The Malta Independent 28 June 2022, Tuesday

Our XL Parliament

Mark Said Friday, 20 May 2022, 14:07 Last update: about 2 months ago

How large should our House of Representatives be? The question is not trivial. Assembly size has measurable effects on the representation of political parties. A parliament that is overly large in membership may create an unwieldy legislative process and generate a need for more complex intra-assembly committee structures or encourage the delegation of more legislative authority to the executive branch. Thus the question arises of what is the 'optimal' parliamentary composition size for such a small country like ours with a given population. An incorrect answer to this question might easily spell trouble for Maltese democracy.

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After the last general election, thanks to the gender parity corrective mechanism, our parliament has now swelled to a record 79 MPs, making it the largest in Europe, per capita. The problem this poses is greater than a crunch to fit that many chairs in the House. How can compromises be made, and how can backbenchers be heard, in a parliament so difficult to manage now?

For quite some time now, our two main parties have been getting more seats and, for the first time, more female MPs, to ensure that the relative proportion reflects the election result. On paper, this mechanism might appear to have the potential to work well with Malta having two big parties that receive the vast majority of votes. It is a weird mechanism that can be reasonably characterised as a rival in certain circumstances and a partner in others. This creates a vicious circle, in which there have to be more and more lawmakers from each party in order to maintain the balance of power. This directly runs counter to the systematic relationship that should exist between parliamentary size and population.

It is bad enough as it is. Like other former British colonies, we have inherited a Westminster model of parliamentary government, and with its First Past the Post (FPTP) system, elections are incapable of representing minority interests. Considering it is "not unlikely" that our parliament gets bigger than it has ever been after the last general elections, I expect this to translate into problems for our democracy.

There will definitely be the issue of the increasing impossibility of ensuring healthy and concise debate, as well as the problem of whether 'backbenchers' will ever get a chance to speak. And there is the question of the cost of paying the salaries of so many MPs. An ever-expanding parliament, therefore, means an ever-expanding burden on us taxpayers. It might have been a good idea to try to combine the best of both worlds with the above-mentioned mechanisms, but now, our electoral system has become so complex that people risk not even understanding it anymore.

Ideally, our parties should think of forging an alliance to lobby for a significant decrease in the number of districts. Perhaps that would not fix everything, but it would help. A reduction in the number of districts is one of many  viable solutions. One of the most important activities of an MP is communication. An MP is engaged in communication with both constituents and other MPs. Obviously, there are other persons with whom MPs communicate and there are other activities in which MPs are engaged besides communication. Nonetheless, a crucial feature of the working life of an MP is to perform the representation function - communicating with constituents - and perform the lawmaking function in which a legislator must communicate with other legislators.

Shrinking a legislature’s membership is a phenomenon that is increasingly arising around the world. An optimal parliamentary composition will minimize communication channels among legislators and hence streamline the lawmaking function. Conversely, a parliamentary size that is extra large for a small country like ours will reduce communication channels with constituents and will make the lawmaking process less effective due to the multiplication of communication channels involving other legislators. While countries like Britain, France and Italy have long been devising plausible methods of reducing the size of their representative houses, we, on the other hand, are coming up with new mechanisms that directly or indirectly increase that size.

Popular sentiments abound that an excess of MPs is an unnecessary expense. In considering cutting the size of our parliament we should consider process and resources, not just numbers. In reducing the number of MPs what should be the motives? While the rationale might appear to be largely symbolic it is rather grounded in a considered approach to legislature size and framed for more general cost-cutting. A more coherent approach should include attention to the process of cutting, and to overall resources for backbench members. Backbenchers need staff support to enhance their ability to be strong representatives, more so if the case for full-time MPs garners stronger support with time. This pays off in the form of better representation because constituent enquiries can be processed faster and political topics can be independently researched.

With an ever-growing number of MPs, there will be a greater risk that the leader’s office will interfere with anyone being industrious, such as by managing who gets time to speak or which private members’ Bills to endorse if considered from the opposition’s point of view. He or she who shouts loudest, but not necessarily most astutely, is now likely to be successful at question time and speaking times in debates will now be further reduced. Competition for membership in committees, where so much valuable work is done, may mean that the need for political balance outweighs the selection of relevant expertise.

We must definitely address the expanding size, if anything, for the good of parliament. Its size should definitely be reduced, and methods should be explored by which this can be achieved. Otherwise, its risks fall into increasing public disrepute, with ridicule focused on its growing numbers. Our parliament must strive to maintain both its ability to command respect and its wider effectiveness.

Meanwhile, the strain on the services and the administration of the House is bound to become considerable and the cost to the public purse greatly increased.

 

Dr Mark Said is an advocate

 

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