Monday, September 26, 2011

Steve Baron: New Zealand's Upper House of Parliament: Time to re-establish?

When the National Party came to power in 1949 it implemented an election policy to have the Upper House of parliament removed and in 1951 it ceased to exist—New Zealand became a unicameral parliament. This came about because during the first Labour government of 1935-1949, the Upper House had become markedly supportive of Labour and therefore seemed superfluous.

There was little opposition to its removal because Prime Minister Sidney Holland had promised to search for a better type of Upper House. This never eventuated because of a perceived ineffectiveness of the Upper House and over time other parliamentary tools were initiated to constrain the abuse of power (at least to some extent).

The unicameral system has, however, caused a concentration of power in the Cabinet where legislation is decided upon almost at will, although the introduction of the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system and subsequent coalition governments since 1996 have slightly reduced this concentration of power.

Other small countries have also removed their Upper House. Denmark in 1953 (population 5.2 million), Sweden in 1970 (population 8.7 million) and Iceland in 1991 (population 300,000). According to the IPU Inter-Parliamentary Union the world parliamentary system split is 114 unicameral (59.38%) and 78 bicameral (40.63%). The OECD which includes 43 countries has roughly a 50/50 split, so therefore, New Zealand's unicameral system is not uncommon.

 In New Zealand, members of the Upper House were nominated by the government of the day for 7-year terms with no limit to the number of members. Around the world, members of the Upper House are appointed in many different ways and these upper houses have differing powers. In many federal states like Australia and the USA, the Upper House was designed to represent the regions or states of that country and are often referred to as the Senate. This is always an option for New Zealand with the possibility of having a representative from each region in a New Zealand Senate.

The largest country without a second chamber is Portugal with a population of approximately 10 million. Although smaller countries do tend to have a unicameral system, it must be remembered that China with a population of 1.3 billion people is also unicameral.

The goal of an Upper House is to represent different interests from those of the House of Representatives (Lower House/General Assembly). The Upper House's role is to revise and scrutinise legislation coming from the House of Representatives and acts as a check and balance, perhaps even ensuring the protection against 'tyranny of the majority'. It also has the ability to further delay or block controversial legislation as opposition parties try to do in the House of Representatives.

The Upper House is often more independent from the General Assembly if it is directly elected. One major problem with a second chamber is that of gridlock and ineffectiveness, as when one chamber is more powerful than the other or almost identical to each other.

One positive argument for an upper house is that it leads to more consensus government. It could also be argued that in a small country like New Zealand, it just isn't necessary to have an upper house of parliament. But that does mean one less check and balance and if we do not have such a check and balance what other alternatives are there?

Perhaps a simple and effective answer is the Veto referendum, a direct democracy tool. A Veto referendum (Facultative or optional referendum in Switzerland) is when new laws, or changes to laws which have been passed by parliament, can be subject to a referendum if the required number of citizens demand it. The new law becomes effective if the majority of the votes were in favour of it. It is worth noting that of the more than 2,200 laws passed by the Swiss parliament since 1874, only 7% have been subjected to a Veto referendum. 

As a Critical Theorist, like Horkheimer, I also seek “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” Any political tool that gives citizens more control over our political process must, is in my view, be good for society. Our long established political methods and concepts must not simply be taken for granted, but need to be subjected to rigorous thought and appraisal on a regular basis.


Kiwiwit said...

In my opinion it isn't a lack of representation that is the problem in New Zealand but the lack of constitutional checks on the power to legislate. A constitution that limits the role and power of government and protects individual rights is the best foil against an otherwise unfettered legislature.

Anonymous said...

The problem is clear: representation without taxation

The less-than-10% of taxpayers who pay for everyone else have no real representation in NZ. The "upper house" - or Don Brash's "fiscal council" needs to be in charge of taxation and spending, and must be representation of those who provide the money - the productive, high-worth, high-value Kiwis - the upper levels of society if you will.

Upper House had become markedly supportive of Labour

RIght. and that's the problem! With beneficiaries and civil servants able to vote (doctors teachers nurses etc etc) the general roll can never reflect those who pay for NZ. An upper house, selected on the basis of productive contribution to the economy - could do just that and would never become supportive of Labour!

Anonymous said...

Population - 123rd 0f 196.
Area - 75th.
Economy - 53rd.
Gross National Happiness - 8th.
GDP per capita - 30th.
GDP growth - 132nd of 224.
External debt - 52nd.

Where does the author get this odd and oft repeated notion that Neu Zillin is a "small" country?