Big business, political elites used the same playbook against Pro Rep in 1992
By Kate Williamson, guest writer


I’m a New Zealander living in Vancouver, and I’ve been watching the anti-Pro Rep campaign in B.C. with intense and unenjoyable deja vu.

Before I explain that, some history: New Zealand, like B.C., used to vote under the FPTP (First Past The Post) system. It would go like this: every few years we’d have an election and one of two parties would win. There were only two parties that you could seriously vote for – any other vote was wasted. Sometimes it would be the same party, over and over again, for years. We would swing from National – think the NZ version of the Liberals – to Labour – think our NDP.

Over the decades they swapped power until they became like two giant, gassy blimps floating in the sky above us, barely connected to us except by a thin tether. They got their funding from other sources – businesses, unions and lobbyists. The electorate – “us” – was changing but they weren’t, really. They didn’t have to. They had the longevity. They knew how to play the game.

Then in 1992 the NZ government decided to have a referendum on Proportional Representation. I want to be clear: THEY DIDN’T WANT TO. The government of the day had to come under intense public pressure before they’d agree. And once they decided, yes, we’re going to do this – like here, a lot of money began to pour into the anti-Pro Rep campaign from the business community.

Business as a rule is conservative – they like certainty. They like to know who they can call, who they can pressure, who to donate to. Called, innocuously, the “Campaign for Better Government,” their movement was led by Peter Shirtcliffe who was CEO of NZ’s largest telecom company.

Shirtcliffe’s campaign spent more than $1.5 million New Zealand dollars – the equivalent of more than two million Canadian dollars today. (The pro-reform group was a grassroots effort with just over $100,000.) The anti-reform campaign had a few different knives to wield against Pro Rep, and they used them all, like ruthless political ninjas:


“It would put enormous stresses and strains [on the economy]” declared Peter Shirtcliffe, trying to scare the crap out of everyone who needed a job to survive. “It would bring economic ruin,” a former finance minister chimed in.


One establishment politician said it would be a ‘disaster for democracy’. I remember people being worried one of our fringe religious parties would win government and force us all to follow their beliefs OMG THE SKY IS FALLING.


The new system meant more MPs. “Do you REALLY want to pay for more politicians??” the anti-Pro Rep campaign cried, grimly clutching their bank statements.

To be honest, all this doom totally worked on me. I was a 20-year-old student at the time, looking to start my career, and I really believed Peter Shirtcliffe when he said our economy would die, basically, the moment Pro Rep came in. Like the MOMENT it came in, investment would flee the country in a huge wave, desperately seeking some other safer country to crash onto.

I voted FPTP.

Luckily, my side lost. As it turned out, I was in the 15 per cent that voted to keep it. (I didn’t tell anyone cos it was really embarrassing).

Pro Rep came in (New Zealanders chose MMP on the second part of the ballot) and … the world did not end. The economy did not collapse. We were not all forced into a fundamentalist cult. It was. Okay.

New Zealand Pro Rep Cartoon

Outspent and outgunned, the campaign for Pro Rep in New Zealand managed to pull off a classic David-and-Goliath referendum victory.

Has Pro Rep changed the political system for the better? I would argue yes. It’s not perfect but yes, it’s better. It’s created a much more diverse Parliament which means that new, fresh ideas have a better chance of being heard. NZers voted to keep it in 2011 in a second referendum on Pro Rep. That speaks volumes.

I’m now a Canadian citizen and will be voting in my second Pro Rep referendum in November. I’m a lot older, sort of wiser in some ways, and definitely not so easily scared by fearmongers. What I am convinced by is the evidence I’ve seen at home in NZ – of Pro Rep actually working in real life. I think Pro Rep would be a great fit for this province that I love. That’s why in this referendum, I’ll be voting for Pro Rep.

Kate Williamson has lived in Vancouver since 2002 and has the worn-out rainboots to prove it.