Electoral Reform Coalition

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Template:TOCnestleft Electoral Reform Coalition

History and goals

Why, in 1993, did New Zealand abandon the “First Past the Post” electoral system and replace it with MMP? Who stood to gain from such a move?

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 of New Zealand 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.

Change of tactics

By the late ’80s, the Socialist Unity Party and it’s fellow Marxist parties had long abandoned any idea of winning electoral support under their own banners. Consequently they relied on infiltrating and manipulating larger parties in order to gain leverage and influence.

By that time, the SUP had, for many years controlled or influenced most of NZ’s major trade unions, such as the National Distribution Union, Service Workers Union, the Engineers Union and the Public Service Association. These were all affiliated to the Labour Party and were able to use their block vote at party conferences. This enabled the SUP to elect sympathisers and covert SUP members to Labour’s Executive and Policy Council and to influence policy development

This helped cement an unofficial, but very real SUP/Labour/Council of Trade Unions alliance. SUP leader Ken Douglas wrote in the Soviet publication “Problems of Peace and Socialism” in July 1989 “We emphasis that in New Zealand, progress will be impossible without joint action by SUP and Labour Party members.”

According to the Communist Party’s, “People’s Voice” of the 11th of June 1990, SUP Vice President Alan Ware stated at a March 1990 SUP Central Committee meeting “There remains within the Labour Party membership, party apparatus, caucus and cabinet, people who are our allies”

During the late 1980s, this SUP/CTU/Labour “Triad” caused considerable turmoil in NZ socialist circles. The SUP/CTU was seen by many radicals as “selling out” and muzzling militant trade unionists in order to keep Labour in power. The SUP/CTU’s apparently passive acceptance of the 1984/90 Labour Government’s “free market” economic policies, led to widespread anger in the unions, Labour’s militant wing and within the SUP itself.

In 1989, Labour MP Jim Anderton left the Labour Party and linked up with the Workers Communist League, some Trotskyites, Labour militants, former SUP members and other socialists, to form the breakaway, New Labour Party.

In 1990, many North Island SUP members broke away to form the Socialist Party of Aoteoroa, under the leadership of Bill Andersen, President of the powerful Auckland Council of Trade Unions and the National Distribution Union.

In December 1991, Anderton’s NLP joined the Green Party, the Maori nationalist, Mana Motuhake Party and the Democrats to form the Alliance Party.

The majority of NLP leaders and many Greens, came from Marxist-Leninist backgrounds, mainly the Socialist Action League or the WCL. These socialists effectively dominated the Alliance Party and dictated it’s policy.

Bill Andersen’s SPA also supported the Alliance, it’s puppet unions providing manpower, office space and material aid. Both the Auckland Alliance and SPA were headquartered in the local CTU building. The People’s Voice of the 21st of September, 1992 described SPA leader Bill Andersen as an Alliance supporter, though he hasn’t “(yet) signed a membership card“

In 1989, self proclaimed Marxist , Labour Party member and ERC activist, Paul Harris wrote an article on Proportional Representation for the SUP’s theoretical journal, “Socialist Politics”. In the esoteric world of Marxism-Leninism, theoretical journals are key transmission belts of party policy to the rank and file. Therefore Harris’ ideas can be safely assumed to have party approval.

According to Harris “If Proportional Representation was used in 1990, we could see a progressive coalition of the Labour Party, NLP, Mana Motuhake and the Greens emerge to form a government, even though National may be the largest single party. Would that not strengthen our democracy and our society? Surely all socialists should appreciate the need to develop such a broad-based political alliance to unite progressive forces”.

After this insight into what “democracy” means to Marxists , Harris went on to say “..as socialists (both inside and outside the Labour Party or the SUP ) we should be seeking to promote Proportional Representation as a means of achieving a broad coalition which will group together all forces opposed to the worst excesses of ‘Rogernomics’ and the likely extensions of it under a National Government…”

Harris revealed his hopes for MMP;“This coalition will not give us socialism. But it could provide the basis for a radical and progressive transformation of our society…Working together, recognising the validity of each others’ positions, the working class, women’s, Maori and Green movements could collectively reconstruct our society as a decent and humane one. For that to occur, I would argue that Proportional Representation is an essential political precondition.”

In September 1991, just prior to the formation of the Alliance Party, Bill Andersen wrote a widely circulated open letter, from his Socialist Party of Aotearoa, calling for a “people’s coalition to form a government of national salvation” in order to “meet the broad interests of the NZ people“. Andersen said the key was forging an “electoral agreement” between Labour, the NLP and the Greens.

