Editorial: NZ operates fine without upper house

He was welcoming a visit by the Speaker of the House, David Carter (pictured). Photo / Mark Mitchell
He was welcoming a visit by the Speaker of the House, David Carter (pictured). Photo / Mark Mitchell

Australian Senator Stephen Parry, who presides over the second chamber of the federal Parliament, thinks New Zealand ought to restore the "upper house" of our Parliament, which was abolished in 1951.

He was welcoming a visit by the Speaker of the House, David Carter, and the Clerk of the House, David Wilson, who were there to observe a Senate estimates hearing in Canberra.

"This could be the road back to them getting a bicameral system," Senator Parry told the hearing. "Let's hope this works."

Let us hope nothing of the kind.

Few New Zealanders are old enough to remember when we had two Houses of Parliament but many are old enough to attest that the upper house seemed not to be missed by the generation that had seen it. From time to time in the decades following its abolition, there were concerns that our system lacked checks on the power of government.

However, a second chamber was seldom the preferred solution.

When the country was eventually determined to reduce the unbridled power of the party with a majority of seats in a single legislature, it chose an electoral system that would make it most unlikely a party could win a majority on its own. Proportional representation allows more parties into Parliament.

Australia uses a form of proportional representation for elections to its second chamber, the Senate, while keeping a "lower" house of single-member electorates that enables the party winning a majority of electorates to form the Government. New Zealand has combined both systems in a single chamber of "mixed member proportional" representation (MMP). The New Zealand system is working better.

That at least is the view of one Australian observer, Terry Barnes, a former senior adviser in the Howard Government, who compared the two countries' politics and quality of government in a contributed opinion piece we published last Friday.

"Australian politics have been an ungovernable mess for years," he wrote. "Gridlock reigns in Canberra. Whether Labor or the Liberal-National coalition, governing parties trying to make even modest reforms and savings are savaged by opponents, and rent by internal political mismanagement and infighting."

Mainly, he blamed the second chamber.

"Oppositions, minor parties and independents who control Australia's Senate are making centrist yet moderately reformist government like New Zealand's almost impossible."

By contrast, he observed, "Even with minority government all but guaranteed under MMP, things still get done in Wellington ... New Zealand's MMP experience shows you don't need a majority to have good government."

He is right. Parties in a second chamber are under no obligation to co-operate for the sake of government, as they are in a single chamber if the system is to work.

New Zealand owes a great deal to the royal commission that devised our electoral system. They have checked power without crippling it.

- NZ Herald

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