A case for more MPs?

One of my kids is quite sympathetic to ACT.  So when the news emerged yesterday that ACT was adopting NZ First policy, and calling for a reduction in the size of Parliament to 120 MPs, we had a bit of a chat and I offered a few alternative perspectives.

One of those alternative perspectives is captured in this nice chart from a Czech mathematican and blogger.

parliament-per-capita

New Zealand has 120 MPs and a population of 4.9 million.  In other words, 24.5 members of Parliament per million people (a number that is dropping quite steadily given our relatively rapid population increase –  in 1993 when MMP was voted in, 120 MPs was equivalent to about 33 MPs per million people).

Look at that Europe chart, which helpfully includes numbers for some of the very small countries.

Of the large democratic countries (Spain, France, UK,  Italy Germany, Poland), the average number of members of Parliament (upper and lower house) is about 15 (and even that number is skewed up by the part-timers in the House of Lords),  Ukraine, Russia and Turkey –  big countries, if not always terribly democratic –  also have a small number of MPs per capita.

And what of the very small countries?   Iceland, Luxembourg, Andorra, Malta, Montenegro, Cyprus.  Among those countries, the median number of members of Parliament per million people is over 100.

And what of countries very close to New Zealand in size?  There are six EU countries with between four and six million people.  Here are the number of members of Parliament per million people in each of them, as per the chart above

Denmark                            32

Finland                               37

Slovakia                             28

Norway                              33

Ireland                               49

Croatia                               36

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point.   Big countries have lots fewer members of parliament per capita than very small countries, and of the advanced European countries around our size all have more MPs per capita than we do.   There are outliers and exceptions of course  –  among advanced countries Israel (also with 120 MPs and more people than we have) is one.   But I suspect ACT and NZ First would struggle to find a useful cross-country metric that suggested we had too many MPs.    And unlike most of the larger countries, we don’t have federal system, so there are no state-level MPs.  And there is no second (reviewing) chamber.

It seems perfectly sensible to expect that the number of MPs per capita will be diminishing quite a bit with population.  There are economies of scale to many of the more critical functions we expect from our members of Parliament.  In fact, the same goes for many central government functions (central banks, diplomatic services, supreme court and so on).

You might think that there are too many minister and under-secretaries –  something I do agree with ACT on  –  but even Mr Seymour’s proposal of 20 would give us a ministry about the same size as the Cabinet in the United States or the United Kingdom.   There are certain number of jobs that need doing even if you are a small state.  Just as local councils in towns of 20000 people still have many of the same functions as the Auckland council.

But staffing the executive ministerial roles probably isn’t the most important role of Parliament.   At least as important is the challenge and critical scrutiny that MPs can and should provide on legislation, on the performance of ministers, and on the performance of government agencies  (there are, inevitably –  and even in Mr Seymour’s small government world –  many of them, through which all-too extensive powers are exercised).

In particular there is the work of select committees.   Select committees in New Zealand are poorly resourced, but even members of select committees are typically spread very thinly.  Scrutiny – whether of proposed legislation or of ministerial/agency performance –  doesn’t happen with anything like the regular depth or intensity it should.  And that isn’t because individual MPs are slackers –  most appear to work excruciatingly long hours.

Add in issues around competence and incentives and it reinforces the case that we have barely enough MPs.   Of 120 MPs, inevitably some will be duds –  people who got on the list, or won local selection, for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to be effective legislators, or those holding the executive to account.  Likeability, or to keep someone else out.  Fundraising or ticking diversity quotas, for example.  Others linger beyond their use-by date.  (None of this makes Parliament necessarily much different from many other workplaces.)

On the government side, senior roles on important select committees are typically filled by people who are (a) well-regarded by their seniors, and (b) on the fast-track into the ministry itself.  Not a recipe for consistent critical scrutiny.   The chair of the Finance and Expenditure Committe used to be such a role –  now made worse in that both the chair and deputy chair this term are already under-secretaries, and even less likely to want to make life awkward for their colleagues.   Things are different on the Opposition side (making life difficult for the government is a big part of your reason for being), but parties typically get into Opposition after losing an election –  at which point, from both the individual and the party, there is pressure for turnover, and so a lot of experience is lost.   We don’t have much of a hinterland of people who either were ministers and are so no longer, and have been content to find a niche as, say, a select committee chair, bringing experience and a not-much-to-lose perspective to bear including in holding their own senior colleagues to account (as seems to happen in, for example, the UK).   We seem to have a Parliament of people for most of whom being a minister is the focus of ambition.   And with 120 MPs, that is realistic ambition for many/most.    I’d argue that what we need is more able people who want to be very good select committee operators, and perhaps even compelling speakers in the House itself.

Perhaps there are other papers, but in a quick look I found a piece from 2007 looking at the cross-country relationship between population and number of MPs.   The authors find a power law –  number of MPs per capita diminishing with population –  holds, and end up classifying countries into five groups, one of which includes New Zealand

The nations with abnormally sub-optimal representations: Israel, New Zealand, the Netherlands and above all, the USA. Nations in the last group are all close to a ratio of 65% of their optimal representation level.

