National government she replaced," Greg Sheridan, of The Australian wrote.

Damming from the BBC

Throughout her tempestuous first term as New Zealand's prime minister, Jacinda Ardern has maintained a message of kindness. But as she seeks another term in power, critics say that it will take more than kindness and charisma to get the economy on its feet and lift tens of thousands of people out of poverty, writes the BBC's Shaimaa Khalil.

The Labour wise heads must be beside themselves that the PM has failed to move her Govt. to account for a majority of voters, massive opportunity lost. From a massive covid position, ignoring the previous 2yr record.
They will be disappointed of another 3 years being controlled by minor parties.
Great failing, like Kirk, like Lange.
And yet her support continues to slide.

"..she won far fewer votes than the National government she replaced" - comparing an individual and a party to a coalition. The government she is leader of replaced a minority government of only 60 seats with one of 63 seats. Her party got fewer votes than National, but her government more. Not complicated. Interesting that a system which elects a government more aligned to the popular vote than most (included STV as used in Australia, in my understanding) is considered eccentric.

In doing a bit of reading for this comment I found this interesting article - I think some good points are made:

"I favour the Supplementary Member (SM) system. It still gives voters an electorate and party vote. The number of list MPs is determined solely by the percentage party vote. SM would work with 70 electorate seats and 30 list seats. If a party wins 10 per cent of the party vote, it gets 10 per cent of the list seats (3) rather than 10 per cent of the total seats.

The big difference with SM is that winning electorate seats becomes important again. Most people don't realise that under MMP if National gets 50 per cent of the party vote it gets 60 MPs even if every one of its 40 electorate MPs lose their seats. Only the party vote under MMP really counts."

Consider the source. The Australian is owned by Rupert Murdoch. I'd be shocked if an article appeared in that paper praising Ardern.

As for Shaimaa Khalil, she like many commentators on the right, have confused tactics (kindness) with strategy (to get re-elected with a clear majority). Ardern is about to achieve this, by playing her cards cautiously, but very well. With an incoming Labour-Greens coalition unencumbered by the NZ First handbrake, things are about to get very interesting.

An Australian describing MMP as an eccentric electoral system? Pot. Kettle. Black.

1) The threshold on MMP needs to be lowered - at 5% it doesn't allow political innovation. No threshold (i.e. 1/seats) or a reduced threshold is needed.

2) "Sometimes we elect statesmen and stateswomen who do try to act in the nation's interest." - There is no link between politicians pay and their performance. All politicians should be paid based on the net welfare (wellbeing) gains per capita their policies bring.