Opinion: It is often said there are too many time servers in Parliament and that therefore there should be limits placed on how long an MP should be able to serve. However, the facts tell a different story.

In the present Parliament, 70 of the current 119 MPs (allowing for the resignation of Dame Jacinda Ardern) have been in the House fewer than six years. Just over two-thirds of our MPs have served less than nine years. Only a third of our MPs have been in Parliament 10 years or longer, and just five MPs have served more than 20 years.

Half the current Cabinet have been in Parliament less than six years – two ministers are in their first term as MPs. The Leader of the Opposition has not yet completed a full term as an MP, and his deputy is in only her second term. With 15 MPs already standing down at this year’s election, and polls showing Labour set to lose at least 20 seats from its record high return three years ago, the trend of about a third of Parliament turning over every election looks set to continue.

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All these figures are consistent with the long-term average tenure of a New Zealand MP being just over two terms, or about six years. Those serving significantly longer are a rarity in our political system – in fact, of about 1,500 New Zealand MPs elected since the first Parliament was established in 1854, only 31 have served more than 30 years in the House.

This pattern is not unique to New Zealand. In Britain, there were 140 new MPs elected to the 650 member House of Commons at the last election in 2019. A further 495 MPs who had been in Parliament from the previous election in 2017 were re-elected, as were 15 MPs who had been in Parliament before that time. In Australia, a study commissioned by the Victorian Parliamentary Former Members’ Association and carried out by Deakin University found that in the Parliament of Victoria, an average parliamentary career lasts two terms (eight years).

The issue, therefore, is not that too many MPs stick around for far too long but, as the Victorian study found, “a parliamentary career is most commonly a transitory career”. This factor has become more evident under MMP, where list MPs are able to resign more easily and move on, to be replaced by the next available person on the party list to preserve the proportionality set by the preceding general election result. Since 1996, 36 list MPs have resigned during a Parliamentary term and been replaced by the next person on their party’s list.

The same inexperience problems will become even more apparent if a National/ACT coalition takes office after this year’s election

By contrast, there have been 14 by-elections in general seats since 1996 brought about by the death or resignation of the sitting MP. That latter figure (one or two by-elections a term) is consistent with New Zealand’s long-term average for the number of by-elections in a Parliamentary term.

These trends look set to continue. As well, in recent years, it has become more common after a change of government for former senior ministers who had earlier gone on the party list to resign early in the new term, to avoid a dreary spell in Opposition.  

The relatively short political careers of most of our MPs, and the increasing ease with which those on the party list can leave Parliament raises questions about the way Parliament functions, and the operation of our system of government. During the term of the present government there has been comment about the difficulty it has faced in implementing its policy programme the way it might have wished. But with half the Cabinet comparatively new to politics and never having seen at close hand other governments at work, this is perhaps unsurprising.

One of the strengths of the public service is its continuity and institutional memory. Given that neither continuity nor institutional memory are strong features of Parliament, the public service is in a strong position to frustrate, delay or manipulate government policy if it is of a mind to do so. Ministerial continuity is even more of a problem – ministers are often reshuffled into new portfolios every three years if their government is re-elected, making policy continuity more difficult. New ministers, especially in new governments, typically spend most of their first year getting to grips with their new responsibilities.

The problems of comparative political inexperience and an entrenched bureaucracy become even more complicated when ministers decide they know best and do not need external advice. The current case of Minister of Education Jan Tinetti and the Privileges Committee is a good example. Had she listened to advice and corrected her wrong answer to Parliament at the first available opportunity she would not now be before the Privileges Committee on a Contempt of Parliament charge. Nor would there be allegations that the Prime Minister’s office was also involved in an alleged cover-up. It is, however, relevant that Tinetti – highly ranked at number six in the Cabinet – is one of those ministers with less than two terms Parliamentary experience.

But the issue goes beyond the present government. The same inexperience problems will become even more apparent if a National/ACT coalition takes office. Looking to the future, these current trends are likely to accelerate, meaning the transitory nature of a parliamentary career will become more pronounced. 

There is a difficult balance to strike here. We want neither a revolving door Parliament where MPs come and go too quickly, nor a Parliament dominated by old timers harking back to a better yesterday. Nevertheless, striking a proper balance between a modern, frequently rejuvenating Parliament reflecting contemporary New Zealand, and an effective government that knows how to work the machinery of government properly, is something political parties should be taking far more seriously.

Peter Dunne was the leader of United Future and served as a minister in former National and Labour governments.

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