My anarchist Glaswegian grandfather was a man of many strange theories. Some of them, I have subsequently realized, were actually rather clever and forward-thinking; others still seem to be pretty daft.
Here are five of his theories that rise immediately to the top of my mind:
That women should be paid the same as men. (This idea was positively heretical for most of my grandfather’s working life.)
That the first words of any constitution should be: “Government shall pass no unnecessary laws”. (My grandfather hoped this would make politicians argue so much that they’d hardly pass any laws at all.)
That herbicides and pesticides are dangerous to the environment and should be used very sparingly. (For most of my grandfather’s life the prevailing philosophy was “too much is not enough”.)
That classical music is without merit, and listening to it will make you depressed. (My grandfather knew some depressed people who liked classical music).
That the New Zealand parliament should have two upper houses each comprising citizens chosen at random to form what my grandfather called a “parliamentary jury”.
As a child and young teenager, I held the opinion that four-fifths of the theories on this list were absolutely bonkers (Theory #1 being the obvious exception). But nowadays I’m not so sure that my grandfather was quite as wrong-headed as I once thought.
I recently had a discussion with a former colleague about the lack of checks and balances in New Zealand’s parliament. My former colleague considered it a shame that Jim Bolger’s scheme for an elected senate had been abandoned. This, in turn, prompted me to mention my grandfather’s proposal for two upper houses in New Zealand. “That’s an intriguing idea,” said my friend. “You should get him to write an article about it.”
It is unfortunate that my grandfather is no longer around to fulfil this request. But after some consideration I find myself inclined to agree that his concept is worth putting down in writing. In many ways, my grandfather seemed destined to have been a political blogger; he just had the misfortune to be born at the wrong time. So it seems only reasonable that I should correct history’s bad timing by giving his ideas an airing on the internet.
My grandfather’s proposal for two upper houses arose out of his dissatisfaction with the parliamentary systems in both his native Britain and his adopted home of New Zealand. He despised the British House of Lords with its millionaire toffs, bishops, and inbred nobility; but acknowledged that it provided a useful check on the House of Commons. On the other hand, while he approved of the absence of bishops and hereditary peers in New Zealand’s parliament, he felt that the House of Representatives were dangerously unchecked without some sort of upper house.
But my grandfather also doubted the ability of elected politicians to act as a check on other elected politicians. “The inherent problem with politicians,” he often proclaimed, “is that they are politicians.” It goes without saying, of course, that he disapproved of any upper house whose members were appointed by the leader of the lower house, as effectively happened in New Zealand’s old Legislative Council.
Hence my grandfather’s unorthodox proposal for two demarchic upper houses. Here’s how he envisioned the system would work:
The first upper house (or “Senior Parliamentary Jury”) would consist of 12 randomly selected citizens between the ages of 70 and 75. The age of these jurors would give them considerable life experience to draw upon when making decisions, but perhaps would also incline them to be socially conservative. They would almost certainly be retired, and so the time lost to their jury service would be unlikely to hinder their careers.
The second upper house (or “Junior Parliamentary Jury”) would consist of 12 randomly selected citizens between the ages of 20 and 25. The age of these jurors would tend to make them willing to experiment with new ideas, and perhaps to be more socially liberal. They would be unlikely to have a house or children, or to be firmly established in a career; and so the time lost to jury service would not be an undue hindrance to their future life.
The selection process for parliamentary juries would be the same as used for court juries, and the same eligibility criteria would apply to potential jurors as to potential elected members of parliament. In addition to this, the government and opposition would each be allocated a “challenge” with which they could block the appointment of a particular juror whom they believed to be unsuitable.
In their parliamentary roles, these juries would not be able to initiate bills themselves—but bills from the House of Representatives would not be able to pass without securing a supporting majority in either the Senior or Junior Parliamentary Jury. In other words, the final passage of a bill could be blocked if both upper houses simultaneously had a majority of jurors voting against it. Only finance and expenditure bills would be excluded from this process.
