Tuesday 13 February 2018

No Matter Whether You’re Red Or Blue – You Must Keep Paddling In Your Own Canoe.

Each To Their Own: More than any other party, NZ First has good reason for seeking legislative protection against “waka jumping”. It was, after all, NZ First that, in August 1998, was forced to watch eight members of its caucus jump out of their own party’s waka to become either solo kayakers or de facto paddlers in National’s.

SHOULD MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT be permitted to jump from their own party’s waka into the waka of another political party? The question is more than rhetorical because under the provisions of the Election (Integrity) Amendment Bill, currently before Parliament’s Justice Select Committee, political defection by parliamentarians will render them liable to expulsion from the House of Representatives.

Introduced last December by Justice Minister, Andrew Little, in fulfilment of the coalition agreement between Labour and NZ First, the Bill is being strenuously opposed by the National Party and Act. The Greens, having supported the legislation’s introduction, are now entertaining some pretty outspoken second thoughts.

Why the fuss? Who could seriously oppose the idea of penalising politicians who head off to war in the coat of one army only to turn it when the heat of battle grows too hot?

Many New Zealanders would endorse the argument of the bill’s NZ First promoters: If you don’t like what your party is doing, then quit. It is, quite simply, unethical to upset the balance of the House of Representatives by giving another political party, or parties, votes that they did not win.

More than any other party, NZ First has good reason for seeking legislative protection against “waka jumping”. It was, after all, NZ First that, in August 1998, was forced to watch eight members of its caucus jump out of their own party’s waka to become either solo kayakers or de facto paddlers in National’s.

That spectacular act of political mendacity was glossed-over at the time and has remained largely unexamined ever since. National’s supporters were too busy celebrating their escape from the clutches of their erstwhile colleague, Winston Peters. While Labour voters were prepared to write-off the whole episode as but the first instalment in the political retribution NZ First had well-and-truly merited by leaving Helen Clark standing at the altar.

The unacknowledged truth of the matter, however, was that the nature and general policy direction of a New Zealand government had been fundamentally changed without the fuss-and-bother of a general election. The last occasion upon which such a change-of-government-by-political-defection had been accomplished was the destruction of Thomas Mackenzie’s Liberal Government by the Reform Party leader, William Massey, in 1912.

But, if it suited both National and Labour to turn a blind eye to this blatant assault upon New Zealand’s constitutional norms, it was never forgotten by Winston Peters and NZ First. Nor, indeed, by the late Jim Anderton, who had, similarly, been required to sit back and watch as the renegade Alliance MP, Alamein Kopu, took tea with Jenny Shipley and cast her vote with the National Party.

National and Act’s “principled” opposition to the Election (Integrity) Amendment Bill should, therefore, be taken with a grain of salt.

The Opposition’s objection to the legislation, if the speeches of its MPs can be taken seriously, is because Members of the House of Representatives are there to carry out the wishes of their constituents – not the orders of backroom party chieftains.

If that was ever true, then it was only in the era before the establishment of coherent and tightly disciplined political parties. Since the advent of party politics (which in New Zealand dates from around 1890) candidates have taken their parliamentary seats not on the strength of their character and ability, but courtesy of the political colours they stand under, and the support those colours attract.

This crucial role played by political parties has been further entrenched and strengthened by the introduction of Mixed Member Proportional Representation.

That being the case, becoming a political turncoat is not simply an act of personal moral inadequacy, but of constitutional vandalism. New Zealanders elect parties to govern them – not individuals. Members of Parliament who repudiate their party spit in the face of the whole ethos of representative government.

“Oh, but what about the individual member’s conscience!”, cry the waka-jumping legislation’s opponents. “Is that to be sacrificed to faceless party bureaucrats?”

The only answer to that is: “Of course not!” But, that does not mean that members of parliament are free to do as they please. If an MP no longer finds it possible, in good conscience, to support his or her party, then the only ethical course of action is to resign.

That is precisely what Winston Peters did in 1993 (and what Jim Anderton should have done in 1989). By resigning, Peters gave the electors of Tauranga the opportunity to reject or endorse his refusal to toe National’s party line. Would that his colleagues, four years later, had demonstrated a similar respect for the basic tenets of representative democracy.

There really is no need for the Greens to further equivocate on this matter. The only politicians opposing the Election (Integrity) Amendment Bill are those who have no qualms about rorting our representative democracy.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 13 February 2018.


