The last election saw calls to abandon our Mixed Member Parliament form of proportional representation. Public dissatisfaction with MMP is growing with each parliament in which minor parties clearly have influence far beyond their size.
Where did the drive for MMP come from, when so few now admit to having voted for it?
Why, in 1993, did we abandon the “First Past the Post” electoral system and replace it with MMP? Who stood to gain from such a move? In this updated version of an article I wrote for the “Free Radical” in 1994, I attempt to answer those questions.
The main group overtly promoting MMP was the Electoral Reform Coalition, founded in 1986 by Wellingtonian, Phil Saxby. A Labour Party activist, Saxby founded the ERC in response to the Labour Government’s 1986 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform.
The Royal Commission had received over 800 submissions from the public and produced a report which strongly recommended a move to MMP. These recommendations were largely ignored, as at that time even most senior Labour politicians saw Proportional Representation as potentially destabilising and a likely cause of party splits. It was only considerable pressure from lobbyists which caused the Labour Government to eventually agree to a referendum on “electoral reform”.
New Zealand’s minor parties saw Proportional Representation as a chance to gain access to the power long denied them under First Past the Post. These groups, primarily the eco-socialist Values Party and the “social credit” oriented Democrat Party comprised the back-bone of the ERC.
The ERC remained a comparatively moderate organisation until 1989 when the ERC’s August AGM saw the election of a new and radical executive.
Among them were;
Marilyn Tucker: At the time, the acting General Secretary of the pro-Soviet Socialist Unity party (SUP) and a member of it’s Central Committee. Tucker was also the partner of CTU and SUP leader, Ken Douglas. In March 1990 Tucker wrote an article “No Shortcuts to Socialism” in the SUP’s paper, Tribune about a recent Central Committee meeting “Proportional voting is an important aspect of expanding democracy, and it is why the SUP fully backs the ERC’s campaign to hold an independent referendum.”
Phil Todd; At the time secretary of the Wellington Branch of the SUP. Like Tucker he propagandised for PR in Tribune and was also a keen “democrat” He told the ERC newsletter of December 1989 “Contrary to what people may have been told, socialism is very much about democracy and for people to have a real say in how their country is run” .
Brigitte-Hicks-Willer; Elected President of the ERC, a member of no political party but shortly after became involved in the Vietnam Action/ Information Network.
VAIN was organised to help rebuild socialist Vietnam and was supported by the SUP and other socialist groups.
Rod Donald; Elected vice President of the ERC, the late Donald became one of the ERC’s most prominent spokesmen. A former Values and Labour party activist and an “anarchist at heart” , Donald has been involved in radical causes since his teens. Donald told the NZ Monthly Review of January 1993, that while MMP had a downside in that the Christian Heritage Party might gain seats , “The flip side is that of the SUP gaining seats under MMP, which I don’t have so much difficulty with“
In the next few years, more socialists moved into leadership positions in the ERC, including;
Dave Arthur; In 1991 Dave Arthur, an Engineer’s Union organiser and SUP Central Committee member was convener of the ERC’s Christchurch branch.
Paul Harris; A Waikato University academic, Harris was a Labour Party member and avowed Marxist, who regularly wrote for the SUP’s “Tribune” newspaper and theoretical journal “Socialist Politics”. Harris was a leading activist in the ERC’s Hamilton branch.
Dave Munro; A long time pro MMP activist in the Labour Party, David Munro served as ERC Vice Chairman and became one of it’s main spokesmen. Until 1992 Munro was an organiser for the Retail branch of the Northern Distribution Union The NDU was then led by Mike Jackson of the SUP Central Committee and Bill Andersen, a former president of the SUP. Most NDU officials were then members or supporters of the SUP or the even more radical Socialist Party of Aoteoroa.
The NDU, has been one the main conduits for socialist/trade union influence on Labour Party policy. Munro was in a been in a good position to influence the Labour Party. In 1988 he was appointed to Labour’s justice-electoral-immigration policy committee. In 1990 he was head of the powerful Auckland Labour Party’s Affiliates Council, the main “legal” channel for Labour/union communication.
Colin Clark; On his retirement as General Secretary of the Public Service Association in 1991, the late Colin Clark, became Chairman of the ERC.
In 1950, while a 19 year old Canterbury University student Clark joined the Communist Party and was an active member for several years. Later Clark was active in radical, mainly Maoist dominated groups such as HART and the Committee on Vietnam.
Clark told the June 1991 PSA Journal, “In light of what had happened in the Second World War, it seemed that the move towards socialist economies was irreversible.”…..” I was part of wanting to see that happening in New Zealand. I’ve never lost sight of that as a goal as the only fair way that all the community get access to what the community can provide” .
As General Secretary of the PSA Clark played a key role in the formation of the Council of Trade Unions gaining a place on it’s SUP/socialist dominated executive.
Though claiming non membership, Clark was on very friendly terms with the SUP. From February 1992 until late 1993 he wrote a fortnightly column for the Party’s newspaper, “Tribune” on the benefits of the MMP system and the faulty logic of it’s opponents.
After MMP’s 1993 referendum victory, Tribune showed it’s gratitude to Clark, by naming him it’s “Man of the Year”
While others made the speeches the SUP and friends laboured behind the scenes for MMP.
In 1990 activity centred around a proposed referendum on electoral reform which was later delayed. In August 1990 SUP Central Committee member and National Election Coordinator, Alan Ware wrote in “Tribune”, “The SUP sees the elections as a time to work for democratisation of political and industrial life…Wellington branch is planning their work around the ERC referendum and support for a progressive Labour candidate in their area.”
The next month’s issue stated “Christchurch branch members are actively involved in supporting the ERC’s referendum work in Sydenham and Christchurch North…”
The young propagandists and computer boffins of the SUP’s Wellington based “Gordon Watson Branch” churned out large quantities of pro MMP literature, T-Shirts and bumper stickers. They littered Wellington with slogans such as “Absolutely, Positively, Proportional Representation“, “MMP for’93“, and, incredibly for a party which has espoused one party socialism for almost it’s entire existence, “Down With the Two Party State”!
“Tribune” promoted MMP in nearly every issue for several years and featured regular interviews with several leading ERC activists.
The most important influence however came through the SUP’s dominance of NZ’s major trade union federation, the 350,000 plus member CTU.
SUP leader Ken Douglas doubled as President of the CTU and was a vocal proponent of MMP. CTU Vice-President, Angela Foulkes helped cement the alliance by serving as patron of and propagandist for, the ERC.
CTU policy policy followed the SUP line on virtually every major issue, electoral change being no exception.
Since the late 1980s official CTU electoral policy had read “The Council of Trade Unions opposes an electoral system which allows a minority vote party to hold power and supports the principle of proportional representation being introduced into our electoral system to ensure that Parliament is fully representative” .
The organisation’s executive, paid staff and regional organisations were also dominated by the SUP and other socialist parties, all sympathetic to MMP.
The CTU actively propagandised for MMP, in newspaper advertisements, regular articles in trade union journals, seminars and of course helped out financially.
Strangely, few journalists ever questioned the ERC on where it was getting it’s money from.