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Debate: Unicameral legislatures

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Is a unicameral legislature a good idea?

Background and context

The most common legislative model features a bicameral parliament, congress or assembly, with a ‘lower’ house and a ‘upper’ house – as in countries such as the UK, Canada, Australia and the USA. However, a unicameral system is surprisingly widespread in established democracies, such as Denmark’s Folketing, Finland’s Eduskunta, Israel’s Knesset, New Zealand’s House of Representatives, South Korea’s Kukhoe, Singapore’s Parliament and Sweden’s Riksdag. Furthermore, unicameral models exist within federal systems; the German Bundeslander, Nebraska’s state congress in the USA and Queensland in Australia are ‘unicameral’ – the legislature has only one house. The UK’s devolved Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies are all unicameral too.

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Argument #1

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Yes

Swift decision-making results from removing the unnecessary stumbling block to action that is a second chamber. All too often a proposal receives detailed scrutiny and debate over many months in one chamber, only for the process to be pointlessly repeated in the other.

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No

Time for reflection is important in the creation of laws. A lack of reflection often results in rashly-made, knee-jerk legislation. This is even worse when the executive is drawn from the majority group in the legislature, as in the UK or Israel, meaning that there is no check on rule-making. Having two houses also brings different perspectives to the process of scrutiny, as their members are often chosen in quite different ways, e.g. in the UK the House of Commons is elected, the House of Lords appointed or hereditary; in the USA and Germany, the lower house is elected by popular vote while the upper house represents the interests of different states.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Running legislatures is a seriously expensive business. Halving the legislature saves a great deal of taxpayers’ cash. This is especially true in small or poor countries who can use their money to much better effect: it seems very wrong to spend a lot of money on politicians when people are starving. For this reason, many countries in Africa have unicameral legislatures.

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No

Some unicameral legislatures aren’t cheap – the important thing is the number of politicians, not the number of houses. Anyway, this really is a marginal issue given the sums involved in government – and it is worth the money to ensure that we’re governed in the best possible fashion. In countries with histories of corruption, it’s especially important to ensure that there are checks and balances on the use of power.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Unicameral legislatures sometimes offer more opportunity to politicians to speak their mind and act independently. Members of the Nebraska ‘Unicameral’ appear on a non-partisan ballot and the top two candidates then fight the election proper. The legislature itself also operates on a non-partisan basis.

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No

Representation is reduced in the most literal of senses – the number of people in the legislature is cut. This makes it more difficult for people of minority views to be heard, as by definition it becomes less likely that a representative holds that view if you reduce the number of representatives. Think on how significant a reduction in variety of views is likely to be when the potential cut is as high as 2/3 the total number of legislators.

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Argument #4

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Yes

As long as governments come to power through democratic means, how exactly can they be said to have ‘too much power?’ They have a mandate to act, and a second chamber only acts as an unjust stumbling block on that, frustrating the will of democratic opinion. Often, second chambers have been disposed of democratically, as voters recognise them as being a waste of time and money. The citizens of Queensland voted for their state legislature to become unicameral in 1922; Nebraska’s followed in 1934.

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No

Governments are too powerful in unicameral systems. It might be work well in legislatures such as Nebraska’s, which is supposedly non-partisan – but what of the other, more numerous legislatures such as Queensland’s, which are not? The Labour dominance in that legislature is unhealthy – the lack of real opposition gives too much power to the government of the day.

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Argument #5

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Yes

When a second chamber is appointed in any method other than democratic election, its blocking of the primary house is unjust. When it is appointed democratically, it rivals the first house, both claiming a mandate and rendering authority unclear and damaging governmental activity.

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No

Second chambers have a very different job to the primary legislative body. Their responsibility is usually to analyse in depth and in detail the legislation that the primary body produces. For example, the British House of Lords forms committees that analyses legislation line by line. The first body just doesn’t have the time for this kind of activity. It makes for the passing of good law and the avoidance of bad. Rivalry is unusual in reality. In democratic houses, that’s because the houses are normally elected in different ways – it is made clear by longer terms and different geographical constituencies that make it clear that their mandate is different. In non-elected houses the very act of appointment demonstrates the presence of the chamber’s members for a particular task, different to the business of day-to-day government.

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