Should we have more federal MPs?


While it’s not the biggest electoral reform issue on the table (I would consider introducing proportional representation to the House of Representatives much more significant), I’ve been thinking for a while that there is a strong argument for increasing the number of Members of Parliament federally, by adding two extra Senators for each state.

I crunched the ratio of population (including all residents according to Wikipedia) to number of members of the lower house of the national legislature, it came out like this:

  • USA – 703926
  • Australia – 144760
  • Germany – 133648
  • France – 112779
  • Canada – 109140
  • UK – 93808
  • New Zealand – 35766
  • Ireland – 26639

While you would have to exclude the USA as being on a different scale (if the US had a ratio similar to other countries, it would need about 2500 Representatives, which is insane), Australia stands out as the one with the least representation per resident on a federal level.

It would actually be rather easy to increase the number of MPs, by changing legislation to elect 7 Senators per state at each federal election. This would increase the Senate to 88 seats, and would increase the House of Representatives to approximately 172 seats, adding just over 30 representatives to our federal Parliament. This would still give Members of the House of Representatives a larger constituency size than members of either the British or Canadian House of Commons.

The UK and Canada are probably the best comparisons for Australia, with similar systems of government, and similar scales of population, with Australia having one-third of the population of the UK and two-thirds the population of Canada. In comparison the UK will elect 650 MPs at the next election and Canada electing 308 MPs.

While the standard tabloid populist response would tend to be to argue against larger numbers of MPs, I think there are great benefits for increasing the numbers of our representatives to the largest number practical. Considering that the UK, France, Germany and the US all have well over 500 national elected representatives, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to bring Australia’s numbers up to just over 250.

I tend to think that larger number of MPs bring our MPs closer to their electorate. It would mean that more independents could get known in their electorate and have closer links to their community, and have personal links with a larger proportion of their division. A larger House of Representatives would also make it more difficult for major party whips to control backbenchers and give popular local MPs more freedom from their party.

There are other benefits to increasing the number of MPs. The  current anomaly of Tasmania having 5 MHRs despite only having the population for 3 would be reduced, with Tasmania reaching 4.02 quotas. The Northern Territory would no longer hover on the edge of falling to one seat. This would remove the current need for the federal Parliament to guarantee the Northern Territory a second seat, even if it isn’t justified. The ACT would also gain a third seat, reducing the large size of ACT electorates.

Increasing the number of Senators per state to 14 would also reduce the occurence of deadlocked Senate elections. Experts on STV (the Senate voting system) advise against electing an even number of parliamentarians in each constituency.

The current situation gives three quotas to each side on 43%, meaning that large swings very rarely result in a change in the left-right split in each state, being stuck on 3-3 in most elections. This is part of the reason why the Coalition managed to win exactly half the seats in the Senate in 1996 and 2001 despite winning substantially less than 50%. The same effect was replicated in 2004 in all states except Queensland, which meant that the extreme result in Queensland, with the Coalition winning 4 seats, gave them a majority despite not qualifying for a majority in the other eleven state races at the 2001 and 2004 elections.

In contrast, electing 5 or 7 senators per state at each election would mean that one side or the other would win a majority of seats, with the majority seat (the 4th quota when you are electing 7) going to the side winning over 50% of the vote.

As I’ve considered this issue more in-depth, I’m more convinced that Australia should add an extra 2 senators for each state in the near future. It would be possible to do this through legislation, and could be achieved at the same time as the introduction of fixed four-year terms, which is on the Rudd government’s agenda. Indeed, adding an extra tranche of MPs to the Federal Parliament is much easier to pass than extending the parliamentary term to four years. It has now been a quarter-century since the Hawke government added twelve seats to the Senate, bringing up the number of MHRs from approximately 127 to 148 from the 1984 election, and considering all the changes of the last 25 years, perhaps we should do it again today.

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  1. Couldn’t agree with your more Ben, except that I would also add that with this there should also be an increase in Senators for the territories to at least three, but hopefully four. I’m pretty sure that can be done by an act of parliament, although the term limits can’t, meaning all three or four would be elected every election.

