Referenda and the Size of Parliament

Keith Rankin, 29 August 1998


Last week, a petition to conduct a referendum on the size of Parliament was submitted to Parliament. The petitioner was Wellington senior citizen Margaret Robertson, and the MP who received the submission on her behalf was Act leader, Richard Prebble. The petition exploits the popular premise that there is a strong correlation between the cost of public administration and the number of MPs.

In seeking to reduce our small unicameral Parliament from 120 to 99 MPs, the petition is touted as a means to returning our Parliament to its former size. It was 99 MPs in the 1993-96 Parliament; the last of the Parliaments elected under FPP ("first-past-the-post") rules.

One basic problem is the premise that Parliament used to be of a fixed size. In fact, if we had voted to retain FPP in the 1993 referendum, the Parliament of 1999-2000 would have had 102 MPs.

Every five years, the number of MPs were changed according to a formula designed to protect South Island representation. An underlying presumption of that formula was that the North Island's population would grow faster than the South Island's, ad infinitum. Hence the formula was a de facto population based formula. We have retained that formula for electorate seats under MMP, while capping the size of Parliament.

If we return to the old formula, then we can expect an increase in MPs at the rate of at least 3% every 5 years. That means at least 114 MPs in 2020, 120 MPs in 2029, 140 MPs in 2056. On the other hand, under the present MMP legislation, we would still have 120 MPs in 2056.

So if we vote for less MPs, as per the old system, then we are actually voting for more MPs!

On the other hand, if this petition is intended to permanently limit Parliament to 99 MPs, it represents an attempt to make two constitutional changes in one hit, just as the 1993 referendum made two conceptually distinct constitutional changes (a new electoral system plus a change in the size of Parliament). That is not a good precedent because the debate centred around just one of those issues, and indeed the present petition reflects in part our frustration at having had to decide two issues with one vote in 1993. There was no debate about the formula for determining the size of Parliament, only cynicism that MMP really constituted a hidden agenda ("many more politicians" rather than "mixed member proportional").

If this Robertson/Prebble referendum takes place, either (i) it will be a referendum to return to the old system for establishing the size of Parliament (ie increasing Parliament from 102 to 140 seats in the period from 2002 to 2056), or (ii) it will be a referendum to fix Parliament at 99 while progressively reducing the number of South Island representatives. In the case of (ii) that clause about South Island representation may be lost without any public debate (but with much cynicism from the south). And, obviously, in the case of (i), the whole exercise will be self-defeating as it will in a few years give us more rather than fewer MPs.

It should be noted that, by the 2020s, the present MMP legislation will have to be modified. As it stands, the number of electorate MPs progressively rise and the number of list MPs progressively diminish. If the number of list MPs falls to below one-third of the total, then the proportional mechanism of MMP is seriously compromised. We will get to the point where the largest single party routinely wins overhang electorate seats and no list seats at all.

(My solution is to have a referendum about 20 years from now to switch to regional elections and regional party lists; ie to replace general elections with regional elections, with one region having a "general election" every year. If there were X regions, then each MP would be elected for X years. This approach would deal with the impasse we have at the moment where many people feel that a fresh mandate should be sought by the government more frequently than every three years.)

Representative democracy is superior to direct democracy. (We can say that, while representative democracy is subject to a calculable "sampling error" and a relatively small "non-sampling error", government by direct democracy is subject to huge non-sampling errors, given the small individual incentives to participate in direct democracy, and the difficulty individuals have in distinguishing individual self-interest from collective self-interest.)

Our representatives are both a properly selected sample of the population (given proportional representation) as well as being people seen, by and large, as capable of addressing and debating the complex issues that most of us cannot (eg due to a lack of education or a lack of time) or do not wish to deal with. We resource MPs to do these things on our behalf. To do their job properly, they must keep one foot at street level (ie being in touch with the man and woman on the street) while keeping their brains in touch with national and global issues. By and large they do do their jobs to the best of their ability. Their differences, of which there are many, are our differences.

Constitutional issues need to be dealt with as a mixture of both direct and representative democracy. It's OK for non-binding referenda by petition to be one route by which such issues are put on the table. But they should not be directly enacted without a 75% majority of Parliament. Otherwise issues raised by citizens initiated referendum need to be thrashed out through, say, a Royal Commission, if there is a clear division of opinion. Then, a Select Committee submission procedure is required, followed by a binding referendum on a piece of legislation that has already been passed subject to the ratification of that referendum. Finally, a review procedure needs to be in place for any constitutional change. The constitutional procedure adopted for the electoral system is a good one to follow with respect for all constitutional changes that cannot muster the support of 75% of MPs.

I reaffirm my view that ratifying constitutional referenda should ideally be held at least once every decade and preferably only once a decade.

We are in danger of having important decisions made through a destructive cycle of cynicism, fuelled in particular by the relationship between a cynical electronic media (especially television and talkback radio) and a cynical electorate. Each of these two parties fuels the negativity of the other. Some of our less scrupulous politicians join in by using such constitutional issues to push their own short-term political ambitions.

Let's rise above our perennial negativity and expediency, and try to see the bigger picture. Democracy works best when it operates under rules that are, for the most part, fixed.


© 1998

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