PARLIAMENT question time: “How many MPs does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: “Twenty-one. One to change it and 20 to form a fact-finding committee to learn more about how it’s done.”
All jokes aside, the number of parliamentarians can become a serious problem if it is not capped, suggested a forum on redelineation organised by the Bar Council and electoral reform movement Tindak Malaysia recently.
The likely legislative seat increase is a crucial point to be considered as the Election Commission (EC) embarks on an exercise to redelineate electoral boundaries, Penang Institute fellow Dr Wong Chin Huat said at the “Gearing up for Redelineation” seminar and workshop in Kuala Lumpur.
Referring to the recent Sarawak state elections – which saw 11 new seats as a result of its 2015 redelineation exercise (82 seats were competed compared to 71 in the 2013 elections) – Dr Wong said the practice of increasing the number of parliament and state seats is now embedded in our redelineation process, arguing that the process is unconstitutional because a seat increase proposal would require an amendment of the Federal Constitution (Article 46), which would need a two-third majority vote in Parliament to be passed, while a redelineation proposal would only need a simple majority.
“They are two separate processes. The whole idea of redelineation is not for you to create new seats. The EC is supposed to redelineate based on the existing number (of legislative seats) but they are doing it the other way around,” he told Sunday Star.
Redelineation, which is conducted under Article 113(2)(i) of the Federal Constitution at least every eight years by the EC, is the (re)drawing of electoral boundaries to prevent imbalance of the voting population across polling districts.
A redelineation exercise was last completed in the peninsula, Sabah and Labuan in 2003 and in Sarawak in 2005.
EC chairman Datuk Seri Hashim Abdullah had told The Star in February that the redelineation exercise for Sabah will take place after this year’s Sarawak state elections (which was held in May), followed by the peninsula.
Redelineation can and should be separate from seat increase, stressed Dr Wong.
“The increase of legislative seats is not necessarily relative to the increase of an area’s population. In the United States, the House of Representatives today has 435 members as it did in 1911, even though the US population has tripled over the century.
“In Malaysia, the number of representatives in Parliament had increased from 144 seats since 1965 to 222 seats today. Malaysia now has one parliamentarian for every 63,167 voters.”
To have a large parliament is not only costly but also bad for democracy, Dr Wong highlighted.
“It is costly because MPs not only get a salary and allowances, but they also get a pension. More lawmakers also mean less time for each to speak and be heard in Parliament – our study shows that an MP spoke and was heard for an average of only two hours and thirty minutes in 2012.
“A larger legislature also makes it harder for lawmakers to unite and make decisions,” he noted.
“Most politicians from both divides support it also because it makes the allocation of seats for the coalitions’ component parties easier in our anti-competition party political system.”
As he poses, although society now is larger and more complex, does that mean we need more laws?
“The number of laws will not grow in the same proportion as population growth. For example, we don’t need more than one Budget or Immigration Law.
“What we need to deal with the problems and issues of a growing and changing society are more effective government agencies and local councillors, including having an elected local government,” he opined.
Dr Wong warned that if Parliament is allowed to grow at its current pace – from 8% to 12% every two elections – by 2089, we would have 553 MPs!
“You do not need a parliament to grow in size, like a teenager,” he stressed.
If seats need to be increased and Article 46 is amended, he said, instead of increasing the total number, seats should be taken from over-represented states like Pahang, Perak and Johor and given to under-represented states and territories like Selangor and Kuala Lumpur.
“Ultimately, once amended, the legislature size should be kept for at least 150 years as the parliament is already bloated,” he remarked, adding that the ideal process would be to have a parliamentary selection committee to look into the functions of the Parliament and its efficiency, as well as the optimal size and inter-state allocation.
“Most important is that the people have a right to question why we need more lawmakers and they are given the opportunity to give their feedback on the matter.”
“Redelineation is necessary to correct instances of malapportionment and gerrymandering, and it can, if correcting these anomalies is its only function.”
