Commentary – By Graham Davis in Suva
What is the appropriate size for Fiji’s new Parliament? How many MPs can the country sustain? How many do we need to adequately represent us and provide the nucleus for an effective government?
All these questions are currently being considered as the government’s legal officers put the finishing touches to the new Draft Constitution that will be presented to the Constituent Assembly when it meets in the coming weeks.
It’s no secret that the Bainimarama government wants a unicameral or one chamber parliament, with no upper house like the Senate that was a feature of the old system.
There are two main reasons for this preference – the government’s firm belief that the elected representatives of ordinary people should be the sole authority in the country and that taxpayers should not be obliged to support an unnecessarily bloated political class.
The Prime Minister himself believes that there are already enough “fat cats” in the trade union movement bleeding ordinary wage earners dry to impose yet another layer up at Veiuto.
Yash Ghai’s Draft Constitution called for 71 members of Parliament, with a National People’s Assembly made up of unelected representatives that would advise the government and choose the President. That, of course, has been junked, though important sections of the Ghai blueprint remain.
The new Draft Constitution remains a closely guarded secret. But government sources confirm that it will be around half the size of the Ghai version. That implies a much more simple and straightforward document.
The underlying premise is that future parliaments should be given more scope to enact laws and alter constitutional provisions, with accompanying referendums, to adapt to changing circumstances. Fiji’s new constitution should, in essence, be a living document rather than a set of rules etched forever in stone.
We already know that the Republic of Fiji Military Force (RFMF) regards a 71-member Parliament as grossly inflated for a country the size of Fiji.
The military’s submission to the Constitutional Commission proposed a single chamber of 46 members. The problem is that it’s an even number and split down the middle on a particular issue, the Parliament could be deadlocked without an extra casting vote.
So the one certainty at the moment seems to be that whatever the number chosen, it will be odd. 47, 51, 55 and so on.
But what is an ideal parliament for a country of 890-thousand people, our guesstimated population until we hold another census? Opinions vary. Certainly, much depends on the size of the cabinet needed to run the country – the number of ministers required to head the various portfolios.
The Bainimarama government has made a virtue of its senior leaders holding multiple portfolios. The Prime Minister has nine, the Attorney-General holds six.
But this burden on certain individuals to do the heavy lifting of government is not expected to continue in the new Parliament. Assuming it doesn’t, how many ministers and MPs do we need?
One person who knows a lot about these things is the Australian academic, Professor Richard Herr – an expert on parliamentary practice who is director of the Centre for International and Regional Affairs at the University of Fiji.
He argues that Fiji will probably need a cabinet of between 18 to 20 members to govern effectively.
And he says that on that basis, ideally the new Parliament would need to be around four times that size – between 70 and 80 – to have an adequate “gene pool” or enough suitable MPs from which to choose that cabinet.
“It’s critical to have an executive big enough to do the job. You need a large enough pool of talent among MPs to stack that ministry and sufficient backbenchers to keep the front bench honest and transparent”, Professor Herr says.
Yash Ghai’s commission appears to have had the same view, judging from its recommendation of 71 seats, the same as the old Parliament. Yet the mood in government is for a much smaller number – perhaps in the mid fifties -so that more of the national pie is allocated to development needs and service delivery rather than the salaries of MPs.
There’s a view that whatever some experts say, most Fijians would support the notion of a compact Parliament and a similarly compact government delivering more for less. The old formula of 71 seats – this school of thought goes – reflected the fact that seats were reserved based on ethnicity.
But a lot fewer will be needed when the new non-racial paradigm based on one person, one vote, one value comes into effect with the 2014 election.
Which view correct?
Which of these schools of thought is correct? Both undoubtedly have their merits.
But surely it’s worth doing a comparative examination with other countries to see where Fiji would sit with both 71 seats – as recommended by Yash Ghai -and the 55 or so said to be the favoured government position.
With 71 seats, Fiji would have one MP for every 12,500 people. With 55 seats, there would be one MP for every 16,100 people. What do other countries have?
Well, interestingly enough, even with 55 seats Fiji would still have a lot more MPs per head of population than a host of other countries. New Zealand, for instance, has one MP for every 36,600 people.
Papua New Guinea has one MP for every 56,900 people. Australia has one lower house MP for every 150, 800 people or 100,091 if you include the Australian Senate.
All of which suggests that less may well be more if you’re a relatively small country like Fiji with a smaller tax base and host of competing demands for the tax dollar.
Why should Fiji have more MPs per head of population than its wealthier neighbours? Yes, we need enough to maintain an effective government. But Grubsheet will wager that most Fijians would rather see better services than a higher number of politicians.
That said, we are strongly of the view that those MPs ought to be paid a lot better than the salaries traditionally offered to Fijian politicians in the past.
We say this for two reasons; because better salaries will encourage a better class of MP in the first place and also provide less of a temptation for our elected representatives to succumb to corruption.
We need an efficient Parliament with enough educated, smart people to take the country forward. And we need to avoid spreading them too thinly so that they don’t do their jobs properly, don’t have enough time for their constituents and their families or enough solitude to think of better ways to serve us.
It’s a fine balance but we have a chance now to get it right. As with many things, there’s certainly not much point in having had the kind of revolution we’ve had since 2006 if it just means more of the same.
Graham Davis, a dual Fijian-Australian journalist works in both countries. He hosts the political affairs programme The Great Divide on Southern Cross Austereo television, publishes the blog Grubsheet, is a regional adviser to Qorvis – the global US communications giant contracted to the Fiji government – and writes opinion for Fiji’s biggest selling newspaper, the Fiji Sun.