Should MPs serve their whole terms?

I think that normally someone who stands for Parliament as an electorate MP or via a party list should be expected to serve the whole three year term. There must be a responsibility to do what they put themselves forward to do.

If an electorate MP resigns there is considerable cost involved in by-elections. There must also be quite a bit of disruption to workloads expected of both electorate and list MPs.

David McGee, ex Clerk of the House and Ombudsman, suggests Impose a bond on MPs to stop them quitting

In the early years of parliamentary government members often resigned their seats.

But, with the development of political parties, resignations became less common and had virtually disappeared for a century until the adoption of MMP in 1996.

Since then resignations have come back into fashion, especially among list members who are replaced by the next unsuccessful candidate on the party list (or even lower down the list if the party “persuades” the next candidate not to take up the vacant seat).

So far this term there have been quite a few resignations:

  • Mike Sabin (Northland electorate) – this wasn’t by choice
  • Russel Norman (Green list)
  • Kevin Hague (Green list)
  • Phil Goff (Mt Roskill electorate) – chose another political job
  • David Shearer (Mt Albert electorate) – chose to go back to the UN

A number of other electorate MPs have indicated they will stand down when they can avoid a by-election. This includes David Cunliffe and John Key. If they do this before the end of the term that leaves their electorates without an MP until after the election.

New Zealand has a three-year term for Parliament. This is short by international standards.

It is not unreasonable to expect that persons who are elected to Parliament will serve out the full term of this relatively short period. That is, after all, the basis on which they offered themselves for election in the first place.

I agree.

Yet, increasingly, membership of Parliament for a maximum of three years is seen as being at the convenience of each member perhaps more accurately at that of the member’s party, rather than as an obligation undertaken when elected.

Thus there has been a noticeable tendency for list members who are intending to step down at the next election to resign in the final year of the term (either voluntarily or at the party’s prompting) so as to make way for a candidate who is expected to have an ongoing interest in a parliamentary career.

It’s not so disruptive or expensive when list MPs resign mid-term, but it is still a failure to fulfil their commitment as an elected representative.

In this way, for many members, the already short parliamentary term becomes an even shorter one. For every member a parliamentary career is converted into something that one has the ability to leave costlessly in political terms at any time, rather than being a commitment to public service for the life of a parliament.

In my view this is deleterious to the institution of Parliament and to the sense of obligation that members should feel to it.

That is also my view.

Members in the final year of a Parliament can and should be expected to contribute to it’s work for the full term that they have signed up to regardless of their intentions to stand or not at the next election.

Another issue is MPs who seem to disappear after they announce they will stand down at the next election. For example what have Maurice Williamson and Clayton Cosgrove been doing this term?

Perhaps they have been beavering away tirelessly, Williamson at least has an electorate to look after.

A list MP like Cosgrove must also have a responsibility to serve the party that enabled him to have a seat and a generous income.

Consequently, there should be stronger disincentives both to members and to parties to prevent the early jumping of ship that has become endemic.

This is contentious.

In the case of list members, the remedy is quite simple: any vacancy occasioned by resignation should not be filled.

List members, whatever they may pretend to the contrary, are not elected to represent individual constituencies of a geographical or other nature.

Our electoral system allows the voter to make no such distinctions when casting a party vote.

So there can be no question of a denial of representation in leaving such seats vacant.

Not filling such a vacancy would largely eliminate list resignations as they are almost always promoted by the parties themselves.

They would cease to occur if this meant that a party’s votes in Parliament would be permanently reduced.

It would certainly be a deterrence, but is it fair? Would it be fair if someone had a genuine need to resign (compared to a better job offer)?

Not filling such a vacancy would largely eliminate list resignations as they are almost always promoted by the parties themselves.

They would cease to occur if this meant that a party’s votes in Parliament would be permanently reduced.

It would almost certainly be effective.

Electorate members, on the other hand, do represent constituents and it is unacceptable not to full such vacancies.

The present law allowing vacancies arising within six months of a general election to be left unfilled is inherently undemocratic and should not be extended.

Leaving an electorate without an MP for 6 months (out of 3 years) is an issue in itself.

Consequently, as a condition of being declared elected, electorate members should be required to enter into a bond to serve through the full term of the parliament.

The amount of the bond would not cover the full cost of a by-election (indeed, that would not be its intention) but it should be sufficiently high to provide a financial disincentive to resignation for the member and for the party backing the member.

Allowing for exceptional circumstances:

In the case of both list and electorate members, resignation without these consequences would be permitted on health grounds proved to the satisfaction of the Speaker or the Electoral Commission.

fair enough.

Membership of Parliament ought not to be a mere convenience for political parties, nor should it be a status that can be discarded lightly. It is time that this undesirable development was addressed.

But how can it be addressed? It would require commitments from parties that like the convenience of dropping and replacing MPs. Parties and increasingly MPs are selfish, and are unlikely to change something that suits them – at the expense of voters and taxpayers.

MPs are representatives of the people, and when they put themselves forward for election they should commit themselves to a full term. It should be in their oath.