Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Columns

16/12/07 Keith Holyoake
05/12/07 Roger Douglas's 70th birthday
26/11/07 Announcement
09/10/07 Election Spending
25/09/07 Glad-handing and Time-wasting
15/09/07 Reflections on Helen Clark (PRESS Mainlander)
11/09/07 Time for Road Pricing
28/08/07 Personal Attacks
14/08/07 Parity with Australian Pay
31/07/07 Political Paralysis: France and New Zealand
19/06/07 Robert Muldoon is Back
05/06/07 Polls, Damned Polls
22/05/07 The Strange Death of the New Zealand Economy
08/05/07 Reserve Bank Inquiry
24/04/07 Health Union Extremism
10/04/07 Daylight Saving
27/03/07 The Really Big Issue
13/03/07 The Anti-Police Hysteria
27/02/07 Slowing Down Justice
13/02/07 Political Soft Options
30/01/07 An End to Treaty Historical Claims
16/01/07 Learning from History
19/12/06 Problems of Opposition since 2001
13/12/06 TIM PANKHURST Dominion Post
05/12/06 Nicky Hager and the Hollow Book
21/11/06 Greeks Bearing Gifts
07/11/06 Poor Policing in Auckland
24/10/06 Careless decisions on Auckland's Waterfront
10/10/06 The PC Clobbering Machine
26/09/06 Toxic Politics
12/09/06 Auckland's Robbers' Convention (NZ Herald)
12/09/06 Labour's Political Scandals
29/08/06 Corruption and Party Funding
14/08/06 War in the Middle East
01/08/06 New Zealand's Future?
20/06/06 Our Infrastructural Needs
20/06/06 Leave
06/06/06 Diverting the Public's Attention
23/05/06 New Zealand and Australia
09/05/06 The Maori Seats
11/04/06 Dogs and Priorities
28/03/06 Parliament's Size
14/03/06 Crime and Police priorities
28/02/06 Family Planning and Poverty
14/02/06 The Cartoon Furore
31/01/06 Greater Financial Understanding
03/01/06 Encouraging Economic Literacy

Parliament's Size

28/03/2006

Good on New Zealand First's Barbara Stewart for having the gumption to produce a bill to reduce the size of Parliament. Relief, too, that enough National and Maori Party MPs supported it as far as a select committee. At first sight, introducing a bill to implement a measure endorsed in a referendum in 1999 by a majority of 1.3 million votes scarcely seems heroic. More than 81% of voters supported the principle embodied in Stewart's bill. But politicians ignore expressions of public opinion when it suits. They sometimes close ranks against the public. Which is what makes her achievement the greater. However, don't hold your breath that Labour, the Greens and United will put the public's interests first.

In New Zealand's early days, the size of the House increased with the population. As an economy measure in the 1880s they then reduced numbers by 21. In 1902 it was agreed that 80 members were enough to govern us, plus the small number of mostly elderly party hacks who inhabited the toothless Legislative Council until it was abolished in 1950. But as the proportion of voters living in the North Island increased, the South Island kept losing seats, and those that remained grew very large. In 1967 it was decided to freeze the number of southern seats and simply add more in the north as population growth warranted. When I was first elected in 1972 Parliament had 87 MPs. It had expanded to 99 by 1996 when we embarked on the frolic of MMP. It was then that we suddenly became overburdened with 120 MPs and the concept of "overhang" that now gives us 121.

The need to keep adequate representation for the South Island was one good reason for Parliament to grow. The growing tendency in the 1970s to refer bills to select committees was another. The public wanted to shape the finer points in legislation before it turned into concrete. That necessitated more MPs. Speaking for myself, I found select committees hugely informative, an unparalleled opportunity to widen my knowledge in areas I knew nothing about. If it were possible to measure such things, I suspect the public benefited from a slowly expanding House and the increasing scrutiny by select committees.

The sudden lurch into MMP with its two categories of members, and the undemocratic methods of list selection, is another matter altogether. There was no commensurate increase in workloads to warrant the extra 20 MPs. It was a product of the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System that was peopled by other-worldly do-gooders who took little notice of the reservations expressed by those more knowledgeable. Today most of the arguments for a larger House advanced in Chapter 4 of their report look like the triumph of hope over experience. We need a smaller, not a larger executive; there has been no visible improvement in the calibre of MPs with more of them. The reverse, in fact. Nor has there been more independence displayed in caucuses. List MPs are usually the last to display independence. Moreover, while lists have given us a few stars, many have contributed to lowering the overall standard.

Why is Barbara Stewart's bill unlikely to survive? Because some leaders have realised that keeping the number of list MPs high enables them to bring in a Praetorian Guard of supporters to protect their backs. When MMP was first introduced, Labour was resolute that after two elections it would be given a top-to-toe review to see whether the hype promising a better type of politics had eventuated. By the time the select committee convened in 2000 Labour was in office. Several reliable acolytes like Margaret Wilson, Jonathan Hunt, Diane Yates and Ruth Dyson utilised the list system to protect their leader. Now we have Maryann Street too. No time to rock the boat. Sadly, nothing has changed since 2000, just a few faces. The only good thing that can be said about long lists is that there is more diversity among MPs, but the pre-MMP system was moving in that direction anyway. And who can cross their heart and say that ethnicity and gender are a better basis for selection than merit? We want our MPs to make tough decisions. They aren't there for decorative purposes. Sadly, there are too many in Parliament with vested interests in the status quo to listen to Barbara Stewart. What a pity. She deserves better.