CIS calls for a Senate

The Centre for Independent Studies has published a paper on electoral reform, which amongst other things advocates a Senate for New Zealand.

An opinion piece has also appeared in the Dominion Post.

Here are the salient features of the proposal:

  • A House of 79 MPs elected under FPP
  • A Senate of 31 Senators elected under proportional representation and regional lists, also for a three year term, with a 4% threshold
  • Senate acts as house of review but can not amend or initiate money bills
  • Senators can serve as Ministers (they don’t specify that the PM can not be a Senator – a point to be clarified)
  • No Maori seats

They analyse the problems, as they see it, with the current system:

  • MPs re-elected to Parliament, after being rejected in an electorate
  • Top politicians such as Michael Cullen and Don Brash accountable to their parties, not to local voters
  • Winston Peters as Foreign Minister campaigning against the China FTA
  • Maori Party over-represented due to over-hang
  • ACT gained representation and NZ First did not despite higher party vote
  • On overarching joint cabinet responsibility with minor party ministers able to disagree on all issues outside their portfolios

They conclude:

Clearly, an electoral system that produces such strange and sometimes bizarre outcomes could hardly be called exemplary. Yet, this system was only brought in less than two decades ago to deal with the deficiencies of its predecessors. It could well have been a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as we shall examine in this report.

They also remind us:

Any discussion of should be based on the premise that there is no such thing as a perfect electoral system.

It is a balance between being able to deliver a coherent policy programme and having strong checks and balances on the Government.

They also note:

In a two-party FPP system, the winning party gets to implement its manifesto and can be held accountable for its promises. Under MMP, political results depend on negotiations between governing parties. What a voter eventually gets from a party may be quite different from what the party initially promised, cancelling the idea of representation of voter preferences.

I prefer MMP to FPP, but it should be acknowledged that MMP has weaknesses such as the above. It is harder to hold a party to account, when they can blame not having a majority for not implementing their manifesto.

Truing to the Senate proposal, a good point is made:

The difficulty for a Senate is to make itself relevant. In his critique of upper houses, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes says, ‘if a second chamber dissents form the first, it is mischievous; if it agrees it is superfluous.

This is partly why NZ got rid of an Upper House. But it was also because the old Legislative Council was appointed by politicians, so had no mandate to oppose the Government of the day. A Senate, elected by proportional representation, would have a strong mandate to decline legislation put forward by the House.

Some may call this proposal FPP in drag, but that would be somewhat unfair. Let me explain.

Because the Senate would be elected proportionally, and can reject any bill (including the Budget) then no law will be passed which does not have the support of parties that gained a majority of the (threshold) votes.

So if for example Labour and Greens got 52% of the party vote and National got 48%. However National won 40 electorate seats and Labour 39.

National would get to form the Government (and that s no small thing), but Labour and the Greens could block any laws they want to, and could even force a new election by refusing to pass the budget if the Government didn’t win their support.

Of course forcing an election can have political consequences, so there would be an incentive for parties to work together to avoid this ultimate step. We see this a bit in Canada where sometimes the main Opposition party keeps the Government in office, rather than be blamed for forcing an election.

So what are the parts of the proposal I like. They are:

  • Candidates stand either for the House in a seat, or the Senate in a party list. No more MPs being booted out of a seat but remaining in Parliament.
  • More electorates, which means smaller electorates, making MPs more local
  • Clearly defined different roles for MPs and Senators, rather than status quo where some List MPs pretend to be de facto electorate MPs
  • Should result in higher quality candidates for the party lists. At the moment too many places go to MPs who lose electorates.
  • A Senate would be a useful additional check on the Government and would hopefully result in better quality laws
  • No more race based seats
  • The party vote would still be all important in deciding what laws get passed
  • A 4% threshold for the Senate, which should help keep minor party representation

But here are what I see as the drawbacks:

  • Electorate seats go from useful for a party to vital – you win the most electorates and you get to be Government. This may encourage pork barrel politics for marginal electorates and also makes the boundary drawing process of supreme importance – who wins Govt may come down to who has the best rep on the Boundaries Commission, rather than popular appeal.
  • While it will be popular, I don’t like the decrease in MPs from 120 to 110. I would go for an 80/40 split or ideally (this will be really unpopular a 90/50 (we should have 140 MPs under the cube root rule of thumb).
  • A possible lack of diversity in the House. CIS argue that the recent increases in diversity is not just due to MMP, but having followed National Party selections for some decades, I know there are considerable obstacles in many seats, for woman candidates to get selected. Having said that, it is getting better – National has ten female electorate MPs to Labour’s six.
  • The potential for stand off between House and Senate. This should not happen often, as the PM should negotiate a coalition that has a majority in both Houses, but not always possible. One could end up with a lost more elections.
  • There may be issues of legitimacy over a Government that wins the most electorate seats but trails their opponent on the party vote. For example we may see this in the UK where Gordon Brown may win more seats than David Cameron and remain PM, even if Cameron’s party gets 5% more votes.

I think this would have been an excellent option for reform in the 1990s. I’m not sure how much salience it will have today though. However it is good to have the contribution to the debate, as it should just just be a debate on FPP vs MMP vs SM.

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