While as of now the people can only lobby their MP to make a stand on the issue of seat increase, the Federal Constitution provides for citizens to get involved in the redelineation process to stop malapportionment and gerrymandering, he added.
Bar Council Constitutional Law Committee member Arina Ong Xin Yi concurred, presenting the legal framework of constituency delineation.
The delineation process consists of two parts: apportionment and districting. Apportionment refers to the allocation of constituencies by an administrative unit, while districting means deciding how the boundaries should be drawn to create those constituencies within the administrative unit.
As Ong listed, under the Constitution (Section 2, Part 1, Thirteenth Schedule) the principles of constituency delineation include not crossing state boundaries; regard for the administrative facilities available for electoral registration and polling in the constituencies; the number of electors within each constituency ought to be approximately equal or have a measure of weightage for electors in rural constituencies that are difficult to reach and face other disadvantages; as well as the maintenance of local ties.
She pointed out that state governments, local authorities and any group of 100 or more affected voters can raise their objections within 30 days once the new boundaries are first displayed; based on the grounds of a violation of the mentioned principles (Section 2, Part 1, Thirteenth Schedule of the Federal Constitution), particularly on approximate equality in size of each constituency (Section 2c) or if the “local ties” requirement (Section 2d) is not adhered to.
The EC must hold a local inquiry to listen to the objections, she added. Should the boundaries be altered, it would need to repeat the display-objection-inquiry process again, but it is only mandated to hold two inquiries.
Tindak Malaysia agrees that citizens should help stop malapportionment and gerrymandering, by filing in their objections once the new boundaries are displayed.
Malapportionment is when the number of voters apportioned to constituencies varies widely from the constitutional dictate of “approximately equal”.
The difference, for one, should not be as big as between Kapar that had 144,159 voters in the 13th general election (GE13) and Sabak Bernam, which had only 37,318, or Putrajaya with 15,791.
Another example is the disparity between Selangor and Johor.
Although Article 46 now stipulates that Selangor has 22 parliamentary constituencies compared to Johor’s 26, the GE13 showed that Selangor had two million voters while Johor only 1.6 million. This gave a parliamentary constituency in Selangor an average of 93,129 voters, while Johor’s had only 61,743.
What this means, said Dr Wong, is the value of a vote in Kapar is much less than that of a vote in Sabak Bernam or Putrajaya, while a vote in Selangor is lower than a vote in Johor.
It has also been pointed out that after the 2003 redelineation exercise, in Selangor alone, five of 22 parliamentary constituencies and two state constituencies span across three local authorities, violating the principle of the need to preserve “local ties” of the Constitution.
This shows how important it is for the public to not only know about the relevant laws and procedures in order to have a voice in the electoral system of the country but also get involved in the redelineation exercise, says another speaker, Rise of Sarawak Efforts (Rose) chairperson Anne CJ Teo who shared at the forum their experience of becoming a “redelineation objector” and filing an application for leave to challenge the EC’s redelineation exercise in Sarawak last year.
The Federal Court, however, had dismissed the application and the EC’s proposal for the number of state seats in Sarawak to be increased from 71 to 82 was subsequently passed in Parliament with a simple majority two months later.
EC chief Hashim had rubbished the allegations of foul play.
“For Sarawak, we need to increase the number of constituencies because some seats there are even bigger than some states in Peninsular Malaysia.
“Some claim that with the seat increase, people can be brought in illegally to place votes for a certain party but this is not true, I have not seen this happen yet,” he had told the press.
Said Hashim, the redelineation of electoral boundaries for the entire country can be completed before the next general election, due in 2018, if there are no legal challenges to the exercise.
“If there are disruptions and challenges, the entire redelineation exercise can take longer to complete, possibly even after 2018,” he had said.
Teo insisted that it is necessary for ordinary citizens to participate in this process of electoral reform, “to ensure a healthy and robust democracy”.