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Dr Muriel Newman

Does NZ Need an Upper House?

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The Prime Minister has announced that the Government is planning to hold the long-awaited referendum on our MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) electoral system before or at the same time as the 2011 general election. This was a National Party election promise based on the widely held view that voters were going to be given a chance to review MMP after a suitable trial period.

In spite of the perception that another referendum was going to be held, what the 1993 Electoral Act – under which MMP was established – actually provided for was a review by a Select Committee of Parliament before June 2002. However, in setting up the review committee in April 2000, then Prime Minister Helen Clark gave clear instructions that the committee was only to make recommendations if they were based on unanimous or near unanimous decisions. As could have been predicted, the Committee was unable to agree on whether another referendum on MMP was called for!

While MMP has undoubtedly delivered greater representation of minority groups into Parliament than FPP (First Past the Post), many people have become increasingly concerned that this has come at the expense of democracy. Under MMP, while the 70 MPs elected to represent the 63 general seats and 7 Maori seats, are directly accountable to voters, there are 50 List MPs who are accountable only to their party bosses. This can lead to the bizarre situation where an MP, who has effectively been “sacked” by their electorate, can reappear in Parliament as a List Member, instead of being tossed out.

The crucial question, however, is what should replace MMP if voters agree that it is time for a change? Do we want to go back to FPP or should we look at other options?

There is no doubt, that during times when highly contentious laws have been marching their way through the House, the merit of having an Upper House to act as a watchdog on Parliament has sprung to mind. New Zealand, of course, used to have an Upper House of Parliament called the Legislative Council. Based on the British House of Lords, it was intended to prevent Parliament from passing laws too quickly. The Legislative Council was established by the New Zealand Constitution Act in 1852 in conjunction with the House of Representatives. But while House of Representatives MPs were elected, members of the Legislative Council were appointed by the Crown. This left the Upper House vulnerable to “capture” by political parties, but rather than reforming the system so that members of the Upper House were elected rather than appointed, in 1951 it was dissolved.

An Upper House of Parliament that is extremely effective as a “house of review and a powerful check on the government of the day” is the Australian Senate. With an equal number of representatives from each Australian State, the Senate ensures that the views of less populous regions of Australia are not neglected. Further, the system of voting makes it easier for independents and candidates from smaller parties to be elected, as well as ensuring that no votes are wasted.[1]

Senators are elected using proportional representation voting, which is designed to elect several candidates in each state, each of whom has obtained a number of votes equal to or exceeding a specified quota. The quota is determined by dividing the total number of votes by one more than the number of candidates to be elected, and adding one to the result. For example, if the total of votes in a state at an election for six senators is 700,000, the quota is 100,001. Thus, a candidate would need to win at least 100,001 votes to be elected.

Candidates, who receive votes in excess of the quota, have their surplus votes distributed according to their electors’ ranking of preferences. If all the positions have not then been filled by candidates obtaining quotas by this means, then the next preferences of the voters for the least successful candidates are distributed, until all vacancies are filled by candidates obtaining quotas.

In comparison, the preferential voting system used for the Australian House of Representatives is similar to STV (Single Transferable Vote): if no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of first preference votes, the next preferences of the voters for the least successful candidates are distributed until one candidate emerges with a majority of votes.

Under Australia’s voting system, all Parliamentary Representatives are elected by Australian voters, not appointed by Party bosses. Further, their system ensures that all regions of the country are well represented and that minor parties and independents are able to be elected. However, it is the watchdog role of the Senate that deserves special consideration.

This week’s Guest Commentator is Australian Senator Steve Fielding. With a background in engineering and business – including a three year stint working in New Zealand – Senator Fielding was one of the Senators responsible for defeating the Rudd Government’s Emissions Trading Scheme. In his article Who Holds the New Zealand Government to Account? Senator Fielding explains what happened:

“One of the most significant pieces of legislation I have voted on to date is the government’s emissions trading scheme (ETS), introduced last month to reduce Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions. What the ETS really is, is a multi-billion dollar tax on businesses and on Australian working families. This tax will need to be paid by someone and it will be millions of ordinary Australians who will end up footing the bill. It will hurt industries across the entire economy and lead to thousands of hard-working Australians losing their jobs in the middle of a global recession. And all of this could occur because of policy being rushed through parliament before we know what the rest of the world is doing at Copenhagen later this year. I also have concerns about what is actually driving climate change.

