Good on New Zealand First's Barbara Stewart for having the gumption to produce a bill to reduce the size of Parliament. Relief, too, that enough National and Maori Party MPs supported it as far as a select committee. At first sight, introducing a bill to implement a measure endorsed in a referendum in 1999 by a majority of 1.3 million votes scarcely seems heroic. More than 81% of voters supported the principle embodied in Stewart's bill. But politicians ignore expressions of public opinion when it suits. They sometimes close ranks against the public. Which is what makes her achievement the greater. However, don't hold your breath that Labour, the Greens and United will put the public's interests first.
In New Zealand's early days, the size of the House increased with the population. As an economy measure in the 1880s they then reduced numbers by 21. In 1902 it was agreed that 80 members were enough to govern us, plus the small number of mostly elderly party hacks who inhabited the toothless Legislative Council until it was abolished in 1950. But as the proportion of voters living in the North Island increased, the South Island kept losing seats, and those that remained grew very large. In 1967 it was decided to freeze the number of southern seats and simply add more in the north as population growth warranted. When I was first elected in 1972 Parliament had 87 MPs. It had expanded to 99 by 1996 when we embarked on the frolic of MMP. It was then that we suddenly became overburdened with 120 MPs and the concept of "overhang" that now gives us 121.
The need to keep adequate representation for the South Island was one good reason for Parliament to grow. The growing tendency in the 1970s to refer bills to select committees was another. The public wanted to shape the finer points in legislation before it turned into concrete. That necessitated more MPs. Speaking for myself, I found select committees hugely informative, an unparalleled opportunity to widen my knowledge in areas I knew nothing about. If it were possible to measure such things, I suspect the public benefited from a slowly expanding House and the increasing scrutiny by select committees.
The sudden lurch into MMP with its two categories of members, and the undemocratic methods of list selection, is another matter altogether. There was no commensurate increase in workloads to warrant the extra 20 MPs. It was a product of the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System that was peopled by other-worldly do-gooders who took little notice of the reservations expressed by those more knowledgeable. Today most of the arguments for a larger House advanced in Chapter 4 of their report look like the triumph of hope over experience. We need a smaller, not a larger executive; there has been no visible improvement in the calibre of MPs with more of them. The reverse, in fact. Nor has there been more independence displayed in caucuses. List MPs are usually the last to display independence. Moreover, while lists have given us a few stars, many have contributed to lowering the overall standard.
Why is Barbara Stewart's bill unlikely to survive? Because some leaders have realised that keeping the number of list MPs high enables them to bring in a Praetorian Guard of supporters to protect their backs. When MMP was first introduced, Labour was resolute that after two elections it would be given a top-to-toe review to see whether the hype promising a better type of politics had eventuated. By the time the select committee convened in 2000 Labour was in office. Several reliable acolytes like Margaret Wilson, Jonathan Hunt, Diane Yates and Ruth Dyson utilised the list system to protect their leader. Now we have Maryann Street too. No time to rock the boat. Sadly, nothing has changed since 2000, just a few faces. The only good thing that can be said about long lists is that there is more diversity among MPs, but the pre-MMP system was moving in that direction anyway. And who can cross their heart and say that ethnicity and gender are a better basis for selection than merit? We want our MPs to make tough decisions. They aren't there for decorative purposes. Sadly, there are too many in Parliament with vested interests in the status quo to listen to Barbara Stewart. What a pity. She deserves better.