Report urges more MPs and new select committees

Parliament should increase the number of MPs and shake up its select committees, according to a new report. 

A report has proposed increasing the size of Parliament, shrinking select committees and breaking the Government’s stranglehold on chairing committees as part of a triennial shake-up of the way Parliament functions.

The report also proposes a new “Committee of the Future” to examine Iong-term issues.

Every three years, Parliament reviews the rules by which it operates, known as standing orders. A bipartisan committee, made up of a member of every party in Parliament, reviews the rules and decides on whether or not they should be changed.

A report from Victoria University of Wellington’s Institute of Government and Policy Studies, written with contributions from the Clerk of the House as well as several submissions from MPs, has provided them some options for reform.

Some of its larger proposals go beyond just standing orders, such as increasing the size of Parliament which would would require legislative change and a likely referendum.

One of the report's main concerns is the size of the legislature, which is relatively small compared to other similarly sized democracies like Denmark, Finland, and Ireland.

The report says that while select committees were adept at scrutinising legislation, other areas escaped attention due to a lack of resourcing and less political imperative to delve into issues that might not yield reward at the ballot box.

To that end, it proposes looking at the way select committee chairs are allocated. Currently, the Government is able to easily dominate select committees by having most of the chairs appointed from their own party. The report proposes allocating chairs on a proportional basis, as in the United Kingdom.

While the governing parties would still enjoy a majority on most committees, changing the composition of the chairs could result in better scrutiny of the executive, as chairs selected by the Opposition might have greater motivation to examine issues that would put further scrutiny on the Government. 

Professor Jonathan Boston, one of the paper’s authors, said that changing up the way chairs were allocated would encourage greater scrutiny. 

“Chairs can exercise their roles in ways that facilitate more extensive scrutiny than might otherwise be the case,” Boston said. 

Parliament's size should be increased so the Government can be properly held to account, a new report says. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The report also proposes establishing one or two new committees: a "Committee of the Future" that would have the opportunity to look at how the country was responding to long-term challenges, and a governance committee that would look at “all matters of governance”.

However, that would require some committees to shrink in size, from roughly eight to 13 members to having seven to nine members.

Boston suggested the committees could be chaired by opposition MPs as they would look into controversial long-term issues. 

The wider issue raised by the report is the pressure Parliament was under to appropriately scrutinise the Government. It is both too small, and committees to poorly resourced, to do this job well, the authors say. 

“The idea from my perspective would be to have a larger Parliament,” Boston said. 

The 1986 Royal Commission into the electoral system recommended increasing Parliament to 120 MPs, although it stated its preferred size would be 140 MPs. Since MMP was introduced, the number of citizens represented by each MP has increased by roughly a third.

There are also fears for the proportionality of MMP itself. Currently it is possible to add new electorate seats to Parliament without adding to the total number of MPs. This is done by adding new electorate seats at the expense of list seats. This has seen the total number of list MPs shrink from 55 in 1996 to 49 now. The report notes concerns that at some point, this is likely to affect the proportionality of Parliament more generally.

The system functions at the moment because while electorate seats don’t always reflect the percentage of votes cast, a party’s tally of electorate seats is topped up with a number of list seats until the composition of the House is in proportion to the number of party votes cast.

However, voter support for increasing the size of Parliament has never been particularly strong, New Zealand First campaigned on reducing the number of MPs to 100 in 2017, and ACT leader David Seymour currently has a bill in the member’s ballot that would also shrink the size of Parliament to 100 MPs. 

Any changes to standing orders will be reviewed later this year and take effect after the next Parliament sits in 2020. The committee reviewing the rules has not yet been put together but is likely to include Leader of the House Chris Hipkins, shadow leader Gerry Brownlee and representatives from the other parties. 

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