Why New Zealand's former prime minister believes proportional representation works better

Ahead of B.C.'s referendum on electoral reform, Helen Clark says New Zealand's decision to change to mixed member proportional representation improved politics, with more dialogue, transparency and consultation with parties and the public.

Helen Clark says PR improved dialogue, transparency and consultation with parties and public

'It turned out an interesting political system with a lot more dialogue and consultation. And, I underline, the public rather liked that,' says Helen Clark, who was elected as prime minister of New Zealand in 1999 under a system of mixed member proportional representation. (CBC)

British Columbia's electoral reform referendum will be held in October and the result could be a switch from the current first-past-the-post system to proportional representation. 

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark visited Vancouver on Monday to give a talk about governing her country's coalition government from 1999 to 2008 — a government elected through mixed-member proportional representation, one of the options in October's ballot.

She talked to Stephen Quinn host of CBC's The Early Edition, about her experiences with the voting system, which her country adopted in 1993.

You were originally an opponent of proportional representation. What were your concerns?

Helen Clark, prime minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008. (Twitter.com/HelenClarkNZ)

Well, probably the step into the unknown.

In the family of Anglo-American democracy, we mostly saw first-past-the-post.

The examples were not well known to New Zealand: the Scandinavian countries and Germany, for example.

Also, I was a new, young party leader and you really didn't know what the implications for your party would be.

But people voted for it and we had to make it work. And I did make it work with nine years of a minority government, very successfully — got a lot done.

The next nine years were led by a conservative party in New Zealand and they operated perfectly adequately.

We know it works.

Yes, there were concerns beforehand, but they gave it a go and I don't think there's any appetite for changing back.

In the years before you were elected, how well was the system working?

The '96 election produced a result where no major party had a majority of their own.

That was what the public quite liked because they were rather tired of the one-party "elective dictatorship" in between elections.

They felt governments got their majority and they never had to consult anybody anymore.

So, [in 1996 there was] no majority, and there was a particular party that held the balance of power.

And both my party and the conservative party negotiated with that party for nine weeks — which led to a detailed coalition agreement that both parties strained to get away from because it didn't entirely reflect their views.

What I learned from that, and what I took into government [in 1999], was not to have a detailed agreement but to rather say: "We will work in good faith together with a lot of consultation."

And we put in consultation mechanisms that have lasted to this day.

It turned out an interesting political system with a lot more dialogue and consultation. And, I underline, the public rather liked that.

Does it take a different kind of leader to keep a coalition together?

It does not lend itself to an old-style, heavy-handed leader who just pronounces.

It does change the political culture to one that requires a lot more dialogue, a lot more give and take, a lot more transparency and a lot more consultation between the parties and with the public.

It meant you still have your major parties, but the smaller parties could get into parliament.

The people who voted for those smaller parties used to have their views excluded, now they're not.

We often hear that under coalition governments things won't get done because there are too many voices at the table.

That proved not to be case with the New Zealand government. We got a lot done, we were seen as a major reforming government.

It hasn't been messy in New Zealand since the transition.

This interview aired during CBC's  The Early Edition on June 25 and has been edited for clarity and length. To hear the complete interview, click on the audio below.

Ahead of B.C.'s referendum on electoral reform, New Zealand's former prime minister says proportional representation improved her country's democracy. 8:39

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