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No Right Turn: Against A Smaller Parliament

No Right Turn

Against A Smaller Parliament

In 1986, the report of the Royal Commission on the Electoral System, Towards a Better Democracy, recommended numerous changes to our electoral system, including a shift to a Mixed-Member Proportional system and an increase in the number of MPs from 97 to 120. With Barbara Stewart's Electoral (Reduction in Number of Members of Parliament) Amendment Bill attempting to roll back the latter change, I thought it would be worthwhile to review their reasoning.

The Royal Commission started by asking the basic question: what do MPs do? They identified four core functions of elected representatives:

  1. representing their constituents;
  2. representing the nation as a whole;
  3. providing an effective government; and
  4. providing an effective legislature.

In the Royal Commission's assessment, MPs generally performed the first function very well, being highly accessible and fairly responsive to their constituents, and increasing their number wasn't likely to result in any improvement. Neither would it improve the second function; while Parliament was unrepresentative (consisting primarily of drunk old white men), this was a problem with the electoral system itself rather than the number of MPs. With regards to the third function, they noted that the increasing complexity of government had led to a significant increase in the size of the executive (from 7 members in 1900 to 20 in 1986), and that this trend was likely to continue. At the same time, the size of the available talent pool from which to draw those Ministers had remained relatively stable, and that as first-term MPs were not normally appointed as Ministers, this had led to little choice about who should be in Cabinet. Ministers were basically being appointed on the basis of length of service, to the extent that three-quarters of MPs who survived more than a term and whose party won office could expect to receive a Ministerial position. A larger House would lead to a larger caucus, and hence a wider pool of talent.

As for the fourth function, the Commission felt that a larger House would weaken the influence of Cabinet over caucus, and allow back-benchers to have a greater say. More importantly, it would strengthen select committees, allowing them to be expanded in both number and size (in 1986 there were thirteen subject committees with an average membership of five), develop a greater degree of specialist knowledge, and devote more time to scrutinising legislation. As a minor point, it was also suggested that a larger House would improve the quality of Parliamentary debate, by reducing the average number of speaking calls per MP and allowing greater specialisation.

Having made the case for a larger House, the Commission considered the question of how large it should be. To gain all the benefits they hoped for - 30 Ministers, more and larger committees - they thought they would need 140 MPs and a government caucus of about 70. However, they recognised this would face stiff public opposition, and so settled for recommending 120. They expected the extra 23 MPs to cost around $3.3 million (in 1986 dollars).

Assessing these arguments with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that things haven't quite worked out as the Royal Commission expected. While the 1996 and 1999 governments enjoyed an expanded talent pool from which to select their Ministers, the recent trend towards minority government has narrowed it again, so that in the present government it is no larger than it was under FPP. This has also prevented government backbenchers from having greater influence - though we have very definitely seen this trend in a few of the minor parties, with both the Greens and ACT (before the last election) having very active caucuses. And of course Parliamentary debate is the same as it ever was. The one area the Royal Commission got it right was on select committees; while they haven't increased in number, the average membership has doubled to nine or eleven (they were hoping for seven), they are devoting more time to their inquiries, and their reports generally tend to carry more weight than they used to. In some cases - as with the recent Land Transport Amendment Act - a committee goes off the rails and suggests changes which are frankly stupid, but generally the higher scrutiny has resulted in improved legislation, as well as vastly better oversight of government in general. I think this has been a very worthwhile improvement, and worth every penny.

However, while most of the Royal Commission's arguments turned out to be wrong, they work very well in reverse as arguments against a smaller Parliament. Fewer MPs and smaller government caucuses would shrink the Ministerial talent pool (even moreso in a minority government), and given the present size of Cabinet (itself dictated by the number of functions government performs), it would dramatically reduce the influence of backbenchers over their Cabinet colleagues. And of course it would roll back all the progress we have seen on Select Committees and accountability to Parliament. For these reasons (and those stated in my draft submission), I think any reduction in the number of MPs is a bad idea, and Stewart's bill should be opposed.


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