  2. This would certainly get the support of independents, Nationals and Greens. Independents need local roots, which are easier with smaller groups. Nationals need more seats to keep the rural seats from continuous merging. Greens need more seats to allow some of the inner city seats to cut down to a core group concentrated enough to elect them.

    By proxy, if this is good for independents and the small parties, it is probably going to be perceived as bad for Labor and Liberal. I can’t think of any good reason why the two main parties would push for this change, and since it is probably going to cost political capital this means it probably isn’t going to happen.

  3. Representation of the territories in Parliament is solely a matter for the parliament. See section 122.

    Parliament should be expanded by 2 Senators per state.

  4. Adrian, I think where it would most suit the major parties is in the Senate and that is what they would be aiming for. If Labor believes that adding more Senators could remove the sort of situation we have at the moment and possibly leave only one party in the balance of power then I think they would do it, simply in order to remove the frustration they are seeing at the moment.

  5. I actually think the ALP could be brought onboard. Most of the extra seats would go to the major parties, meaning more safe seats and a larger talent pool to draw ministers from. The last two enlargements, in 1949 and 1984, were done by Labor governments. It’s probably in the interest of the Liberals, as it would result in a swathe of marginal Labor seats with no incumbents.

    But I would expect the Liberals to oppose it. But once it has been implemented it would be impossible to roll back, as that would involve the sacking of a whole bunch of MPs.

  6. More information: the number of seats allocated under the different quota for each state:

  7. Since we already have an extra tier of government over the UK in the state governments, do you really think this would get support from the general population Ben, many of whom keep saying we are over-governed?

    Or do you have a plan for state governments?

  8. Well, Canada and Germany both have state/provincial governments just like us, and they still have much larger federal parliaments.

    In addition, there are now subnational assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the UK also has a second layer of local government in much of England, so I disagree that we, all things considered, have more tiers of government than the UK.

    Overall we have about 400 members of state lower houses. Even when you add them to the federal Parliament we still have less than 600. I don’t think it’s a real issue.

    As far as people’s perceptions, I don’t really know. I’m just raising it as a reasonable and easy-to-legislate change.

  9. Northern Ireland used to be effectively a state until its (bicameral) Parliament was abolished in 1972 and still has more separate laws.

    Scotland has a Parliament and a separate legal system to England and Wales.

    The Welsh Assembly has more limited powers.

  10. Northern Island elects 6 MLAs from each of its 18 Westminster constituencies (Like Tasmania prior to 1959 with the Federal Seats).

    An interesting thing about UK politics is that it is allowed (and happens) for somebody to be both a member (or member-elect) of the House of Commons and their local Assembly/Parliament.

  11. I have long felt that this is a potential reform of a federal Labor government, back when the Coalition controlled the Senate in the final term of the Howard government. With an even number of seats per state per election, the Coalition is always going to be every chance of winning half the seats, because they have no natural spoilers on the right.

    Increasing the number of Senators per state per election to seven would therefore appear to be in Labor’s self interest. It might also wedge the Coalition, with the Nationals desperate to repair their deteriorating HoR stocks.

    Against that however is what happened last year in WA. Or at least the narrative that developed that Labor lost due to a lack of incumbent MPs. The Rudd govt might therefore be a bit skittish about going to an election with a lot of open seats.

  12. I know its tangential to your post, and so I apologise, but why are suggestions for fixed terms always fixed emfour-year/em terms, given that that requires a referendum, and the last time a referendum on the topic was held, it failed?

    I doubt Labor will ever go for this, because it will risk having to work in coalition with the Greens (or some other party). Even if the risk is minimal. Need support is one thing, governing together is completely different. Since the 1980s, I think a lot of people wanting good government (in contrast to wanting good policies) are now Greens supporters — possibly to their own detriment.

  13. Not to be the dissenting opinion, but Im not much of a fan of more pollies. In theory, its fine; indeed, if we had a parliamentary system more like the US, Id support it entirely.

