Last week, the New Zealand Herald ran two pieces about resigning Members of Parliament (MPs). The first was an article by Audrey Young comparing the number of resignations before and after MMP. I think that there are often problems with trying to read anything meaningful into these types of comparisons, not least because of the larger number of MPs under MMP and the fact that MMP provides for both list and electorate MPs that might have different incentives to continue a Parliamentary career. That said, the article reported that there have been 48 vacancies in the first 20 years of MMP, which seems like a lot for a small nation with a small Parliament.
Even if that number is large, so what? That’s where the second piece, an op‑ed by former Clerk of the House of Representatives David McGee, comes in. McGee argued that this number is far too high, and reflects a lack of commitment by those MPs that resign early to the important job of governing the country. As a result, McGee argues that there ought to be consequences for MPs that resign. He put forward two specific proposals – that electorate MPs should pay a bond that they forfeit if they resign, and that if a list MP resigns then the political party they represent should lose a seat in the House.
David McGee is a public lawyer with vastly more experience than I have, especially in the area of Parliamentary practice. I think we ought to take anything he says on these types of matters seriously. At the same time, however, his proposals are challenging because they seem to run against the grain of a number of concepts that are fundamental to the way our democracy works.
First, the ability for politicians to resign is usually understood to be an important accountability mechanism. Politicians do not always cover themselves in glory, and sometimes the people want (metaphorical) blood. Falling on one’s sword in a public manner demonstrates the accountability of the political system to the people at the level of the individual politician, and for that reason alone I would be hesitant to put anything in the way that would prevent or inhibit political resignations.
But of course, the idea that political resignations demonstrate accountability only works if politics don’t want to resign in the first place. McGee’s view suggest that political resignations simply aren’t the big deal they are supposed to be. If this is true, then it raises much broader questions about the effectiveness of our political accountability mechanisms. I for one would be very keen to here McGee’s views on that broader point.
Second, I found the idea of political parties losing a seat in the House on the resignation of a list MP particularly interesting because it directly contradicts the representative nature of the House as determined on election day. MMP is a system based on proportional representation, which (in my view, at least) offers a very high level of democratic accountability because it reflects the views of the electorate about as closely as any real-world voting system can. (Incidentally, it is helped significantly in this respect by our relatively frequent national elections which ensure that the views of the people are undated regularly). McGee’s proposal that a resigning list MP would result in a political party losing a seat in the House would interfere with that representativeness.
It would take a lot to convince me that this outcome was justified, but as a public lawyer what I hear McGee saying here is that perhaps representativeness isn’t the only thing we should be considering here. We also need to think about the effectiveness of Parliament and the incentives on those political parties and individual politicians that make it up. So, in some circumstances, we might find it beneficial as a country to compromise a little on representativeness to ensure that there are appropriate incentives for the task of government to be taken seriously.
I was a little disappointed that McGee didn’t look at any of these deeper issues more closely. But his ideas are still intriguing. If we take democratic government seriously we should never stop thinking about possible shortcomings and how we might fix them.