Sunday, July 02, 2006

Quality over quantity

I'm reasonably certain that the 99 MP Bill thing will get sunk. In spite of the public majority who supported a referendum on the issue several years ago, it's just too threatening for the system to consider hacking off one sixth of its bodyfat. It would also be an admission that while MMP is an improvement on FPP, the system is still pretty out of whack.

The Royal Commission on the Electoral System in 1986 got it wrong. STV should have been the recommendation, proportionality balanced with effective government. Instead they chose MMP, the German model that would prevent fanatic extremists from gaining power. Yet here we are, still stuck with Winston P and Chairman Jim. Instead of an evolution to STV in local body and national elections, the MMP anomoly has contributed to a mesmerizingly complicated governance plan. People are faced with up to three different electoral systems. Tick this, number that, pick a colour. Only a technocrat's logic could justify this as making it simpler for the governed.

By the Royal Commission's own terms of reference, MMP has not improved constituent representation. Going from 99 electorates in 1993 to 69 in 2005 has not seen a corresponding improvement in representation of anything other than party machinery. MMP has not stalled the decline in political party membership. Voter turnout last year confirmed this abyss between the party theory and the participatory reality. People haven't cared this little since 1919, the last time turnout hit 80 percent. Oops, I tell a lie. 2002 was worse with only 77 perecent legitimacy.

The Commission's second aim of representing NZ as a whole is arguable. There are indisputably more women in parliament than under FPP. But perhaps more women were going to be in parliament anyway because of changing public attitudes irregardless of MMP. 16 of the 39 women MPs are electorate representatives. But why stop at gender balance? If MPs truly reflect NZ, half the country must be unionists and teachers, while the other half are lawyers, accountants, doctors and farmers. Where are the 24 MPs who defend Kiwis who smoke tobacco, or the 15 MPs who admit smoking pot in the last year? Where are the six MPs who represent the unemployed? If the median age of NZers is 35 years, why is the median age of MPs closer to 70? If MMP provides a reflection of NZ, it is through a very narrow prism.

Effective government has suffered because of this illusion of representativeness. Helen Clark is facing this dilemma right now. Sure, the central committees sliced and diced the party list to get the appropriate gender and ethnicity balance. Unfortunately, it has come at the expense of selecting the best people fit to hold ministerial warrants. It is a triumph of form over function. We have a 120 member parliament yet there's still not enough talent to spread around the executive.

And what an executive. As DPF points out in his draft submission, cabinet has expanded to record size. This phenomenon is entirely due to having a larger parliament. It is no coincidence that there are 25 to 26 ministers in Labour's caucus of 50. Super-sized executives first appeared after Labour's landslide victory in 1972, when the party held 55 out of 87 seats. Cabinet comprised 20 members of caucus, just shy of today's record setter. Back then, a simple majority wasn't needed. Twenty ministers was considered a sufficient scrum to push caucus along. Muldoon didn't need a large executive to keep his caucus under control, as he bullied his way to a majority. 1984 came along and Lange's 56 person caucus saw a return to 20 ministers. In 1987, cabinet expanded to 23 out of a caucus of 57.

A decade later, MMP made huge executives the norm rather than the exception. Faced with mainly minority governments, it is political suicide not to have an executive majority in caucus. Without a simple majority, a backbencher backlash becomes an all too real possibility. If the Royal Commission's suggestion of increasing the size of parliament to 140 MPs went ahead, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to witness an executive of 35-40. Conversely, lowering the number of MPs to 100 would cause a corresponding drop in the size of cabinet.

One way to stop this all happening would be to cap the size of the executive. DPF reckons 20 is a good number and I could live with that. Personally, I think that at any one time there are no more than 9 useful ministries. The rest are there to fill up the ranks, hence the Ministry of Silly Walks proliferation over the last 20 years.
Would dropping the number of MPs to 100 effectively kill MMP? It depends whether you prefer a quicker or slower death I suppose. As DPF's calculations demonstrate, overhangs will become more likely over time anyway. What started out as a 65:55 split between electorate and list positions in '96 could, by 2026, evolve to a 90:30 split without any help from Barbara Stewart's Bill whatsoever. And hey, we've got an overhang this term so we might as well get used to them.

The most significant harm caused by reducing the size of the House would be in the select committees, the one place where democracy and consensus can flourish outside the party mantras. With twenty-nine MPs currently locked up in the executive, that leaves a maximum pool of 91 MPs to spread between 18 select committees. It's fair to say that they're spread very thinly as it is. Dropping to 100 MPs would leave around 80 MPs to sit in on the public feedback and discuss legislation before the ideologies get wheeled out in the debating chamber. If you amalgamated a couple of these commitees, you might retain something resembling the existing balance.

So, in summary, I both support and oppose the 100 MPs Bill. In order to get the best of both options, I propose the following:

Completely separate the electorate and party vote. Candidates may stand as electorate or List MP, not both. STV both formats.

Stick 100 electorate MPs in the Legislature of the House of Representatives with a primary focus on delivering the best policy possible through the select committee process.

Stick 30 - 40 List MPs in an Upper House executive, thus providing the ideological check and balance required by the anachronistic party system, while limiting its power to wreck considered and reasonable legislation proposed by the Lower House. Remove the 5 percent threshold completely.

No more overhangs. More mana for electorate MPs, who are currently subsumed by the pseudo-democratic Party Vote. Most importantly, it provides for the more consensual approach to legislative action that the public have been screaming out for in the referenda of 1992 and 1999.

(Originally posted 30/5/06)