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Let The People Have Their Say

Let The People Have Their Say

Barbara Stewart
List MP
New Zealand First

There are few issues that over 80% of New Zealanders would agree on and even fewer when those issues take on a political tone. Yet in 1999 81.5% of New Zealanders (or 1.7 million voters) voted to reduce the number of MPs in Parliament from 120 to 99.

What makes this significant is that an election was held at the same time as this referendum. At that election Labour (the party that 'won' the election) received 39% of the vote (or 800,000 votes) and National (the party which came second) won 30% of the vote (or 630,000 votes). Even when you combine their two totals it is less than those who supported the referendum to reduce the number of MPs.

In the 1993 referendum, which resulted in the change to MMP, 54% of voters supported change - substantially lower than the 81.5% in the 1999 referendum.

This highlights both the depth and breadth of feeling, which surrounded this issue. It was not limited to supporters of one political hue or another. It was across the board and deeply felt.

And yet the incoming Labour Government did nothing to recognise this result, claiming that an 'in house' select committee inquiry which was reviewing the entire MMP system and was made up solely of MPs with a vested interest, would suffice.

The outcome from this farcical select committee was predictable - to maintain the status quo - and flew directly in the face of public opinion.

New Zealand First was not comfortable with this outcome then (in fact we refused to sanction this select committee and did not put a member of our party on it) and since then we have continued to fight for the people to have their say.

That opportunity has arrived with my Private Members' Bill - Electoral (Reduction in Number of Member of Parliament) Amendment Bill - having passed its first reading in Parliament and being sent to select committee.

Unlike the previous select committee inquiry into the review of MMP, the public will be able have a significant say when my Bill is considered as it focuses solely on the number of MPs.

It is worth reminding ourselves though how we reached this point. There were many issues swirling around during the change to MMP. Some people wanted a second chamber (or upper house of Parliament); others were arguing for alternative electoral systems (such as STV) or simply wanted to see more accountability from Parliament.

Those who wanted to preserve the status quo, but who realised that public sentiment supported change, thought they had one great trump card up their sleeves - the number of MPs.

They made changing to MMP conditional on also increasing the number of MPs to 120, believing that this would put enough voters off the new electoral system. It was a cynical manipulation that almost worked - but it should never have come to this.

The 1999 Citizens Initiated Referendum took place following a petition to reduce the number of MPs led by Margaret Robertson. Not only did Mrs Robertson's petition gain sufficient support to trigger a referendum, it was then, as we know, overwhelmingly supported by the public.

Mrs Robertson listed five main reasons why the number of MPs should be reduced:
- To reduce the gravy train ride of those who were excess to requirements,
- To reduce the number of ineffective MPs,
- To curb the loutish and childish behaviour in Parliament,
- To get Parliament to focus on important issues rather than on the sideshows promoted by bored and marginal MPs which take up so much of Parliament's time, and
- To reduce the huge number of support staff and the associated costs that go with the extra MPs.

It is worth asking the question - are these points any less valid today than they were in 1999?

There are also two myths to be cleared up surrounding MMP and the number of MPs. The first is that MMP can't work in New Zealand without a minimum of 120 MPs.

This is simply nonsense. It is worth reminding ourselves that Parliament performed exactly the same functions with 99 MPs prior to the introduction of MMP and could do again.

All that changed was the method of electing MPs - not the various functions they fulfil. So while so-called experts claim that we must have 120 MPs (or more) to make Parliament more effective under MMP, they ignore the reality that we did just fine without them.

The passing of my Bill to select committee means the public can now have their say on this vital issue. It has gone to the Justice and Electoral Select Committee. If you want to make a submission then send two copies of your submission to the Clerk of the Justice and Electoral Select Committee, Parliament Buildings, Wellington.

If you want to present your submission in person - in addition to your written submission - then please note this explicitly in your written submission. At this stage there is no closing date for submissions (but the committee will eventually set one) so it would be best to get your submissions in as quickly as possible.

This really is your chance to have your say on this critical issue which so many New Zealanders feel strongly about.

Don't let this opportunity slip - you never know when it will come again.


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