    But we have among the tighest party discipline of any country in the world. The arguments with being closer to the people just dont work so well when the representative, whatever their electorate thinks is just going to be bound by whatever the party chooses. Im not sure wed see much benefit at all – and with the significant cost of subidising all the new pollies.

  14. How would the increased number of Senators be incorporated into the Senate? If there was a half-Senate election to elect 7 per state giving a total of 13 until the following election that would be problematic until the following election gave the full number required.

    If, as in 1984, they elect a supernumerary Senator ie 8 instead of 7 bringing the total up to 14 per state, that further diminishes the value of the six, but as I don’t really support half elections anyway I guess that doesn’t overly bother me. A full Senate election would however still be preferable.

  15. Felix, I think fixed four-year terms are wrapped up together because fixed terms are more popular than four-year terms, so they are wrapped up in a single reform agenda, but it’s true that it is very easy to fix terms without constitutional change.

    Rebecca, it is true that we have tight party discipline, but my point is the smaller the electorates and the more MPs in Parliament, the harder it is for the whips to control their backbench. Look at the British Labour Party.

    Neil, I guess they would do the same thing as in 1984. Elect 8 senators at the first election, and then the last-elected of that bunch only gets a three-year term to join the 6 elected at the last election.

  16. 1984 was a double dissolution and 12 Senators were up for election.

    Would it be possible for the extra Senators to be introduced in two lots at consecutive Senate elections (with the corresponding two lots of House increases)?

  17. Yeah, but 1949 wasn’t a double dissolution. Before 1949 each state elected 3 senators at each half-senate election, and after it became 5, so at the 1949 election each state elected 7 senators.

  18. 1984 was NOT a double disolution. The elections either side of it were (1983 and 1987).

    If 1984 was DD, Peter Garrett would have easily been elected an NDP senator.

  19. Ben: I’ll grant you that much, but I think now that we have party discipline so entrenched (as opposed to the UK which has had a larger parliament all along), I think that would be unlikely to change. The NT isn’t a bad example of this; electorates so small that they can meet every one of their constituents personally, and yet only very slightly less strict party discipline than the rest of the country.

  20. I absolutely agree. I’m uncertain though, whether Rudd would do it. I think it would be an unpopular move with the general public. They would not see it as representation, but media would probably take the angle of more politician’s wages and “over-governance”. I absolutely agree with Simon Copland.

  21. Another issue with Senate expansion is whether or not to add a extra Senator each for the NT and the ACT. This would mean that the NT had a Senate position that had some marginality and the ACT had a real chance at electing a Green.

  22. I think it would be reasonable, but it has no bearing on the numbers in the House of Representatives.

    In the case of the ACT, it would ensure that one of the three seats would be a safe Liberal seat and the other would be a contest between the Greens and the ALP.

  23. I have calculated how the 2007 Senate election would have occurred with 3 Senators in the ACT.

    ACT Senate – 3 Senators


    Quota: 56331

    ALP Votes: 92018 % Votes: 40.84% Quotas: 1.6335
    LP Votes: 77058 % Votes: 34.20% Quotas: 1.3680
    GRN Votes: 48384 % Votes: 21.47% Quotas: 0.8589
    LDP Votes: 545 % Votes: 00.24% Quotas: 0.0097
    OTH Votes: 7336 % Votes: 03.26% Quotas: 0.1302

    If you assume all votes are above-the-line, then after preferences are distributed the Greens have 0.9891 of a quota (The LDP preferenced Labor). Therefore the Liberal preferences would have then come into play, electing a Greens Senator, which would be likely to continue in the event of 3 Senator (and hence competitive) elections.

    The only way that the result could change would be if the Labor Party could gain 50% of the vote, electing a second Labor Senator at the all but guaranteed expense of the Greens, or if the Liberals switched preferences. Unless either of those events occur, the final result would always be 1 Labor, 1 Liberal and 1 Green.

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