No Higher Authority: The animating principle of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is that no parliament may bind another: that the popular will recognises no impediments. In spite of former National governments taking full advantage of that principle, the present government is seeking to lock -in its "dirty deal" with Sky City Casino for the next 35 years.
BILL ENGLISH has just delivered his fifth budget. No doubt he is proud of his achievement, even if, like any experienced parliamentarian, he knows that all political achievements are as grass: “In the morning it is green, and groweth up: but in the evening it is cut down, dried up, and withered.”
The budget decisions, law changes and back-room deals of one parliament are always at risk of being laid low by the next. This is so because the animating principle of parliamentary sovereignty is that no parliament may bind another. Were it not so, democracy would be a cruel sham, and the expression “electoral mandate” would have no meaning.
The Greens understand the principle of parliamentary sovereignty very well. Indeed, we saw it applied earlier this week, when they declared that, if elected, they will void the compensation agreement just negotiated between the present, National-dominated parliament and Sky City Casino.
The Greens have strong moral objections to what they are calling “this dirty deal”. They do not believe that it’s “okay” for a government to promise extra pokie machines, more gaming tables and a thirty-five year extension of the casino’s gambling licence in return for Sky City building Auckland a convention centre. Nor will they accept the National Government’s attempt to bind future parliaments to the deal by promising Sky City millions of taxpayer dollars if a future government decides to modify or cancel the agreement.
The outraged response from senior government figures to the Green’s announcement is more than a little worrying. None of them appear to understand the long-standing constitutional convention that one parliament cannot bind another. The Economic Development Minister, Steven Joyce, in particular, appears to believe that forcing future parliaments to honour present deals is simply good business practice. Something akin to taking out insurance against unforeseen disasters. (By which he presumably means the election of a Labour-Green Government!)
Ironically, the National Party has never demonstrated the slightest respect for deals done, contracts signed, or even civil rights conferred by previous parliaments. Perhaps the most egregious example of a National Party-dominated parliament simply tearing-up a contract negotiated and signed by its Labour Party-dominated predecessor occurred 52 years ago, in 1961.
The Second Labour Government (1957-60) had embarked on an ambitious programme of industrial development. One of the more significant elements of Labour’s plan was the construction of a large cotton mill outside Nelson. Tenders were called and a contract eventually signed with a British-based company by the New Zealand Government.
Before construction could get underway, however, the 1960 General Election produced a National Party majority in the House of Representatives. A group of newly-elected National MPs, led by the pugnacious young Member for Tamaki, Robert Muldoon, were bitterly opposed to the Nelson cotton mill and prevailed upon their caucus colleagues to call a halt to its construction. The signed legal contract with the British company was simply abrogated. Obviously, the British were miffed, but, being followers of the same Westminster traditions of representative government as New Zealanders, they also understood: one parliament cannot bind another.
Twenty-three years ago, in 1990, an incoming National Government again felt under no obligation to respect the legislated will of previous New Zealand parliaments. The Employment Contracts Act of 1991 stripped nearly a century’s-worth of accumulated legal rights from hundreds of thousands of New Zealand workers. Their hard-won contracts of employment, known as “national awards”, were simply legislated out of existence.
Of course, the National Party and its ideological allies will neither recognise, nor concede, the flagrant political hypocrisy involved in any attempt to prevent the Left from invoking the same, long-standing, constitutional conventions to which the Right has had repeated recourse over the past six decades.
The conservative notion that the social, economic and political status-quo represents not the transitory victory of a particular political party, but the natural order of the universe, has a long and disreputable pedigree. It explains why statements of principled intent, like the Greens’, are treated as proof not only of wilful stupidity - but downright wickedness - by the Right.
What such responses betray is the Right’s deep-seated unease with the whole idea of democracy. National’s insistence that its deal with Sky City – a deal many Kiwis revile as both improper and immoral – must remain sacrosanct, is, of itself, the best reason for breaking it.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 May 2013.