06 June 2013

Electoral Matters

This post is part of my submission to the 'constitutional conversation'.

How many members of Parliament should we have?
 There is no formula for answering this question. But I see no compelling reason to change the number at present. As the population grows, however, we need the option of increasing the number of members. If not, the alternative is either to increase the population-size of electorates (so as to limit their numbers), or to see the proportionality of parliaments decline (as the number of list seats reduces). A written constitution could provide a mechanism for rationally deciding on the number of MPs in future.

How long should the term of Parliament be?
 The public debate appears to be mainly around the options of either 3 or 4 years. In a unicameral system with minority governments, three years makes more sense, as it allows for more frequent democratic mandates and reduces the risk of governments losing confidence-votes and hence of early elections.

How should the election date be decided?
 It should not be the prerogative of the Prime Minister to decide on the election date (within the three-year maximum), as this gives the incumbent party an unfair political advantage and a constitutional power that is not strictly theirs to wield. Election-dates should be fixed – unless a government loses a vote of no-confidence or the Governor-General is forced for some other reason to dismiss a government before the fixed term is up.

What factors should be taken into account when the size and number of electorates are decided?
 As MMP has been reconfirmed by the 2011 referendum, then proportionality must be an overriding factor. The ability of citizens to approach their electorate MP in person is also important, and so the physical size and population of electorates should be taken into account. In as much as possible, electorate boundaries should reflect the geographic integrity of local communities.

What should happen if a member of Parliament parts ways with the party from which he or she was elected?
 See my earlier post on this topic in relation to one recent case.
 It does matter whether the MP is a list or an electorate member. If an electorate member, then, even though that member’s mandate to sit in the House comes on the back of his or her membership of a political party and is not purely a personal mandate, the member was personally elected and retains his or her seat. If it’s a list MP, then there is a stronger argument to say that the member should resign from parliament and be replaced by the person next on the party list.
 A defection from a party can adversely affect the party’s hard-earned proportionality in the House. And an independent member in the House may be less than effective and may or may not vote in line with his/her former party. This is unfair on the party that brought them into parliament in the first place.
 On the other hand, there is a concern that party leaders could use the threat of expulsion from caucus, and hence expulsion from parliament altogether, as an undemocratic means of silencing dissent. The public can, of course, make up their own minds about this and render their judgement on that party’s behaviour at the next election.
 On balance, then, list MPs who part ways (for whatever reason) from their party should automatically lose their seats in the House, to be replaced by the next in line on the party list.
 This should not apply to electorate MPs, however, as we are not able to judge to what extent their local-electorate victory was due to a personal following, or to a party affiliation. Either way, voters in the electorate have voted for that named individual to represent their electorate. Hence that MP’s party membership is not their sole claim on the seat.


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