The jurors would serve a one-year term, so that the longest period that any bill could be delayed by any particular set of jurors would be one year. Jurors would not be permitted to serve more than one term in their lives.
My grandfather was quick to point out a number of good reasons for using jurors rather than elected politicians to provide a check on the House of Representatives:
Jurors don’t have to get themselves elected, i.e. they don’t have to fund-raise or have any relationship with campaign donors.
Jurors aren’t beholden to any political party or concerned with advancing a political career.
Jurors can’t be manipulated by an established government bureaucracy or civil service.
There are no barriers to juror selection in terms of class, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, profession, or level of education.
Over time, the make-up of jurors will be statistically likely to represent society (except, of course, with regard to age distribution in my grandfather’s particular scheme).
My grandfather’s choice of age as the method of dividing the two parliamentary juries is rather ingenious. In theory, I suppose, the juries could be divided by any means (such as, for example, sex or level of education) so as to make them as dissimilar as possible—the idea being, of course, that if two very dissimilar upper houses agree about blocking a bill then there’s probably a sound basis for doing so.
But dividing the parliamentary juries according to age gives an added advantage over other approaches. The match between parliament and society in terms of sex, class, and ethnicity has improved dramatically in my lifetime. But there are obvious practical reasons why those aged under 25 and over 70 will always be under-represented. My grandfather’s proposal addresses the lack of representation for these age groups while at the same time providing the intended check on the House of Representatives.
As he put it: “The House of Representatives is a reflection of present society. The Junior Parliamentary Jury would be a reflection of the future and the importance of having a good country for young people to inherit. The Senior Parliamentary Jury would be a reflection of the past and the wisdom that can be drawn from society’s previous successes and failures.”
There are certainly a couple of potential disadvantages associated with parliamentary juries: primarily due to the chances of selecting an extremely eccentric juror, or the problems associated with compelling an unenthusiastic juror to serve. But the ability of the House of Representatives to challenge the appointment of jurors would minimize the chances of the former; and the age division of the juries would minimize the latter, since both age groups are at a time in their lives when the inconvenience would be comparatively minor (and, no doubt, both age groups are also at a time in their lives when a parliamentary salary would tend to balance out a considerable degree of unenthusiasm).
Of course, there are endless minor details that could be discussed. Should the upper houses be physically situated in Wellington? (My grandfather favoured one in Northland and one in Southland.) What resources in terms of researchers or administrators might the jurors be allocated? What would be the rules with respect to jurors receiving delegations from the public or elected politicians? To what extent would jurors be permitted to discuss the internal proceedings of the upper houses? These are all interesting details; but I don’t think any of them are particularly difficult to resolve.
My grandfather always acknowledged that governments in New Zealand are elected to govern. Unfortunately, however, history has clearly shown that our governments don’t always govern as promised; and sometimes embark on radical programmes that were never mentioned in their election manifestos. Often there may be good reasons for governments to do these things; but if a government bill is rejected by a majority in two different parliamentary juries (with radically different compositions) then there’s a high probability that the bill genuinely isn’t a good idea, and that it’s to the country’s benefit that it doesn’t pass.
I’m under no illusion that John Key (or any members of his executive) will read this account and suddenly declare that New Zealand needs two demarchic upper houses. But the more I think about my grandfather’s proposal, the more I admire its ingenuity as a means of providing an efficient check on the House of Representatives without reducing the government to a state of paralysis. In many ways it’s not even such a radical proposal—after all, juries are an established means of reaching an impartial verdict, and their use has been refined over hundreds (at least) of years.
I’ve spent many hours of my life arguing with my grandfather over his strange theories. In writing about his proposal for parliamentary juries, I find myself with the same thought that often used to strike me after these arguments: “It probably is a daft idea, but wouldn’t it be interesting if somebody tried it?”
Above: My grandfather (second from left) deep in political thought.