“You see, until recently I like most people simply accepted without question the notion that climate change was a result of increased carbon dioxide emissions. That was until somebody asked me a question I could not answer. When I was told that carbon dioxide emissions have gone up rapidly since 1995 but global temperatures have not increased as predicted, I was left dumbfounded. How could I, as a Federal Senator, vote for legislation that will carry with it such a high price yet not answer such a simple question?

“I met with the government and asked them three simple questions that I believe went to the heart of the climate change debate. Three questions which I believed needed to be answered if they expected me to vote in support of their legislation. Three questions which remain unanswered to a satisfactory level”.

The three questions Stephen asked are firstly, is it the case that CO2 increased by 5 percent since 1998 whilst global temperature cooled over the same period? If so, why did the temperature not increase; and how can human emissions be to blame for dangerous levels of warming? Secondly, is it the case that the rate and magnitude of warming between 1979 and 1998 was not unusual in either rate or magnitude as compared with warmings that have occurred earlier in the Earth’s history? If so, why is it perceived to have been caused by human CO2 emissions; and, in any event, why is warming a problem if the Earth has experienced similar warmings in the past? And thirdly, is it the case that all GCM computer models projected a steady increase in temperature for the period 1990-2008, whereas in fact there were only 8 years of warming were followed by 10 years of stasis and cooling? If so, why is it assumed that long-term climate projections by the same models are suitable as a basis for public policy making?[2]

In his article Senator Fielding explains that since the government could not answer these questions satisfactorily – and nor would Al Gore when he visited Australia in July – then there was no justification for introducing an ETS, which he believes is “the biggest economic decision” in Australia’s history. He therefore voted against the climate change bill and will continue to fight it when it is re-introduced later this year.

Given that the National Party also intends to push through their Emissions Trading legislation before the United Nations global warming meeting in Copenhagen in December, don’t we need an Upper House to protect us from such recklessness? After all, as each day goes by more and more doubts emerge about the pseudo-science published by the United Nations upon which New Zealand’s future now rests – given the National Party’s blind reliance on their propaganda. Further, where is the pressure on the National Party to produce their promised “high quality, quantified, regulatory impact analysis”, which should have been used to clearly spell out the full costs of their proposed multi-billion tax on business and families – especially as it will cause many thousands of hard working New Zealanders to lose their jobs.

Even the Wall Street Journal is incredulous about what is going on in New Zealand describing the recent Select Committee report on the Emissions Trading Scheme as “green PR gone wild”. In their article “New Zealand’s cap-and-trade rationale is a bunch of hot air”, they accuse the government of not only failing to “question the disputed United Nations climate-change assumptions”, but of also failing to “explain the cost to the average Kiwi of taxing every corner of the economy”. They conclude their article by saying that rather than adopting ideas that will make the country poorer, John Key should be focusing on “encouraging strong economic growth to support a vibrant, entrepreneurial society”.[3]

The point is that emissions trading schemes are so complex that most New Zealanders are not aware of the dreadful damage that it will inflict on the country, and without an Upper House of Parliament to protect us from such bad legislation, we are like lambs to the slaughter. In light of that, as we look towards the proposed referendum on MMP, maybe we should be advocating the option of re-installing New Zealand’s Upper House of Parliament. If we increased the number of general electorate seats from 63 to say 70, and had an Upper House of 29 Members elected regionally under a proportional voting system like they do in Australia, then, at the same time, we could reduce the number of MPs back to the more reasonable number of 99!


1. Australian Parliament, Senate Briefs 
2.Questions, response and analysis 
3.Wall Street Journal, Kiwi Carbon Haze