Once upon a time, New Zealand’s Parliament looked quite different.
Instead of having just one chamber of Parliament to debate and make laws, we had two. In 1950, our Upper House, called the Legislative Council, was disbanded, making New Zealand the only country in Australasia to have just one chamber of Parliament.
In a Guest Paper for Maxim Institute, Professor Nicholas Aroney, a Queensland based Constitutional expert, examined what an Upper House can provide, and asked whether having an electoral system like MMP (Mixed Member Proportion) System can provide those same things.
He said that MMP seems to provide some, but not all of the benefits that come with an Upper House.
According to Professor Aroney, Upper Houses are good for democracy for four main reasons: they can provide for quality democratic representation; they allow the public to deliberate over laws; they keep the government accountable; and they slow down the speed of lawmaking.
These factors contribute to a healthy democracy.
With only one Chamber of Parliament, the “diversity of groups” and “shades of opinion” within the state struggle to get as full a voice.
If the Single House is dominated by one Party, there is also less room for accountability and governments can push through laws with little constraint.
When MMP was introduced, one of its intentions was to help correct some of these problems.
MMP provides for a more representative government as it makes Parliament more proportional.
Our Select Committee System means that everybody can participate in the political debate, by making submissions on laws and letting Parliament know what impact a law might have on New Zealanders’ lives.
However, Professor Aroney says that MMP has not been able to substantially improve government accountability.
Minor parties have an incentive to get their own, distinct policies through to assert themselves as important to voters, but they have very little incentive to hold governments to account for their performance more broadly.
In fact, if minor parties want to keep their influence through holding things like Ministerial portfolios, they actually have a “positive incentive to keep the major party in power.”
According to Professor Aroney, the best path to reform would be not just to improve the electoral system but also to undertake reform that is more thorough and look at establishing a second Chamber of Parliament.
This Chamber could be democratically elected and proportional, so that it would look different from our old Legislative Council that was abolished.
It would also allow a balancing of power that could strengthen the quality of our Parliament.*