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NZ voters feel put upon once too often: David Barber in Wellington finds people thoroughly confused about an unusual referendum on electoral reform

NEW ZEALANDERS today get what has been billed as a 'once in a lifetime' chance to choose how to elect their members of parliament. For most of them - racked with head-aching confusion after a 10-week lead-up to a rare referendum on electoral reform - that is once too many, but they will have to do it again next year.

Opinion polls show they have made up their minds to ditch the Westminster system of electing MPs, used since the first election 140 years ago, but they are totally confused about what to put in its place.

It is hardly surprising. They have two votes in today's referendum. First, to decide whether to retain the existing 'first past the post' system or change it. Second, to choose one of four alternative systems. The second vote will count only if the majority favours change. If it does, they will vote again next year, with 'first past the post' again on trial, up against the winner of the other four options.

A government-funded 'education campaign' has done little to educate voters. They have been bemused by television commercials, which have rivalled Monty Python in sillines, and have been stupefied by a mass of acronyms for alternative voting systems. According to opinion polls, people are disenchanted with politicians and sick of broken government promises. Two out of three want change - any change. A similar majority, however, confess they are too bemused to decide on an alternative.

Pressure for reform and the introduction of some form of proportional representation (PR) has been building for years. The present system has not delivered a genuine majority government, where most voters supported the winning party, since 1951. Minority parties have won up to 20 per cent of the vote but gained only a couple of seats.

Cynics accuse the government - which saw votes in pledging a referendum in its 1990 election campaign, but will almost certainly regret it tonight - of deliberately creating confusion to try to maintain the status quo. Two-thirds of MPs oppose a change, and leaders of the main Labour and National parties, who foresee PR ending the dominance they have enjoyed since 1935, have argued fiercely against it.

Favoured to win is the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system used in Germany, which proponents say is most likely to produce coalition governments to check the Labour-National monopoly. This would give electors two votes, one for a local MP and the other for a national party list of candidates, ensuring representation for minority parties.

The future of the four exclusively Maori seats and the size of the new parliament remain undecided. The Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, says PR would mean more MPs, which the country does not want. He also favours adding an upper house to parliament. That would require even more politicians, who rank below used-car salesmen in New Zealanders' esteem.