John Key's decision to speak out against MMP smells of partisan greed and hubris. It also raises questions for women, Asian and Pasifika voters and about what his tactics have been all along

I was staggered to hear on television Prime Minister John Key say that although he was "not entirely unhappy" with MMP, he intended to vote for change. The PM said while he likes proportionality, he "slightly prefers the characteristics of Supplementary Member (SM)". Those two latter statements are mutually exclusive of course, because SM is not classed as a proportional representation electoral system. The Prime Minister cannot have it both ways. 

Key, up until these public comments, had possessed the previously good instinct to stay out of the referendum debate. He is, after all, the incumbent Prime Minister and he only has to look at Jim Bolger’s clumsiness back in the early 1990s – which hurt both Bolger’s standing and the status quo cause when he opined about keeping First-Past-the-Post – to reflect upon the good sense of choosing to speak out now, this close to the election.

Key has also now opened himself up to scrutiny about his reasoning and his motivations. Which characteristics of SM does he prefer? Is it the characteristic which sees SM reduce the equality (and thus fairness) of every New Zealanders vote? Is that what he likes? Is it SM’s inability viz-a-viz MMP to promote the effective representation of women? Is that what he prefers? Is it SM’s inability when compared to MMP to provide effective representation for minorities? Does he like this characteristic of SM best?

Given that every political scientist I know accepts as a matter of solid fact that when compared to MMP the alternative Supplementary Member system cannot be described as a proportional representation system, let alone "a happy middle ground between MMP and FPP", it is now clear that our incumbent Prime Minister prefers a system whose characteristics will significantly make our votes less equal. We have a Prime Minister who wishes to vote to turn back progress for women participating in parliamentary politics, and a Prime Minister who in defiance of our dramatically changing demographics prefers not to facilitate Asian New Zealanders, Pacifika New Zealanders, or other ethnic Kiwis participating in their own democracy.

Supplementary Member cannot achieve any of these in the way that MMP has already proved it can, which is one reason why it was rejected by the Royal Commission in favour of MMP back in 1986. 

We now have a Prime Minister, amidst the tumult of global economic uncertainty and accentuated political instability, asking New Zealanders to make a second hugely significant change to its electoral system within a generation. It won’t be Key accepting responsibility in the decades to come if we then clamour for a third or fourth change to our electoral system, which is easily predicted if we turn our backs on MMP and return to a system that isn’t proportional. Our demographics would almost certainly guarantee it, but wherever Key will be then it won’t be his responsibility, will it? 

Those who supported Key’s centrist and ‘balanced’ approach to politics might now pause to reflect about his motivations for publicly promoting the choice of one electoral system over another. For make no mistake, National would be massively advantaged by SM. Has it always been Key’s intention to intervene in such an overtly partisan fashion?

Certainly, back in February 2009, when Peter Shirtcliffe (who established the Vote for Change campaign) met Key’s Chief-of-Staff Wayne Eagleson, there was a shared understanding that ‘The PM is keen on the SM option.’ Alas, Prime Ministerial gravitas and standing has given way to partisan greed, which is not a good look in our moderate, so-called non-political Prime Minister.

If I was a woman I’d be very unhappy that my Prime Minister, one who has seemed to make MMP work rather effortlessly, has decided to favour an electoral system that will make it harder for me or my daughters or grand-daughters to pursue a political career. If I was an Asian or Pacifika Kiwi I’d be concerned that the Prime Minister wants to limit my and my children’s ambitions in the expansion of his own.

I am also, apart from being a political scientist, an ordinary citizen and I am appalled my Prime Minister supports a system that will make my vote less equal than it is now under MMP.

Prime Minister Key, whose ‘trust’ from voters is showing signs of morphing from a core strength to an emerging weakness – with Fairfax polling revealing that Key is regarded as being more slippery with the truth than any of his political opponents – should be concerned that his enthusiasm to manipulate the referendum result might have a cascade effect on his own levels of trust, on his popularity and on levels of National Party support, especially so soon after his decision to tell Epsom voters to do ‘not what I do but what I say’ in relation to voting for Goldsmith or Banks.

The same sort of hubris that can trigger a full court press from Steven Joyce to protect Key’s supposedly mundane and non-controversial ‘private’ discussion with John Key at their tea party express last Friday is also on display here.

With less than two weeks to go Key has suddenly decided to use his current popularity to advance the cause of SM, or ‘FPP with lipstick’ as any who understand the essential ‘characteristics’ of SM label it.

Key’s political risk is significant here. I cannot think of another issue that can so quickly reduce him to looking like merely another grubby self-interested politician than seeking to manipulate voters over the referendum. It’s not a good look – it’s as non-prime ministerial as it is party partisan – and if others view him and his poorly thought-through actions similarly, and stripped of his brand strength, what then really is there left?

Comments (11)

by Mike Osborne on November 15, 2011
Mike Osborne

The only change that makes sense is to change to STV which deals with all of MMPs anomalies (lists, wasted votes, Epsom rorts, non-intuitive, overhangs, thresholds) and retains all of its benefits.

by annie on November 15, 2011

Interesting post.

However, I find your attitude towards women a bit too paternalistic.  You write as if we weren't at least 50% of the population and quite capable of assessing the issues and making up our own minds on political matters; that we somehow need to be protected from Mr Key's evil 'machinations'.

We can look after ourselves, thanks.

by Mark Unsworth on November 15, 2011
Mark Unsworth


You need to check out your internet security at Victoria Some nutter has written a lengthy and loony diatribe about a quiet and harmless remark made by the PM and used your name .Whoever it was is obviously too close to the topic and paranoid about anyone having an opinion that differs from themselves.Not the work of an impartial academic with an open mind and calm and thoughtful demeanor .

