By Elections and MMP

9 Mar

something I wrote last year for an Elections project ..seemed relevant to put a version of it up here and excuse my anal use of Bye not By….



It seems we have been spared, or missed out on, a bye-election for John Banks Epsom electorate[1]. Bye-elections[2] are curious things. They have been a long standing pulse for the political process, and yet under MMP they have taken on a less dramatic and almost redundant role. This brief essay looks at the role of the bye-election under MMP, compared to our first past the post predecessors. It considers the changing dynamic with party list candidates and considers if they are potentially something that need to be consigned to the dustbin or given a new lease of life.


Political anoraks love a bye-election. In England they have a mythical role, captured best by Mr. Pickwick. Who on visiting a bye-election observes “we will behold and minutely examine a scene so interesting to every Englishman “[3]. In the New Zealand context Bye elections have been seen to hold a less entertaining if still important role. Jonathan Boston in his overview some thirty years ago [4]  saw bye-elections as performing four main roles: determining the date of an election, effects on party morale, effects on parliamentary life and recruitment of political leadership.  Under MMP Boston’s framework seems somewhat dated. Prime Ministers seem to set election dates with little regard to anything other than a personal preference. Party morale for existing parties has been little impacted by these elections and given the large number of list MPs Parliament continues with little or no impact. There has also been a shift to party management that under MMP parties looking to refresh their ranks (or remove members with a stain) can manipulate the list rather than have to use a bye-election.


Since the advent of MMP there have been 8 bye-elections. These have taken place for a variety of reasons.


Year Seat Vacated by Reason New member[5]
1998 Taranaki-King Jim Bolger (N) Resigned Shane Ardern (N)
2004 Te Tai Hauauru Tariana Turia (L) Resigned Tariana Turia ( M)
2009 Mount Albert Helen Clark ( L) Resigned David Shearer (L)
2010 Mana Winnie Laban (L) Resigned Kris Faafoi (L)
2011 Botany Pansy Wong (N) Resigned Jami lee Ross (N)
2011 Te Tai Tokerau Hone Harawira (M) Resigned Hone Harawira ( Mana)
2013 Ikaroa-Rawhiti Parekura Horomia (L) Died Meka Whaitiri (L)
2013 Christchurch East Lianne Dalziel (L) Resigned Poto Williams (L)


Only one of these elections was caused by a death whereas 12 of the last 20 bye-elections under FPP were caused by death. Perhaps the electorate parliamentarians are now the younger cohort? Two of these bye-elections have been caused by the resignation of a constituency MP from one party who has then stood under the banner of a new party. Although there is no constitutional reason why this should happen the ratio is significantly high in the MMP era. This also looks odd when compared to those MPs brought in on a list system who have resigned, or left a party, but have remained in parliament[6]. In the case of Turia she resigned from the Labour party over the Foreshore and Seabed legislation and believed her constituents wanted her to make a stand. Why this endorsement wasn’t enough remains something of a mystery. The Labour party and later all other major parties declined to field candidates making the poll a formality with only a few independents on the ballot.[7] Turia did become the first elected MP for the Maori party and perhaps that was the aim.  7 years later Hone Harawira resigned from the Maori Party after his personal relationships with colleagues seemed to disintegrate. However he had to face both his former party and a confident Labour party challenge to hold onto the seat.[8] Of the remaining elections all were caused by resignations. With one (Botany) the member resigned due to a scandal involving her husband and tax payer monies[9]. The rest were candidates leaving to do other things or having had a career reversing loss. It is also worth noting that Epsom is the 6th seat under MMP where the Electoral Act provisions have been used to ensure no bye –election takes place close to an election date.


So of the 8 MMP bye-elections they have all resulted in either a victory for the incumbent or the party of incumbency. Indeed we have to go back to 1985 and some

12 contests to find a change of party and candidate. Perhaps it’s inevitable that bye-elections will have little impact under MMP. The need for coalition makes the idea of say ACT taking a seat off National almost pointless. They still have to play together to form agreements or coalitions and it does little to parliamentary arithmetic. The only bye election that provided any entertainment or likelihood of a party change was interestingly the first where ACT ran National close.


So as we enter the 2014 election do bye-elections matter? The review of the electoral system in 2012 considered the narrow view of the role of List MPs who stand in bye-elections and the potential issues this raises. In Mt Albert for example three of the major candidates were already MP’s.  There was overwhelming support for retaining the ability for List MPs to contest bye-elections.[10] However the issue was also raised that in some countries with an MMP electoral system a bye-election is not held but the vacancy is filled by a substitute candidate.  Given New Zealand’s short electoral cycle and the stability in these results perhaps the issue needs to be canvassed wider in New Zealand.


During MMP there have however been significant churn in List MPs. Firstly there have been 8 List MPs who have gone on to sit as Independent MPs. This may seem spurious given they are elected to top up a party vote. Many of them have been subject to Waka hopping issues. Further 16 MPs have been removed or resigned from party lists during the MMP era.[11]. 6 of these from National, 5 from Labour, 2 from the Greens and ACT and 1 from New Zealand First.


So where does this leave us in 2014. If I can be so arrogant to propose a revised framework, let’s call it the ‘Boston-Mahoney’ By(e) Election framework. This would now cover.


  1. They are a gentle parachute for departing leaders. 4 of the last 11 bye-elections have seen former Prime Ministers resign. This now seems to be a part of the constitutional settlement for former leaders.
  2. Legitimising new parties. Rather than any defections there have been three new parties legitimised by bye-elections in recent times. Mana, Maori and New Zealand First. It would seem difficult now for anyone creating a new party who held an electorate seat to not force a bye-election. Interestingly this has rarely been the case in Britain.
  3. Party morale. It is clear that Labour and Phil Goff got a boost in the Mt Albert bye-election. Of course this didn’t do much to help with the general election but a loss would have had significant doubts cast on his role. The Ikaroa-Rawhiti bye-election was both a boost for Labour (who won) and Mana (who came second ahead of the Maori Party).[12]
  4. Parliamentary arithmetic. It’s still possible that a Government could fall based on the loss of a bye-election. The coalition and supply agreements make this difficult though not impossible.




[1] 13th June 2014.

[2] I use the word Bye rather than by though both appear to have common currency.

[3] C Dickens , Pickwick Papers p106.

[4] Jonathan Boston “ By elections in New Zealand:an Overview “ Political Science 32:2,1980.

[5] Details taken from Parliamentary Library Research paper , 100 years of by-elections in New Zealand , November 2013.

[6]  The most recent and obvious example being Brendan Horam who left the New Zealand First party and sits as an Independent.

[7] 30th April 2004.

[8] 29th June 2011.

[9] 14th December 2010.

[10] This issue is also considered in K Mckenzie “New Zealand By-Elections and MMP: The Labour party and the Mt Albert By-Election”, Political Science 61:2,2009.

[11] Figures supplied from Parliamentary Services.

[12] 29th June 2013.


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