As I noted, when MMP was voted for it involved 33 MPs per million people.  In 1951, after getting rid of the Legislative Council, we had 80 MPs ( 42 MPs per million people).  Even allowing for some economies of scale, it is far from clear that there is a credible case for reducing the number of MPs, even if (and here I sympathise with Mr Seymour) one did favour less regulation, less legislation, and a smaller role for government.

None of which is to defend our MPs from the generally appalling job they have done for decades, presiding over our steady relative economic decline (and the many other failures people could list according to taste).  But demolishing one wing of the house –  chopping out 20 MPs –  isn’t going to fix that problem.

12 thoughts on “A case for more MPs?

  1. Michael
    ACT tend to believe that “less is more” with regards to everything to do with Government. However, their efforts to reduce the number of MPs is fundamentally flawed. 99% of government is “done” by unelected officials. We (the people) need the 1% who we elect to govern the 99% we don’t elect. Anything which diminished the capability of parliament to do its job is a bad thing.
    I recently presented to a select committee. Listening to the MPs go through Q&A before it was my turn and then when it was my turn, it was obvious that 2 or 3 of the 9 or 10 MPs were engaged (in quite a complex and specialist field) and 6 to 8 were not.
    I have previously presented to select committees where none of the MPs knew what the legislation was about. I’m grateful for the 2 or 3 this time who were informed.
    Shrinking the number of MPs will not help raise the average IQ or capability of parliament. Its foolish to assume that reducing the numbers will somehow reduce the number of ineffectual members.
    In general I feel, from my experience, that MPs do a very difficult job, with ridiculously few resources.
    If we want parliament to do a better job, we should pay them more and provide all MPs with larger budgets for research and other assistance.
    Tim

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  2. I personally find it outrageous that the Chair and Deputy Chair of the finance and Expenditure Committee are Undersecretaries, even if they aren’t undersecretaries of Finance (although one is Economic Development Undersecretary). While you could make the argument that you want to put the candidates with the most potential in positions where they can gain valuable experience, you can also argue that they are in some ways compromised, and select committee is not the place for training wheels. (Undersecretaries are also not just awarded to the most competent, more the most ambitious or leadable). There should be at least one opposition MP as Chair or co-chair of the committee, but as you point out, the MPs are stretched.

    Seems like a good case for more MPs to me.

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    • If we are going to play around with number of MP’s I would rather spend that energy on reducing the 5% party vote threshold to something more like 2 to 3%. If a party can convince 50,000 to 80,000 people to vote for them in the party vote then this should be represented in parliament, that number is also more aligned with the number of votes needed to be represented in parliament via the electorate vote.

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      • I’d go the full way. If you can convince 0.8% of the population (1/120th) of the voters, you should get a seat.

        (I’m an FPP person myself, but since we have MMP for now lets do it properly.)

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      • I am all for the reduction to a threshold at 3%.
        One benefit would be to take the concern away for both NZF and Greens as to whether they can be returned.
        That would make their policies less dramatic (maybe less loopy?) and coalition policies more inclusive.
        Let us first get started on CITIZENS ONLY votes which makes the China interference, be it by money or personnel, for one less available.

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      • The optimum threshold is between 3 and 4%, at the current level of 120 MPs I’d suggest 3.4%.

        Parliaments that have too many parties (the Netherlands and Israel come to mind) have just as many problems as parliaments with too few. Ideally there shouldn’t be more than 7 parties in a parliament and there should never be fewer than 3. In fact I’d go as far as to say if more than 7 or fewer than 3 parties would get in then the threshold should be ignored to so that only the 7 biggest get in and vice versa.

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  3. The optimum number of MPs for NZ is 167. This is found by taking the third root of the population.

    New Zealand should raise the number of MPs to 150 and then “promote out” 20 to full time cabinet positions giving a total of 170. That is what Norway does; Norway’s Storting is the best designed parliament in the world.

    There should be an option on the ballot to vote for an empty seat instead of a party, that is to say, depending on how many votes accrue to the empty seat option then the corresponding number of seats will be unfilled for that term. This is a good option for people who just hate politicians in general.

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  4. I don’t think you mention it but it also depends on how many powers are devolved, eg Germany which a lot of the decisions/power are at state level. It would be interesting to do the calculations, in NZ terms, including MPs and local councillors. Agree with the overall message, though.

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  5. Interesting article about quantity. What about quality? Mow many have done a job involving sweating? How many didn’t attend university (that is a positive for me). How many studied a hard science or are engineers? How many owned or ran a business that employed staff?

    Bill English shearing a sheep made a great impression on me. As you say we lose too many experienced MPs. In the UK Ted Heath hung around doing little good but today the NZ parliament would almost certainly be better with Helen Clark, Michael Cullen and Bill English on the back benches – just their presence would help focus the minds of our young MPs.

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