At his party’s recent conference, ACT leader David Seymour made the case for reducing the size of Parliament. But smaller government doesn’t always equal small government, Liam Hehir writes, arguing that doubling the number of MPs could be a better call.

The ACT Party has always been in favour of small government. It’s now become clear just how literal this commitment is.

Taking a leaf from the book of Winston Peters, sole MP and leader David Seymour has declared his intent to reduce the size of Parliament to 100 MPs.

Some savings and efficiencies would result from this, I guess. The Crown would probably save a few million dollars annually in salaries, allowances and perks. That’s more than I have, but it’s not much in the bigger picture of the long-term fiscal challenges facing us.

I’m also doubtful it would be particularly conducive to Seymour’s libertarian goals. And it certainly doesn’t follow that a large legislature is necessarily accompanied by a large and powerful state. I submit as evidence, as I have before, New Hampshire in the United States.

With a population of fewer than 1.4 million, the state’s lower house has 400 members. On top of that, it also has a 24-member senate. Politicians are not thin on the ground in the Granite State.

‘Live Free or Die’ no nanny-state

So New Hampshire must be a tax-and-spend, nanny-state dystopia, right?

Well, not quite. To the libertarian Cato Institute, New Hampshire is the freest state in the union. In fact, it has no income or general sales taxes. The only state that taxes less is Alaska, which is fuelled by oil revenues.

And it seems to work. New Hampshire has less poverty than any other state, but is also at the top end for the number of millionaires per capita. Overall income levels are high and the state is generally quite prosperous.

On the personal liberty front, there is much for Seymour to like. New Hampshire is the least religious state and one of the first to legalise gay marriage by legislation. It has a school choice tax credit programme and a medical marijuana law. It’s even resisted making seatbelts compulsory for adults, if you can believe it.

All this in a jurisdiction that has fewer than 3500 voters per legislator. Smaller government is, it seems, not a precondition of small government.

More is more for representation

It must be said that, in New Zealand, the knee-jerk position on the right is that we should have fewer lawmakers. But here, I must depart from my friends.

I think we should have more. Not 400, perhaps, but something between 250 and 300 would be an improvement.

An expanded Parliament would make it easier to introduce new people and perspectives into the bloodstream of government. It would reduce the size of electorates, bringing MPs closer to their communities and becoming more responsive to them. It would strengthen the hand of legislators against the Cabinet and party whips.

ACT, it seems, wants to move us in the other direction. It wants to restrict the privilege of representation. And. In doing so, it would elevate the status of the 100 remaining MPs. Parliament would become a more exclusive club, after all.

I don’t know just how effective “Fewer MPs!” will be as a populist rallying cry. But I am pretty certain it is a dumb idea.

Liam Hehir is a writer and newspaper columnist from the rural Manawatu and a former National Party activist.

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