Given your need to attempt to  appear impartial on TV this  type of internet fraud can only damage your reputation so i suggest you put the matter in the hands of the police

by Flat Eric on November 15, 2011
Flat Eric

Wow.  Key mentions his personal preference on a forthcoming referendum, a view he has publicly espoused for over a year and he's now pilloried because as some kind of threat to democracy because (ironically) he has a different opinion than you on how that's best achieved.

But where's your outrage when Goff says Labour will ignore the public consultation process and simply legislate to remove political oponents?  Or are some voters more equal than others?

by Paul McMahon on November 15, 2011
Paul McMahon

I probably prefer STV in theory, while I am happy enough with MMP to be voting to retain it.

I know one political scientist that supports SM, Steve Thomas from:

by Johnsy on November 15, 2011

Paul McMahon

I would find it impossible to describe the current role of Steve Thomas as a political scientist!  The mission of Maxim Institute is what a former director called "advocacy research".  Would it not be likely that the brief for Steve Thomas was to justify Supplementary Member (SM), since that is the system being (unsuccessfully) touted by the extreme right?

If you read the paper that you have linked to, you will see the Steve Thomas lists so many DISADVANTAGES of SM, that it is hard to see how he concluded it would be the best system.   

The lack of sound supporting arguments for SM would go a long way toward explaining why it is polling so badly.  STV is polling a bit better, not much.

by Paul McMahon on November 15, 2011
Paul McMahon

Johnsy, I also fail to understand why Steve Thomas supports SM - I think that STV meets all the criteria he sets in the paper (which I have read) with the benefit of being proportional (perhaps with the exception of strong government) - and yes, I know who Maxim are, but Steve has a masters in PolSci which makes him a political scientist, whether we agree with him or not.

If Jon had said, "I don't know a single academic political scientist..." then I wouldn't have mentioned Steve Thomas.

by Frank Macskasy on November 17, 2011
Frank Macskasy

Jon Johansson has a point; whilst Key and other politicians are fully entitled to their views - but this is a matter for the public to determine.

Key risks looking as if he is attempting to unduly influence voters by promoting a system that is little more than FPP + Add Ons. SM is not proportional and for Key to state that while he likes proportionality, he "slightly prefers the characteristics of Supplementary Member (SM)" - he is attempting to link proportionality with SM.

This is not honesty from our elected representatives.

It would be fairer if ALL politicians stayed well away from the debate and left this issue to the public to determine. After all, this affects politicians and we should be wary of them trying to influence voters for venal purposes.

by Dr Jon Johansson on December 11, 2011
Dr Jon Johansson

Mark - You won't understand why but I was thrilled by your response. Thank you for it.


by Mark Unsworth on December 22, 2011
Mark Unsworth


Following up from our brief chat today.

Call me old fashioned but I was trained as a political scientist to report or comment on what was happening-observing trends,behaviour etc.NOT what I wanted to happen or what I felt should happen but what was actually happening.

I was  Canterbury trained and watched while Prof Keith Jackson and following him Nigel Roberts and Therese Arseneu followed a proud tradition of reporting and ciommenting in an apolitical manner

You have chosen a different model.Cool Thats your choice but to me that is not Poltical Science or Poltical studies,its Political Advocacy .You are the left version of Farrar,Hooten or Whale-Oil.Again thats fine but you need to acknowledge that and give those listening to you the honesty of your pre-determined position

I am not sure you have that world view though.Even a few weeks back on Q and A you chortled about the ACT wing of the National party.Now whatever the merits of that case,i cant for the life of me remember you saying the same about Jim Anderton when he was the Labour Agriculture Spokesman ! That was a rort which you seem happy to forgive and forget.Was he the leader of a serious politcal party ? The answer is the same as if you put ithe question  to Dunne or Banks .

To me political analysis,especially by an academic must be as free of personal bias as possible,especially if you are sold by the media as an academic .

Your rant,and it was a rant,was value laden and as impartial as anything i have read from the Sensible Sentencing Trust,Greenpeace or the Maxim Institute .You obviously care passionately about MMP.Great.I happen to be a supporter.BUT the difference ,I.i thought,between our supposed superior Western styled democracy and others is that we can debate issues on their merits without becoming personal or  demeaning those who have an alternative viewpoint.

That wasnt the case here.

Cheers and merry Xmas 


by Dr Jon Johansson on December 23, 2011
Dr Jon Johansson

Ah, Mark -

I also respect the model you learned down at Canterbury, but it's not the only one if you check out the Education Act 1989, my univerity's charter, or the objectives of Vic's academic board.

Your criticism would be valid if either TVNZ or viewers weren't made aware of my position on the referendum well in advance of any comments then subsequently made. Both were, the former absolutely explicitly in 2009 when I was first approached to join 'Q & A' and the later in any number of publications I've made on MMP and its alternatives (see, for instance, 'The Politics of Possibility', my public submission on the Electoral Referendum Bill, which was also widely reported, and several opinion pieces in daily newspapers and weekly magazines during the past twelve months). You'll also find that whenever the referendum was discussed on the tele I was completely upfront about my position as a supporter of MMP. 

Not really sure then, short of taking out ads in the papers, how I could make my position any more clear than I did. 

So your mundane leftie meme is meaningless to me, it's completely wrong, and it is a criticism most frequently made by this current regime's supporters and its partisans. Maybe you should dip into Drew Weston to understand this better Mark. But you won't and will carry on as you do.

And selah to that. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to raise questions about Key's judgement in speaking out belatedly about the referendum in both print and after the last leader's debate in TV One. The overwhelmingly favourable feedback I received from both members of the public and from people in politics I respect far outwieghed your type of sneer Mark, but I do want to thank you for making it openly, a nice and rare departure from your usual modus.







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