A former prime minister has warned MPs they face a daunting challenge to maintain public confidence in the Parliament system in the age of disinformation.
Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a leading constitutional expert, also says MPs are under-resourced and too few, adding to a sense that the mechanisms for holding government to account are inadequate.
He says MPs are making laws in much the same way that they were in the 1860s, but now the job of a member has become much more complex - so too has the legislation they are faced with developing.
Sir Geoffrey was appearing before the Standing Orders Committee which has begun its regular review of Parliament’s rules, where he expanded on ideas discussed in his formal submission, including how to address what he and others see as a decline in legislative scrutiny and scrutiny of the executive.
“You need more MPs if you're going to hold the Government to account,” he told the committee, suggesting that 150 Members of Parliament would be preferable to the current 120, especially given that around a quarter of the MPs are preoccupied as part of the executive.
In a difficult lawmaking environment, where MPs have to tackle legislation on complex issues like climate change, Sir Geoffrey identified a need for the sort of high powered expertise and analytical rigour that is not readily available.
“You can't be amateur MPs anymore. The complexity of the modern world does not permit it. If we're going to keep New Zealand up to where it has to be in the future, we're going to have to do much better in this Parliament than we've been doing. And that's not to denigrate your efforts. But you haven't got the resources, you haven't got the numbers, you haven't got the time. And all of those things are very, very important if you're going to do the job properly.”
'The ordeals you're going to go through'
MPs acknowledged the ongoing challenge of maintaining the confidence of the public in Parliament. But Sir Geoffrey noted that the Covid-19 pandemic had damaged that confidence by hurting the country’s sense of social cohesion.
“And you saw out on the Parliament [forecourt during February’s protest/ occupation] what happens when that happens, people go down conspiracy rabbit holes. The biggest problem the political system faces is disinformation, you only have to look at what's been happening in the United States."
Along with disinformation, Sir Geoffrey cited fake news, populism, social media and conspiracy theories as breeding mistrust in established democratic processes and institutions. In particular, democracies including New Zealand’s face big problems in relation to disinformation and elections.
“I really feel for you all about the ordeals you're going to go through in that connection,” he told the committee’s MPs as he noted threats of democratic decline.
“They're everywhere, and they are potent. And we mustn't get into that here. We haven't gotten into it yet. But to keep it out, the Standing Orders committee has got, I think, a vital role in trying to make sure that our democracy is open, transparent, and really robust from a democratic point of view.”
Another change that the former prime minister advocates is increasing the length of the Parliament term from three years to four. MPs on both sides of the political divide are reasonably keen on the idea, but as with the proposal to increase the number of MPs no party appears willing to push that cause when public opinion tends against it.
MPs becoming less accessible to public
Since the MMP electoral system was adopted by the country thirty years ago, its population has grown rapidly yet the number of MPs remains the same.
“The workload is getting bigger and bigger," said government minister Chris Hipkins, one of the MPs on the Standing Orders Committee.
"It’s harder for MPs to get around their electorates now because electorates [populations] are getting bigger, and they’re having to accommodate a larger number of requests. So I think we need to be up front with people about that. MPs over time will become increasingly less accessible, because it will become practically impossible to reach into the community in the way that we have previously.”
Another factor making MPs less accessible to the public is the increased level of threats they and their families face. As February's protest showed, there's a very vocal group of citizens who are calling quite openly for MPs to be executed. And even those hauled before the courts for threatening to kill the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern can avoid conviction if they argue they made their threats when drunk.
Hipkins and his MP colleagues are well aware of the threat of disinformation. He said openness and transparency were a great antidote to people being misinformed but “that doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to hear it though”.
“So I think we’ve got a challenge on a number of levels. One is to be open and transparent. But the other is then to make sure that we’re out there proactively promoting fact-based information so that people can understand the decisions being taken by their elected representatives on their behalf. Because one of the challenges with government is that if you put information out there in total, it’s open to misinterpretation as well.”
Hipkins said one of the big changes that the New Zealand Parliament has experienced over the past thirty years was that “the real decision-making has moved out of the debating chamber”.
“So more and more decisions are made through cabinet processes, through regulatory processes. And therefore perhaps if you were just following Parliament, you’d get the perception that a lot of the governing was now happening behind closed doors. And I think that does create some challenges, and it means that we as a Parliament have to work hard to provide exposure to those issues so that people see what the decisions are that are being taken.”
According to Palmer’s submission, “changes to the Standing Orders can instill a sense of public confidence in New Zealand democratic institutions and their forward march”. But as he opined to the committee, “there's too much politics and not enough governance in this country”.