WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND — WHAT'S facing New Zealanders in the Nov. 6 general election is not so much a change in government, but a change in the way the government will be chosen.
New Zealand has undergone a decade of hard economic restructuring, started by the Labour government in 1984. After a fed-up electorate threw Labour out after two terms, the National Party that replaced Labour continued the changes and made even more. Now, the economy is picking up and the electorate seems disinclined toward more change.
In a slick campaign in shopping malls of the hinterlands, National Party Prime Minister James Bolger has been spouting improved economic indicators. Although his low personality ratings had some observers saying only a few months ago he'd lose the election, as the economy has picked up, so have his political fortunes. Now National is ahead 39 points to Labour's 32 in the polls.
But this week, Labour has started to gain. Leader Mike Moore visited factories and Maori school children, promoting a new softer image for Labour. But observers say there's little Labour can do to differentiate itself from National's policies, since Labour started the economic reforms.
The more crucial part of this election is the referendum on the electoral system, which could change the Constitution and permanently alter politics.
The choice is between the current first-past-the-post electoral system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, and a mixed-member-proportional system (MMP), which would give significant representation to minor parties.
``I think whether Labour or National wins, it isn't going to result in a very important change,'' says Margaret Clark, political science professor at Victoria University. ``The referendum is more important than the election. If the proportional system wins, that would be a profound constitutional shift.''
Under MMP, a voter would have two votes, one for a constituency candidate and one for a candidate from a party list. If a minor party wins 5 percent or more of the party vote, then they are entitled to 5 percent of the seats even though they may not have won any of the constituency seats. The number of MPs would grow from the current 99 to 120.
Proponents say that the mixed-member system would benefit those traditionally underrepresented in Parliament, including Maoris, Pacific Islanders, and women. Maoris make up 10-12 percent of the population, yet there are only four fixed Maori seats in Parliament. Under the new proportional system, the number of Maoris in Parliament would supposedly reflect their representation in the population more accurately.
And the voter lists will have to reflect party platforms. ``Parties wanting Maori votes would have to have more Maoris on their party lists and support Maori issues,'' says Marie Tautari, a former candidate for the National party and longtime community activist on Maori issues. ``And I think it will spur Maoris to vote; there are more on the voter rolls this time than in the past,'' she says.
Two new parties in this election, NZ First and Alliance, would benefit as well. Winston Peters, the charismatic Maori member of Parliament who heads NZ First, is pushing a conservative plan that aims to produce more jobs through regional development.
Alliance is a coalition of five left-wing parties, headed by former Labour member of Parliament Jim Anderton. Mr. Anderton is running an increasingly successful, no-frills campaign reaching out to those most affected by unemployment. He wants to create jobs and redistribute wealth through a financial transactions tax.
``New Zealand in the 1990s is a diverse society,'' says Rod Donald, a spokesman for the Electoral Reform Coalition, a citizen's group supporting MMP. ``There are more than two shades of opinion, but the electoral system we use is not designed to cope with more than two players. What's needed is that everyone's vote will count and have an equal value.''
Mainstream politicians and business leaders favor keeping the present system. The well-heeled, privately funded Campaign for Better Government has undertaken an aggressive media campaign against MMP. Prime Minister Bolger said recently that the MMP would cause ``political instability.''
Michael Barnett, chief executive of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, says, ``MMP will detract from the continuity and consistency of policy, and would stall the process of change that has put us ahead of Australia. It would give small parties undue influence and create uncertainty.''
Mr. Donald retorts that the present system does not equal stability. ``The Canadian election shows how incredibly unstable FPP [first-past-the-post] is,'' he says. ``A party can be in one day, out the next. If you have an electoral system like MMP where the votes a party receives nationwide translate into seats, the Tories in Canada would have 16 percent of seats.''