Editorial: The cost of democracy

Last updated 07:44 18/02/2013

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Democracy costs. And quite a lot actually, as we were reminded last week with the release of MPs' expenses.

All up, $1million, give or take $44,000. And that was just for the three months to December. And only their travel and accommodation expenses.

Once you add in the running of Parliament, MPs salaries and those of support staff and electoral offices, and we're looking at around $150 million a year.

But it costs what it costs, right?

We'd grizzle if our MPs didn't get out and about in their electorates, and much good work is done by electorate office staff in sorting the queries and problems we ordinary citizens have.

There are concerns though.

This National-led Government has shown a determination to reduce the costs of running government departments, yet MPs have been slow to rein in their own spending.

Every three years the Parliamentary Appropriations Review Committee reports on MPs' spending, and its last version, tabled in 2009, said increases in spending exceeded by a wide margin the rate of growth in the economy, and that the trend was unsustainable.

We're still waiting for the next report, but there are no indications things have changed much.

But what to do?

One solution would be to reinvestigate reducing the number of MPs from 120 to, say, 99.

We've had one go at this, but despite 81.47 per cent of us supporting it in a 1999 referendum, MPs ignored it. A private member's bill in 2006 made it through one reading, but was tossed out 112 votes to nine at the second.

Would we miss 20 MPs? I'd challenge anyone to name the 120 we've got now. Heavens, how many people could even state how many MPs each party has.

Until recently few would have been able to name more than one NZ First MP, although we know a couple more now.

Another cost saver would be changing the electoral term to four years rather than three, saving the cost of an election every 12 years.

This has twice gone to referendum, and twice we've been reluctant, 68 per cent in favour of staying at three years in 1967 and 69 per cent in 1990.

Perhaps we're afraid of getting stuck with a bad government for too long, but the counter is we might turn governments over more often, not giving them that extra term.

And save some money in the process.

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- The Timaru Herald

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