Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Reduction to the Absurd

This week will see the first reading of a Bill that promises major change. Barbara Stewart's Electoral (Reduction in Number of Members of Parliament) Amendment Bill seeks to do what it says on the label: reduce the number of MPs in Parliament from 120 to 100 by amending the Electoral Act 1993


This Bill will come as much-needed relief to the millions of ordinary hard-working New Zealanders, Kiwi battlers, mums and dads, who lives are blighted by the burden of supporting twenty MPs. It will also help reduce the colossal impact these MPs have on the infrastructure of Wellington, where the roads are frequently blocked by MP jams, cafes and bars are filled to overflowing with MPs, and power and water supplies are under constant threat from MP overloads.

Or something like that. It is very difficult to find out what this Bill will achieve. Ms Stewart does not seem to know, as this illuminating interview with Scoop shows. One hundred is a nice round number, which will no doubt be of comfort to members of the anal-retentive community. Passing the Bill will also respond to the People's Voice, which spoke in the referendum of 1999 and demanded a reduction in the number of Parliamentarians. Political scientists will remember 1999 as the annus idioticus, in which two stupid referenda were put before the electorate: this one and the other one, which demanded that the problem of crime be stamped out by combining retribution, restitution and restoration, or something along those lines. I was one of the tiny handful of people who voted against these measures, as well as casting Labour's vote in Remuera; I felt very alone that day.

Still, they were passed and by Albanian-sized majorities. Perhaps Parliament should respond and send some of its members home at the next election; or perhaps not. Ms Stewart thinks that twenty fewer MPs will be more representative. One can see what we rhetoricians call a reductio ad absurdum looming on the horizon here: if 100 is more representative than 120, then Fifty will be more representative still and One would be the perfect state of representation.

What Ms Stewart does not seem to understand is our MMP system. She wants to reduce the number of List MPs rather than redrawing the electoral boundaries and removing constituency seats. We have the List MPs so that Parliament will be representative: any party which passes the threshold of five percent of the votes cast will be proportionately represented in Parliament: for example a party that gets twenty percent of the votes has twenty percent of the seats, made up of the constituency seats it wins in its own right and List seats added to make the proportions representative. It's not that difficult to grasp. Contrast this with bad old Britain, where the charming and cuddly Liberal Democrats never get the representation they deserve, because all that counts is winning constituency seats. Labour and the Tories get most of these and all the Lib Dem votes in those constituencies are wasted.

Consider also that New Zealand, unlike most democracies, has only one chamber, the House of Representatives. Most have two and many have federal systems with state assemblies, like Australia and the USA. We are hardly over-represented.

If Ms Stewart's explanations of her Bill are not unconvincing enough, consider as well that she intends to retain the Maori seats, thus gaining the support of the Maori-Tory Party. Leaving aside all concerns of fairness, history and avoiding blood on the streets, the Maori seats surely are the ones that should go first in any reduction. They are effectively a duplication of mainstream seats, since voters can choose to be on either the General or Maori electoral rolls. You don't have to be Maori, but it helps. If a management consultant were in charge of a parliamentary restructuring exercise, the Maori seats would be gone by lunchtime.

It is List seats that will suffer. Which is all very rum. As the aptly-named Kevin List points out in the Scoop interview, Ms Stewart's party, New Zealand First, is a beneficiary of the List system. Her party doesn't have enough support concentrated in any one area to get a regular seat, not since Tauranga was lost. However, the elderly and bigoted still have a voice in Parliament, thanks to new and improved MMP.

So, if the Bill's proposer cannot justify it with any reasoned arguments and if it goes against the apparent interest of her own party, what can be the reasoning behind this measure? Ms Stewart gave the game away when talking to Scoop: it has had a good response from talkback callers. This is Talkback Politics at its finest. Under the thin surface of Ms Stewart's great idea lie the murky depths of muttered discontent, the domain of the Angry White Male. All those seething resentments mouthed by the sad gits who waste time calling some of the country's worst radio shows are encapsulated in this Bill. It probably won't get passed but that only goes to show how corrupt that lot in the Beehive are, doesn't it? They are only concerned about their perks and their pensions; and they would take the shirts of the backs of ordinary hard-working Kiwi battlers to feather their own nests.

Perhaps they have a point. If Parliament really can find the time to hear this sort of nonsense, then maybe it is over-staffed. On the other hand, maybe it will just hold up more important and better thought-out legislation which might just do some good.

Perhaps someone should table a Parliament (Wasting Everyone's Time) Amendment Act.