Blue Sky Democracy, Part 3: Even more politicians (but less staffers)
In part 2, we looked at what research has been done on what Australians want out of their democracy and interrogated the two big limits on reform: the Constitution and Parliament.
Now we’re looking at our first big idea: increasing the size of Parliament — a lot.
The received wisdom in politics is people want less politics and less politicians.
I reckon that’s a bit of a shallow reading of the very limited research we have on the topic, but even so, that fear means the only outfit that’s seriously advocating for more MPs at the moment is the Australia Institute, who published “It’s Time… for More Politicians” in 2018 and “Comes with the Territory” in 2020.
The last time Parliament got bigger was in 1984, when Bob Hawke’s new government passed the Representation Act 1983 in conjunction with wide-ranging electoral and integrity reforms (including group voting tickets), before calling a snap election. This followed the High Court’s controversial decision in 1977 to apply the nexus rule to reduce the House of Representatives by three MPs and a very comprehensive report by the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform which grappled with reconciling Australia’s growing population with a Senate that wasn’t always cooperative.
During the second reading speech on the new Representation Bill, then Special Minister for State Kim Beazley noted:
The last occasion on which there was a substantial increase in the size of the Parliament was 1948. In the 35 years since then, Australia’s population has doubled approximately. The tasks of government and of individual members have grown profoundly and people’s expectations about what their representatives can achieve have increased markedly. It is essential that our Parliament is able to cope with these changing demands and to meet the needs of the 1980s and beyond. Past practice suggests such adjustments are rare and therefore it is necessary for legislators to consider problems in the future as well as their immediate circumstances when considering an increase in the size of the Parliament.
In nearly 40 years since this speech, Australia’s population has once again nearly doubled and the breadth of work before governments has only grown and grown more complex.
And yet the trend in local and state politics has been to shrink (NSW, Victoria and Tasmania plus various local government rationalisations) or very slightly increase (Queensland added three seats in 2016 for example).
The (often unspoken) attitude among political elites that more representatives merely invites chaos, that bigger, more diverse Parliaments make governing more difficult and that giving MPs more and more staff to do the “busywork” (usually constituent work or dealing with the party) would let them focus on the “important things” (performing in Parliament and dancing for the media). These views were echoed in that 1983 Joint Select Committee report that: “existing representatives can be rendered more effective in their role by allocating to them resources which would otherwise be required to finance an increased number of representatives (as in the USA)… the prime functions of Members of Parliament are to be legislators rather than legislative ombudsman”.
If you aren’t familiar with the term “legislative ombudsman”, it’s a US term to describe elected representatives who see their job as doing such wasteful things as “addressing issues raised by the public” or “holding governments accountable”. Terrible stuff.
There’s also a received wisdom among political elites that regular voters believe the internet and ubiquity of computers and social media has made the job of being an MP easier.
They want politicians to “get on with the job” in Parliament and don’t value constituent servicing anymore — and maybe go as far as to want “less politicians”.
In a sense, that’s not too wrong. Surveys suggest voters want less antagonistic (but not necessarily less agonistic) politics, more consensus and coalition building and less “playing politics” — which usually means appealing to the Press Gallery over discussing issues. But this misses that voters also want more responsive and active local MPs, and the scale of constituent servicing has grown consistently, even above population growth. They also want outcomes that, ideally, reflect their primary voting intention.
Going back to the 1983 report, the case for change covered everything from the Commonwealth’s accumulation of new duties and portfolios over time, the growth of Cabinet and problems with finding executive talent among a smaller and smaller backbench, the emerging importance of the Committee system and overloading MPs with inquiries, and the need to achieve as close to one-vote-one-value as possible.
All these are as true in 2022 as they were in 1983.
With all these still-valid reasons in mind, I set myself a challenge to redesign Parliament for the 21st century without having to do any annoying constitutional changes.
My goal was to design a system that maintains connection to local communities while still preserving that “legislative ombudsman” role that the 1983 report and subsequent surveys found that Australians value, while shrinking the ratio of representation to population to a more manageable level.
Currently, each MP is elected to represent a little over 170,000 people, give or take ten percent. The last time Parliament was expanded in 1984, that ratio dropped from a little over 80,000 to just under 70,000. At Federation, there was one MP for every 35,000 people.
That means MPs today are trying to represent and service more than twice the people who had to in the 80s — and five times what an MP did in 1901 — even though an MP’s workload of constituency and committee work has grown steadily that whole time.
Dropping that ratio even a little would make some electorates extraordinarily small, as our cities got denser and denser — and the Electoral Commission is already having a hard enough time making redistributions make logical sense as rural electorates balloon and urban electorates shrink.
