Currently, there are 50 seats in the Solomons parliament. There were only 38 seats when it was established in 1978 and it has only increased twice since (to 47 seats before the 1993 election and then to 50 seats before the 1997 election).
Section 54 of the Constitution (cited in full at the end of this post) states that there shall be 30-50 seats in Parliament and that the exactly number shall be based on the recommendation of the Constituency Boundaries Commission. Since Parliament has already reached the maximum number of seats, a constitutional amendment is now required if it is to expand further.
The Government proposed just such an amendment last year and the Constituency Boundaries Commisssion (CBC) has just handed down a report recommending that an additional 17 seats be established (see Solomon Times, 2/2/10). The provincial break-down is: four more for Malaita, three more for Guadalcanal and Western and one more for each of the other Provinces and also for Honiara.
This seems like a large increase but really this is just because Parliament has only expanded twice in 22 years and the last time was 13 years ago. Based on some quick-and-dirty calculations, I reckon that the recommended increase is probably less than the population growth that occurred during the same period. (I also reckon that this is appropriate, however, since there doesn’t seem to be any reason why the number of voters per electorate should remain fixed over time. Also, I can’t see any requirement to that effect in the Constitution.)
The CBC’s recommendation raises several issues.
First, the proposed constitutional amendment aims increase to increase the range of seats in Parliament from 30-50 (as it currently stands) to 50-70 seats (in future). However, if the CBC recommendation is adopted, then it is highly likely that Parliament will have to amend the constitution again the next time there is a recommendation to increase the number of seats. Given that population growth is likely to remain strong for some time to come, perhaps it would be wise to increase the upper cap to 80 or even 90 seats (or, more radically, why not do away with it entirely and leave it in the hands of the CBC, subject to parliamentary approval?).
Second, if the necessary changes are approved by Parliament in March, the task of implementation is likely to place additional pressure on the SI electoral commission, given there will be at most 4-5 months between parliamentary approval of the additional seats and the date of any election.
Huge bonus for sitting MPs
Finally, the CBC’s recommendation is likely to be a huge bonus for sitting MPs, especially since section 54 only allows them to accept or reject the recommendation (that is, Parliament does not have the power to approve a smaller increase). When Parliament expanded from 38 to 47 members before the 1993 election, 31 out of 38 incumbent members (82%) were re-elected. By contrast, in the six other elections since independence, on average only 44% of incumbents were re-elected and no other election has returned more than 58% of incumbents.
Sam Alasia suggests that the success of incumbents in 1993 may have been due in part to the introduction in 1992 of a discretionary fund for MPs to distribute to their electorates (Alasia 1997, p.12) – the now-infamous Rural Constituency Development Fund (RCDF). Clearly, however, the increase in the number of seats also played a role because the competition in that election was less fierce – in 1993, there were only 6.0 candidates per electorate, the lowest level of any post-indendepence election. By contrast, in five other elections, the average was 6.7 candidates per electorate. (This excludes the exceptional case of the 2006 election, which averaged 9.1 candidates per electorate.)
Perhaps it is these considerations, rather than the pressure imposed on the Electoral Commission, will weigh uppermost on the minds of parliamentarians when they deliberate on this matter in March?
As mentioned above, the number of seats in Parliament is governed by Section 54 of the Constitution. Here are the relevant provisions:
54.-(1) For the purpose of the election of members of Parliament, Solomon Islands shall be divided into such number of constituencies, being not less than thirty and not more than fifty, and each constituency shall have such boundaries, as may be prescribed by Parliament by resolution on a recommendation of the Constituency Boundaries Commission in accordance with subsection (4) of this section.
(2) The Constituency Boundaries Commission shall make recommendations to Parliament with respect to the number and boundaries of constituencies as soon as practicable after the commencement of this Constitution; and thereafter the Commission may review the number and boundaries of the constituencies whenever they consider this to be desirable and shall do so not later than ten years after they last reviewed them, and may make recommendations to Parliament for alterations in the number and boundaries of the constituencies.
(3) In making recommendations under the preceding subsection, the Constituency Boundaries Commission shall have regard to the principle that the number of inhabitants of each constituency shall be as nearly equal as is reasonably practicable:
Provided that the Commission may depart from the foregoing principle to such extent as they consider expedient in order to take account of the distribution of the population, the means of communication, and ethnic affiliations.
(4) Parliament may, by resolution, approve or reject the recommendations of the Constituency Boundaries Commission but may not vary them; and, if so approved, the recommendations shall have effect as from the next dissolution of Parliament.