Andersen’s call was soon echoed by fellow Marxist-Leninist, Ken Douglas. As keynote speaker at the 1992 Labour Party conference Douglas urged Labour and the Alliance to get together around an “electoral agreement” to defeat the National Government. Labour’s then president Ruth Dyson (reportedly on friendly terms with Douglas’ partner Marilyn Tucker) backed the appeal.

While rejected by then, Labour leader Mike Moore, it was considered at the time, highly unlikely that Douglas would have spoken without significant support inside the Labour Party.

Left victories

It is clear that socialist coalitions were considered likely by many pro MMP activists.

Former ERC Vice-President Rod Donald told “Monthly Review” of January 1993 “I tend to think that New Zealand will tend towards centre left coalitions rather than centre right”.

Incoming Labour President Maryan Street (a strong supporter of MMP) told Labour’s 1993 Congress that an important part of her job would be preparing Labour for the post-1996 political landscape. “We cannot predict at this stage what the various players in the field are going to look like, so I don’t know if the Alliance will still exist in it’s current form…It may be a possibility in the future that the Left will have to look quite seriously at representation of a broad coalition of interests…”

In an interview with Robert Mannion of the Sunday Times of October 24th 1993, SPA leader, Bill Andersen, outlined his party’s priorities and plans. According to Mannion, Andersen supported the Alliance and believed “the main issue now is to expand participatory democracy. Beginning with MMP…”

Mannion added that Andersen “would like to have seen Alliance/Labour accommodations in crucial electorates”. And interestingly “They had a good meeting with Helen Clark and Alliance parliamentary candidate Laila Harre at the Trade Union Centre recently.”

Harre a former Labour Party official, became General Secretary of the NLP, an Alliance cabinet minister and this year succeeded Bill Andersen as leader of the National Distribution Union.

Clark, of course shortly after, became leader of the Labour Party, in a coup described by Mike Moore as “almost Maoist“.

Why did these two supposed political rivals meet members of NZ’s most militant Marxist-Leninist Party? Was it to discuss their mutual interest in Nicaragua (Clark was there in ’86, Harre in ’87)? Or was it to discuss future “electoral agreements?”

Labour deputy leader Michael Cullen, was interviewed in the Socialist Unity Party’s “Tribune” of March the 18th. The piece was entitled “Progressive Forces Should Dominate Under MMP””

In it, Cullen laid out his thoughts on a Labour/Alliance coalition.

The similarities;

“The frustrating thing about relations with the Alliance is that if you talk about what we think as a just society, we’re not very far apart at all”… “The basic instincts of people in Labour, are pretty much the same I suspect, as the basic instincts of those who are Alliance activists”

The barriers;

“If we are capable of recognising that simple truth, and if the Alliance is capable of recognising that there is no route backwards….that there are certain fundamental constraints of being part of an international economy that we actually can’t opt out of…once they’ve accepted that, then I think we’ve got an awful lot to talk about”

The goal;

“And we ought to be able to form basically a centre-left coalition which should be the dominant force under MMP for the foreseeable future”.

To achieve this near monopoly, Cullen expected there would be increasing contact between Labour and Alliance people“to establish networks, to establish common ground, establish confidence.”

However the voting public would not know about this coalition government until well after they had cast their votes. “One doubts that we’re going to have formal talks before an election”…”but hopefully the sharp edges will have worn away enough that after an election we’ll be able to talk seriously and quickly in order to be able to form an effective government”

The drive for MMP came from across the political spectrum. These ranged from the Christian Heritage Party, NZ First and even the odd Nat, to the Communist Party of New Zealand , Workers Power and virtually every other socialist sect in the country.

The main thrust came however from the Alliance, the CTU, the ERC and elements of the Labour Party.

Standing behind these organisations were NZ’s two major Marxist-Leninist parties, Ken Douglas’ SUP and Bill Andersen’s, SPA.

It is clear that these groups intended to influence any likely coalition that arose from combinations of the NLP, Labour, Greens or Mana Motuhake.

Clearly MMP has not yet achieved everything that Douglas and Andersen thought it would. It did however, produce a Labour/Alliance coalition and damn near produced a Labour/Greens one. It has also brought Marxists like Matt Robson, Keith Locke and Sue Bradford into parliament

It has enabled ACT to get a foothold, but in my opinion has benefited the socialists more than the pro freedom forces.

Labour has effectively absorbed the values and many of the members of the SUP. Bill Andersen is dead and the Alliance nearly so. However his SPA is working with Matt McCarten, the Socialist Workers Organisation and others to form a new leftist movement to replace the Alliance. Marxist=Leninists are nothing, if not long term, strategic thinkers.

MMP, was sold to the public as a means of making politicians more “accountable”. It could yet produce future coalitions that would give tiny Marxist sects, the power to influence policy affecting more than 4,000,000 NZers.