A smaller Parliament was a big vote winner in 1999 – but ACT was more popular then, too

ACT Party leader David Seymour asked some electorally attractive questions when he told his party’s annual conference he plans to introduce legislation to reduce the size of Parliament from 120 MPs to 100 and cut the number of ministers from 31 to 20.

It’s an idea with popular appeal, like inviting voters to decide if we should have more public holidays.

Seymour said two decades of growth in the size of government had not delivered better outcomes for New Zealand and the country needed smaller, smarter government.

Whether economic or welfare outcomes are geared to the size of our Parliament needs deeper examination.

The matter of MP numbers was the subject of a non-binding referendum in 1999, when the result was overwhelming support for reducing the number of MPs to 99.  

The National Party nevertheless is wary:  its electoral reform spokesperson, Nick Smith, said his party had some real sympathy for ACT’s concerns around the number of people working in the Beehive.

But he had concerns about how rural communities would be affected if electorates were significantly expanded and National is more cautious than Seymour on the delicate matter of reducing the number of Māori seats, another of the ACT leader’s proposals.

Seymour might have thought he could count on the support of Winston Peters, who in July last year said if New Zealand First was part of the next government, he would let the public decide whether to abolish Māori seats and cut the number of MPs in Parliament to 100.

Peters vowed to hold a mid-term binding referendum on the two matters.

But this promise evaporated during coalition negotiations.

Far from welcoming Seymour’s promotion of a proposal he once championed, Peters today was reported as saying this only shows ACT is politically dead in the water.

Jordan Williams, at the Taxpayers Union, expressed his support:

“New Zealand is a small country and its Parliament should reflect that. Having a large Parliament only benefits careerist politicians who land a sweet gig on the taxpayer’s dollar. Frankly, too many low-quality MPs manage to sneak into Parliament via the party list, and in the anonymity of the backbench they can slack off and get away with it.”

“Especially welcome is the focus on reducing the number of Ministers. Ministers are the ones who spend taxpayer money, and cutting the number of Ministers will likewise reduce the number of unnecessary taxpayer-funded pet projects to justify ministerial existence. We think the $7.1 million annual forecast savings is probably an underestimation.”

But Michael Reddell, blogging at Croaking Cassandra, has brought hard data into considerations.

New Zealand has 120 MPs and a population of 4.9 million, which means we have 24.5 members of Parliament per million people.

This number is dropping steadily as our population increases.  In 1993, when MMP was voted in, 120 MPs was equivalent to about 33 MPs per million people.

In 1951, after NZ abolished the Legislative Council, we had 80 MPs ( 42 MPs per million people).

Reddell draws comparisons with other countries:

Among Europe’s large democratic countries (Spain, France, UK,  Italy, Germany, Poland), the average number of members of Parliament (upper and lower house) is about 15 (and even that number is skewed up by the part-timers in the House of Lords).   Ukraine, Russia and Turkey –  big countries, if not always terribly democratic –  also have a small number of MPs per capita.

Among very small countries, Iceland, Luxembourg, Andorra, Malta, Montenegro and  Cyprus, the median number of members of Parliament per million people is over 100.

And what of countries very close to New Zealand in size?  There are six EU countries with between four and six million people.  Here are the number of members of Parliament per million people in each of them, as per the chart above

Denmark                            32

Finland                               37

Slovakia                             28

Norway                              33

Ireland                               49

Croatia                               36

In short, big countries have many fewer members of parliament per capita than very small countries, and among the advanced European countries around our size all have more MPs per capita than we do.

Reddell’s considerations include the work of select committees.

Select committees in New Zealand are poorly resourced, but even members of select committees are typically spread very thinly.  Scrutiny – whether of proposed legislation or of ministerial/agency performance –  doesn’t happen with anything like the regular depth or intensity it should.  And that isn’t because individual MPs are slackers –  most appear to work excruciatingly long hours.

Reddell argues that what we need is more able people who want to be very good select committee operators, and perhaps even compelling speakers in the House itself.

He does not defend our MPs from “the generally appalling job they have done for decades”, presiding over our steady relative economic decline and the many other failures people could list.

“But demolishing one wing of the house –  chopping out 20 MPs –  isn’t going to fix that problem.”

Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis  questioned the wisdom of asking people if they would like fewer politicians in an article for The Spinoff  after Peters promised a referendum last year.

parliamentary backgrounder at the time of the 1999 referendum showed there was no justification for such a reduction in parliamentary numbers, he recalled.

This message was echoed by Parliament’s Justice and Electoral Committee in a 2006 report on a members’ bill proposing to cut MP numbers in line with the referendum result:

Geddis played the numbers game, too:

Today, our population is 4.8 million. If we want to use the apparently halcyon pre-MMP days as our baseline, today’s Parliament actually should have 132 MPs on a straight population growth basis.

Geddis concluded by suggesting Peters should focus on issues the public have said they actually care about?

In 2012, the Electoral Commission asked people what changes they wanted to the MMP voting system, he pointed out. The overwhelming response it received was for an end to the “electorate lifeboat” rule that enables an electorate MP from a micro-party to bring more colleagues into the House.

Alongside this, a majority of respondents also indicated they would prefer a reduction in the 5% party vote threshold.

Seymour might care to comment on that aspect of our electoral system…

Two other numbers are of interest in reflecting changing voter attitudes.

At the time of the 1999 referendum ACT won 7.04% of the party vote. At last year’s election it won 0.5%.

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