Do You Really Have to Go?

Lessons for Canada and New Zealand on resignations of MPs

A recent article by Audrey Young in the New Zealand Herald observes that the number of resignations of Members of New Zealand’s Parliament during the course of the terms for which they were elected has increased since the country moved from the first-past-the-post electoral system (which Canada now has) to the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system. Ms. Young also writes about proposals to reduce the number of resignations. There may be something for both Canada and New Zealand to learn from each other here.

The overall numbers are stark: “In the 20 years before MMP began in 1996, there were 14 vacancies ― nine caused by resignations of MPs and six by deaths while in office. [NOTE: It occurs to me that the numbers don’t add up; but the correct figure is relatively unimportant here.] In the 20 years since … there have been 48 vacancies”, 45 of them caused by resignations. New Zealand’s Parliament was enlarged when MMP was introduced, but the increase of its membership from just below 100 to 120 does not account for the growth in the number of resignations. Of course, correlation does not equal causation; but there are in fact good reasons to think that there is causation here.

Most significantly, Ms. Young notes that of the 45 MPs who resigned, 30 were “list MPs”. Yet there are at one time only 50 (or, with the occasional addition of overhang seats, sometimes 51 or 52) such MPs in New Zealand’s Parliament, compared to 70 elected in single-member districts. The smaller pool of list MPs is providing two thirds of all resignations. And it’s not hard to see why that might be the case: when a list MP resigns, he or she is simply replaced “by the next available candidate on the party list.” There is little cost for the party, for getting a soon-to-retire or an out-of-favour MP to retire, and replacing him or her with a more eager or better liked one.

Yet David McGee, a former Clerk of the New Zealand Parliament, writes in the Herald that all these resignations are “deleterious to the institution of Parliament and to the sense of obligation that members should feel to it”. While does not elaborate this very much, he adds that “[m]embers in the final year of a Parliament can and should be expected to contribute to its work for the full term that they have signed up to”. And so Mr. McGee suggests a solution to this problem. “In the case of list members … any vacancy occasioned by resignation should not be filled.” This will disincentivize the parties, which prompt most these resignations, from ever doing so.

For Canadian advocates of electoral reform generally, and especially of MMP (which I take it is the most popular option among reformers), there is a warning here. Electoral reform is likely to bring in more resignations ― and more MPs brought in from lower down party lists, without the publicity or scrutiny of elections. An unintended consequence, no doubt, but arguably still an unpleasant one. And solution proposed by Mr. McGee is not very appealing either, it seems to me; it is too dependent, for its attractiveness, on complete success. If it fails to prevent resignations, then it will result in departures from the principle of proportionality of representation ― and in a finely balanced Parliament might even cause a change in the balance of power. And to achieve the absolute success it requires, Mr. McGee’s proposal incentivizes parties in a way that is arguably no less perverse than that of the current system for being its opposite: a party will do everything to keep a list member, even one involved in scandal or found to simply be incompetent, from resigning, and diminishing its power. As Edward Willis points out,

the ability for politicians to resign is usually understood to be an important accountability mechanism. Politicians do not always cover themselves in glory, and sometimes the people want (metaphorical) blood. Falling on one’s sword in a public manner demonstrates the accountability of the political system to the people at the level of the individual politician, and for that reason alone I would be hesitant to put anything in the way that would prevent or inhibit political resignations.

The same concerns arise with respect to Mr. McGee’s proposal for dealing with resignations of MPs elected by constituencies, Mr. McGee argues that

as a condition of being declared elected, electorate members should be required to enter into a bond to serve through the full term of the parliament. The amount of the bond would not cover the full cost of a byelection … but it should be sufficiently high to provide a financial disincentive to resignation for the member and for the party backing the member.

The only exception he would make to the application of these penalties would be for those MPs who resign “on health grounds proved to the satisfaction of the Speaker or the Electoral Commission”.

The idea is similar to one that has already been implemented in Québec, where the Act Respecting the Conditions of Employment and the Pension Plan of the Members of the National Assembly provides, since 2015, that the Assembly members who do not complete the term for which they were elected forfeit the “transition allowance” to which they would otherwise be entitled. Pursuant to section 12 of the Act, a member who resigns can only get his or her allowance upon proving, to the satisfaction of the Assembly’s Ethics Commissioner, that the “resignation is due to a serious family matter or to a major health issue affecting him or a member of his immediate family.”

When this idea was first floated in 2013 by the then-Minister responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, Bernard Drainville ― who would later resign from the National Assembly in June 2016, right in the middle of a legislative term ― I criticized it here. I noted that the supposed “moral contract” between the voters and their representatives, which bound the latter to serve out their terms, appeared to be a matter of wishful thinking, if the experience of the leader of Mr. Drainville’s own party was anything to go by. Pauline Marois had resigned from the National Assembly in 2006, saying that “her heart [was] no longer in it”, and yet came back and was elected again in 2007, later becoming Premier. More importantly, though, I wrote that “requiring members of the assembly to serve out their terms would have perverse effects”, notably in that

it would incentivize a member mired in ethical problems, or even one charged with an offense, to cling to his or her seat rather than resigning and giving it up to another, better able to represent his or her constituents. And more broadly, citizens would not be well served by a representatives whose heart … was no longer in it, and who only show up at the Assembly in order to eventually collect their allowance. Mr. Drainville’s proposal would likely create such zombies.

Needless to say, not many people pay heed to my rants, and the proposal had sufficient bipartisan support that it was eventually enacted, not by Mr. Drainville’s Parti québécois, but by the Liberals who replaced them in government in the meantime.

If New Zealaders get serious about taking action against MP resignations, they would do well to consider Québec’s experience. It is still very brief, but perhaps already instructive. My worries about zombie-MNAs waiting to collect their allowance might have been exaggerated, though of course it is impossible to tell. What is clear, however, is that a financial penalty will not deter at least some legislators from resigning mid-term. Mr. Drainville himself did it, to take up a radio talk-show host job, after Pierre-Karl Péladeau resigned as Parti québécois leader and quit politics. Mr. Péladeau’s own resignation might have fallen within the scope of the “serious family matter” exemption, but his case also shows that a penalty that would be a serious matter for most people would have been of no concern at all to someone as wealthy as he is.

Indeed, this may be unsurprising. In New Zealand itself already denies any sort of golden parachute to members of Parliament who leave before the end of their term. Section 11 of the Members of Parliament (Remuneration and Services) Act 2013 only provides an “additional salary” to those who are “member[s] of Parliament immediately before the dissolution of a Parliament” ― and yet it has not stopped resignations. Admittedly, the amount to which members who serve out their term are entitled is only three months of salary, as opposed to up to a year in Québec. Still, that many choose to forego it ― even leaving just months before they would become eligible for it ― suggests that when a legislator becomes sick and tired of legislating, he or she may walk away from easy money just to get away from it. (Take that, all you cynics who think that politicians are only in it for greed or lust for power!)

Our institutions have flaws; sometimes, very visible, even obvious flaws. Members of Parliament resign without finishing the job for which they were elected; governments come to office without the support of a majority of the people. It is tempting to look for an easy fix to these flaws. But these fixes may be less effective than they seem, and may create problems of their own if implemented. Moving to an electoral system featuring party lists may raise the number of parliamentary resignations; requiring prospective MPs to pay a bond to ensure against their resignation may fail to provide that insurance, yet deter the less well off from standing for office. Tinkering with the rules may feel satisfactory, but it is perhaps better to remember that no system is perfect.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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