The opportunity to improve the voting system for future generations is too good to miss. In the excitement of what this new world of possibilities might mean, it can be easy to assess a new system using local experiences with the current one. Big mistake!
The status quo is infected with all that’s bad about politics: winner takes all, my-way-or-the-highway thinking and a lack of co-operation across party lines. It is a culture where the insiders celebrate the most perverse thing: politicians enjoying a majority of the power having earned a minority of the votes.
It’s time for politics to catch up with the modern world. In business, most industries and professions that had cozy deals and put the interests of their customers or clients last have been cleaned up. British Colombia’s proportional representation (Pro-Rep) referendum is the chance to put citizens at the centre of politics again.
New Zealand, a Commonwealth country with a similar population to BC, also inherited the Westminster system of government. But 25 years ago, Kiwis decided that Pro-Rep would better reflect the country’s values and be a more honest barometer of our different political views.
The decision to modernise our politics had a number of drivers. There had been two general elections in a row with the “wrong winner”, where the party with the most votes got fewer seats than the second-placed party. There was terrible under-representation of women and the indigenous Maori people and virtually no representation of any ethnic minority.
This was combined with a period of radical public policy reform which upended many aspects of New Zealand life. Single party majority governments from both sides were unrestrained and could do whatever they wanted, even things contrary to their manifesto promises, despite having less than half the vote.
All this led to a vote for Pro-Rep in 1993, a decision reconfirmed by an even larger majority when the public were asked again in 2011 once they had seen it in action.
The experience has had many interesting features. Firstly, we no longer have majority single party governments. This has forced a more honest reflection of views across parties that the voters can see, rather than faceless factions within parties struggling for control. Having different parties has been healthy.
All of our minority governments have gone full term. We have had two prime ministers who have been elected for three terms, Helen Clark (centre-left) and John Key (centre-right). They were both able to deliver political stability and policy achievements despite not having a majority for a single day of their premierships. They demonstrated the value of parties co-operating and that power can transfer from one side of politics to another.
The most recent of New Zealand’s three prime ministers under proportional representation, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, has been in office since 2017. Earlier this year she took maternity leave to give birth to her first child. Her three-party governing arrangement carried on in her absence because of the strong policy platform on which it is based.
It is of interest that as the years have gone on, and the positive experience has become normal, opponents of Pro-Rep have changed their mind. This is particularly true of the main conservative party, where several of their prominent leaders have declared they have been converted to this style of representation.
Pro-Rep has also worked well for rural and farming areas. That’s because our system maintains a geographical constituency link. Interestingly though, parties have recruited candidates for their lists from all walks of life. So rather than just one party representing rural areas there are MPs from many parties with a connection to rural New Zealand. That means that whatever shade of government is in office, it’s likely to have MPs from the rural community.
The number of “extremist” MPs elected in New Zealand is zero. Pro-Rep comes with safeguards like party vote thresholds or the need to win votes in a geographic area. It’s an argument used to try and frighten people, but it hasn’t been the New Zealand experience in the last quarter century. A delicate observation might be that First Past the Post is more than capable of electing figures from outside the mainstream.
The lesson from the South Pacific is that power-sharing and effective representation, where seats match votes can work, and it can work very well. It has changed the culture and provided the opportunity for a different style of government.
Darren Hughes was a MP and minister in New Zealand and is now chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society in the United Kingdom.