New Zealanders should debate on bicameral legislature

New Zealanders should debate on bicameral legislature
Balaji Chandramohan

New Delhi, July 12, 2020

As  the election debates pick up in New Zealand and the United States, it is appropriate to discuss how democratic values are upheld and how the game is played by the parties and candidates concerned.

In any functioning democracy, there must be a perfect balance between Legislature, Executive and Judiciary for a perfect symphony.

Such a symphony would be possible only if elections are conducted periodically in a free and fair manner while the system is truly representative.

Distinct styles of democracy

Countries which follow Westminster style of democracy such as India, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Cook Islands have their own distinct style of how representatives are elected for their legislatures.

India and Cook Islands follow simple First Past Post System (FPP) whereas New Zealand opted for the complex Mixed Member Proportion System.

India, with a vast electorate follows FPP for its 543 seats in the Lower House (Lok Sabha) of Parliament, and Cook Islands, with just 24 members, elects representative from a single-member constituencies.

One of the important debates on FPP in the Westminster system was held in 2010 in the lead up and after the British General elections.  

As an extension of the compromise reached between the Conservatives and Liberals, a Referendum on FPP and the Alternative Voting System (AVS) was mooted.

Arguments for FPP

As predicted, 68% of those who took part in the Referendum said no to AVS and preferred happy to have the current status quo with a no to the AVS. The argument in favour of FPP, claimed to be the second most widely used system in the world, is that it is simple, easy to understand, relatively cheaper to administer, does not take long to count votes and produces a clear winner.

The AVS comes with its negatives.

As Britain’s war-time Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill said, “AVS allows democracy to be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates.”

People are against FPP say that it leads  to ‘elected dictatorship.’

Post- World War II democratic regimes including the USA and UK wanted to retain maximum power with the Executive which was to form much of the policies during the World War II.

This knowledge was passed on to other democratic countries such as New Zealand, Canada, and India, each making changes to suit their political and social environment.

In this context, the FPP also makes more sense for an Executive, which at times prevails over the Legislature when a larger party starts to maintain the status quo in the relationship. In many ways, the system also removes active inter-party democracy as manifested in the case of India or Cook Islands.

With no list Members of Parliament, this does not augur well for multicultural societies.

The New Zealand system

Every electoral system comes with its positives and negatives; however the country in which the electoral system is followed needs to be understood.

In New Zealand, it is difficult to know where the people stand. From 1914 to 1996, when the FPP was the system, two major parties dominated the political spectrum- National and Labour.

New Zealand Parliament today (Single Chamber)

Since the advent of the MMP system, fringe parties started dominating the political spectrum.

On the other hand, critics of MMP in New Zealand have dismissed it as “more meddlesome parties,” holding National and Labour to ransom on some issues.

However, it is not the fringe party’s domination which is more important.

With New Zealand being an immigrant receptive society with more immigration likely to be from Asian societies than from Europe, coupled with the fact that it will also an increasing number of Pacific Islanders, not to forget Maori.

It is important for these societies to finding voices representing them in the political process. 

New Zealand saw the vagaries of FPP in the 1978 and 1981 general elections. While Labour won more votes than National, the latter could muster more seats in the Parliament and remain in power.

The scene in the 1950s

If New Zealand returns to FPP, debates for an Upper House to control the legislature will start again.

Earlier, proposals were mooted in New Zealand as it wanted to have a second chamber balancing the problems related to the FPP.

The last meeting of the Legislative Council (Upper House) in December 1950 (Alexander Turnbull Library)

The Sidney Holland National Government (December 13, 1949 to September 20, 1957) set up a Constitutional Reform Committee in September 1950 (following the abolition of the Upper House) to consider an alternative second chamber.

Chaired by National Leader Ronald Algie, the Committee recommended a nominated Senate with 32 members appointed by leaders of the parties in the House of Representatives, in accordance with their strength. The Senators were to serve three year-terms, and be eligible for reappointment.

The Senate would have the power to revise, initiate or delay legislation, to hear petitions, and scrutinise regulations and Orders.

But the proposals were rejected by both by the then Prime Minister and the Labour Party in opposition. It took another 40 years until Jim Bolger’s National Government proposed the establishment of a directly elected Senate along with the electoral reforms.

Electoral Reforms

A Bill was drafted, envisaging that the Senate would have 30 members, elected by Single Transferable Vote (STV) from New Zealand’s six districts.

It did not see the light of the day and New Zealand decided to opt for MMP instead of the STV and in hindsight, it is understood that New Zealand will debate on the need for the Upper House sometime in the future.

Democracy may not be the perfect form of governance but the alternative not good.

In a similar vein, no system of electoral system may be perfect, but it should reflect the will of a majority of the population.

Balaji Chandramohan is our Correspondent based in New Delhi, India.

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