The Opportunity Party policy on democracy proposes having an upper house.
2.: An Upper House
Correcting the concentration of power requires the resurrection of an Upper House that can consider legislation that parliament has passed and can ask it to reconsider, especially if it feels that constitutional rights are at risk. Typically in Western democracies the Upper House is not sovereign, it can only recommend, but in so doing it highlights to the public the risks that proposed legislation poses. That is, we find out before the damage is done.
New Zealand’s second chamber was abolished relatively recently (in 1950) and under our one House system we’ve seen the government of the day steadily moving power further and further away from parliament. Contrary to popular perception and what the constitution claims, parliament is no longer sovereign. Bringing New Zealand back to a two House system – which is the most common model internationally – will discourage the government of the day from cutting off debate on its legislative programme through measures such as urgency, supplementary order papers and closure motions.
Our view is that democracy in New Zealand has become authoritarian. In reality it’s the Executive or Cabinet that is sovereign nowadays, the other parliamentary members of the ruling party are simply voting fodder. The power of Cabinet to ramrod legislation through is without precedent in the Western world. There is no longer any sign of the “slow and steady forms that are necessary for good lawmaking” [i]
We have stripped layer after layer of safeguards away leaving us with virtually none of the checks and balances that prevent parliament legislating against the interests and possibly the constitutional rights of some members of our society. [ii] Our government’s Cabinet is able to fast track policy through without check. Even US Presidents have nowhere near as much power as that – they need approval of both Houses to legislate.
While voters feel increasingly disenfranchised, so are ordinary MPs. Parliament has become little more than a place for ritualistic statements of position of Government and Opposition – nothing more. Then once that say is had, closure is called and the legislation is passed. There is no real debate any longer – no debate that actually amends the proposal.
An Upper House would in effect, restore the sovereignty of Parliament and take sovereignty back from the Executive. The question of membership of the Upper House is beyond this paper but suffice to say it must be via a very different process than election to Parliament. Perhaps a mix of appointed and elected members would work best with a term of office that is differentiated from the 3 year political cycle. The role of this body is to independently consider legislation.
Indeed with this additional check in place, New Zealanders may be willing to grant politicians a 4 year term and reduce the huge costs associated with constant electioneering. Encouraging longer term thinking would be no bad thing for parliamentarians.