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.