Failing to grow Parliament also means that every election cycle, Parliament and the Electoral Commission have to jump through hoops to make sure the Northern Territory doesn’t get reduced to just one MP for the entire territory.
Part of the goal of my model is to get as close to the same number of voters electing each MP in each state and territory as possible. A change that would mean that Tasmania is actually entitled to the MPs they have, without any constitutional trickery — and ensure that the ACT and Northern Territory have a more stable allocation of seats each cycle. The idea of pegging the ideal population quota for each state to the smallest (known as the Wyoming Rule in the US) was also floated in the Australia Institute’s 2020 paper, which shares many of my concerns and comes away with a revised model similar to mine.
Part of the problem with returning to the 1984 Hawke ratio or adopting the Australia Institute’s interim model is that the voters per MP would still be seriously out of whack — a variation of 67,000 to 79,000 voters under the 1984 changes and 72,000 to 89,000 for the Australia Institute’s 2018 model. It’s not possible to build a system that perfectly equalises voters per MP, even if population growth was magically static, but for the sake of one-vote-one-value, we should aim to converge as much as possible.
In the end, this translated into 340 seats in Parliament, an increase of 113 seats.
That breaks down into 223 MPs:
- 71 for NSW (up 24)
- 58 for Victoria (up 19 )
- 45 for Queensland (up 15)
- 23 for Western Australia (up 8)
- 15 for South Australia (up 5)
- 4 for ACT (up 1)
- 5 for Tasmania (same)
- 2 for Northern Territory (same).
This would also result in 18 Senators for each state — plus 4 each for the ACT and Northern Territory and 1 for all of Australia’s offshore territories.
The most likely complaint about this change from political elites is the requisite increase in the Senate allocations by operation of the nexus rule. At a half Senate election (which is most elections), the quota for a state Senate seat would drop from 14.3% to 10% — which is still a reasonably high bar to pass. The issue comes at a full Senate election, which happens when there’s been a “double dissolution” of Parliament. Then a state Senate seat’s quota would drop from an already low 7.7% to 5.3%.
My take on that concern is, firstly, voters are entitled to elect people who don’t conform with political elites’ ideas of civility and acceptable politics, but more importantly, those minor parties people are so concerned about rarely poll above 2% even at a full Senate election. Those parties that do, like One Nation, routinely get elected regardless.
Without the herding effect of group voting tickets, it’s unlikely that a “fringe” minor party would be able to get enough preferences together to get across 5% unless they were genuinely popular.
I also want to address the electoral system. I don’t think changing electoral systems from single-member electorates to something like ACT’s modified Hare Clark system is as important as growing Parliament overall, even if it would deliver more proportional outcomes.
That shift would be a harder sell, given it would inherently reduce the proportion of seats held by either major party and make it very difficult to ever form a majority government in the future. It’s also hard to predict what that change would look like for each party, partly because it would require radically redrawn boundaries and partly because it would change voters’ strategic priorities while voting and likely cause party realignment too.
All my calculations — including a comparison between each state’s total state MPs and councillors, how many voters are represented by each seat, how many seats would be created by each model, and working out what my model would look like if a magnitude 3 or magnitude 5 system was put in place — are all available here.
Any increase to Parliament would be unpopular in the short term. The media will have a field day with fat cat politicians and party apparatchiks getting a payday. Although, this would be less unpopular than you might think. A recent survey for Democracy 2025 found that around 40% of voters support reducing the size of electorates to make them more responsive to their local community (and this rate is stable across each political party). Ironically, only 30% of MPs want smaller electorates, even if it makes it easier to get reelected.
As Kim Beazley said in that second reading speech:
[This] will provide more adequate and more realistic representation for all Australians. It will redress the ludicrous situation that has developed whereby twice the population since 1949 are governed by the same number of representatives. It will allow more time to be spent by members on representing their constituents. It will train more adequately our future Ministers. It will permit the improving committee system to become more effective in improving the legislature’s oversight of the Executive. It will increase the relevance, not just the numbers, of back benchers. [There] will always be some public opposition to increasing the number of parliamentarians. This is as inevitable as it is, in some ways, unfortunate. However, this does not constitute a valid reason for simply putting off what must eventually come. The time is appropriate to make these changes now. …[This] is a matter of principle, and as such, must eventually outweigh any short-term unpopularity that may attach to the legislation.
We shouldn’t shirk from growing Parliament to help reconnect MPs with their local communities. It just needs a trade off: freezing MPs’s pay, shrinking their travel and communications allowances or reducing their staff allocation would all be reasonable compromises in exchange for a lower constituent and committee workload.
In part four, we’re going to explore our second big idea: letting permanent residents vote.