McGee on reducing parliamentary resignations

Former Clerk of the House writes:

New Zealand has a three-year term for Parliament. This is short by international standards. Only the United States House of Representatives, at two years, is shorter among major nations.

It is not unreasonable to expect that persons who are elected to Parliament will serve out the full term of this relatively short period. That is, after all, the basis on which they offered themselves for election in the first place.

Yet, increasingly, membership of Parliament for a maximum of three years is seen as being at the convenience of each member perhaps more accurately at that of the member’s party, rather than as an obligation undertaken when elected.

Thus there has been a noticeable tendency for list members who are intending to step down at the next election to resign in the final year of the term (either voluntarily or at the party’s prompting) so as to make way for a candidate who is expected to have an ongoing interest in a parliamentary career.

In this way, for many members, the already short parliamentary term becomes an even shorter one. For every member a parliamentary career is converted into something that one has the ability to leave costlessly in political terms at any time, rather than being a commitment to public service for the life of a parliament.

In my view this is deleterious to the institution of Parliament and to the sense of obligation that members should feel to it.

“New blood” is infused into Parliament at the not infrequent intervals that a general election provides.

It does not require members to retire early to provide it. Members in the final year of a Parliament can and should be expected to contribute to its work for the full term that they have signed up to regardless of their intentions to stand or not at the next election.

Consequently, there should be stronger disincentives both to members and to parties to prevent the early jumping of ship that has become endemic.

In the case of list members, the remedy is quite simple: any vacancy occasioned by resignation should not be filled.

That would certainly stop the resignations.

Not filling such a vacancy would largely eliminate list resignations as they are almost always promoted by the parties themselves.

They would cease to occur if this meant that a party’s votes in Parliament would be permanently reduced.

No way Russel Norman and Kevin Hague would have bailed if the Greens did not get new MPs to replace them.

Electorate members, on the other hand, do represent constituents and it is unacceptable not to full such vacancies.

The present law allowing vacancies arising within six months of a general election to be left unfilled is inherently undemocratic and should not be extended.

But resignations occurring further out from this period need to be discouraged.

Consequently, as a condition of being declared elected, electorate members should be required to enter into a bond to serve through the full term of the parliament.

The amount of the bond would not cover the full cost of a byelection (indeed, that would not be its intention) but it should be sufficiently high to provide a financial disincentive to resignation for the member and for the party backing the member.

Would also be effective. However possibly less so. A by-election costs a party up to $100,000 anyway so if the bond was say $25,000 then it might not be much of a deterrent.

In the case of both list and electorate members, resignation without these consequences would be permitted on health grounds proved to the satisfaction of the Speaker or the Electoral Commission.

Sounds fair.

But there may be ways to game such a system. An MP could take out citizenship of another country (if eligible) and use that as a way to force their departure from Parliament with sanction. Another is if they gain a job as a public servant.

Audrey Young has the numbers on how significant this is:

In the 20 years before MMP began in 1996, there were 14 vacancies – nine caused by resignations of MPs and six by deaths while in office.

In the 20 years since MMP there have been 48 vacancies – 30 of which have been by list MPs resigning, according to data from the Parliamentary Library.

So more than tripled.

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