David Stone said...

Victor can probably throw some light on this, but I always imagined that in the formative years of our modified Westminster system, the MPs were all pretty much independents . And political parties very much less significant in the system or non-existent. I have always thought that if they could somehow be outlawed, and MPs elected out of communities small enough (as they are in NZ) for the candidates were known to most voters. They could go off to do they job in Wellington with no baggage of pre arranged position on every matter that comes up,and we would have a much more honest, transparent and forthright management of the country.
The existence of parties creates the situation where the priority in every decision that is made is whether it gains leverage over the other parties. Whether it is in the best interest of the country is a secondary consideration. Nearly all the time spent in parliament , speeches, and thought , is focused on criticising , ridiculing and lambasting the opposite side instead of dealing objectively with the issues of the day. So in that sense I would have to support complete freedom for all members to say and vote their own opinions.
Regrettably though ,it is hard to imagine how parties could be eradicated, they would just go underground.And the present system depends on their existence, so that being the situation we are essentially voting for a party, not an individual, so the list MPs anyway have no legitimate right to be there if they can't abide their parties' position any more. Esp. as the list system means there is someone available to replace them without any disruption.

greywarbler said...

I don't know why Greens should be equivocating. I haven't time to read all this post; made my mind up previously. My opinion is based on the, to me, straightforward and obvious point that a candidate becoming an elected MP should live up to what and how they represented themselves to the voters.

If they stand as a member of one party they should stay there after the election. If the practices of the party change to the extent the person can no longer abide with them, then that person needs to stand down, with an explanation of why, and the seat be put before the voters again. The principled previous MP can choose to stand as an independent or join with another party then. Then the voters can decide if they want to have this changeable person who chose not to stay within their Party and fight for a better vision and behaviour.

It is not a log-rolling contest where people change position as they float down river, to keep their balance. It is an action based on a reasoned decision to stand for Parliament either as an independent - which is hard and expensive - or as part of a team of one political Party which will give guidance and support on presenting to the voters. The elected or chosen list MPs are as good as married for the duration, and this voter objects to the idea of a representative jumping waka, yacht or power cruiser, or choosing the path less chosen because they have decided they are too good for this crowd, as this is a personal decision that has not been sanctioned by the voters, who are supposed to be the deciders.

If the Greens have got some mixed-up PC idea about freedom or finer feelings leaving an MP unable to bear to mix with previous compatriots, yet feel okay to follow their own pretensions, then they are missing the point of our democratic process. The candidates are chosen from the listed, approved selection by the voters in our election which tries to ensure each vote given receives equal weight; ensured with our change to MMP. The winning candidate then must stick to his or her promise and be true to their political alignment at voting time. This should be a legal requirement; and we can't chuck the MP out without having some heavy Court case showing good reason.

Victor said...

I agree with you, Chris. Under MMP, members are elected to represent their respective parties and have no business being in Parliament if they swap parties.

This would not been so under STV (the only other truly proportional system). But that's not the direction that we chose to go in, rather to my regret at the time.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I'm trying to remember my New Zealand politics, but it's not working. But I must say, that I'm not sure I want a system where the whip is so weak that politics becomes totally parochial. Admittedly – in the US it can lead to cooperation across parties – but it also seems to lead to a lot of pork.

Victor said...


Moi? I'm just a poor immigrant lad who learned all he knows about New Zealand history from a Pelican Book by someone called Keith Sinclair, picked up in a second hand bookshop on the Charing Cross Road shortly ahead of emigration! Only later, did I learn that the author was quite famous.

For what it's worth, I think you're correct and that the Liberals were the first proper party here circa 1890. It seems to me that their success as groundbreaking social reformers provides a powerful argument for the usefulness of parties.

But there are surely other frequenters of this site who know far more than me about all that.

That said, although I think MMP is a very good system, it's main downside (everything has at least one downside) is that it increases the power of party bureaucracies to an even greater degree than did FPP.

In contrast, STV would have tended to increase the status of the individual MP whilst also making her or him more vulnerable to shifts in public perception.

How a public reared on FPP would have reacted to this radically different system is, however, the stuff of nightmares. MMP's been hard enough.

sumsuch said...

That NZ First divided in the late 90s said a great deal about their mixed-up-ness. When I was a child I could manage to put a title to my 'books', especially the publisher's page, but no further. Winston. Are we supposed to protect the custard behind Winnie's virulent populist aggro? A lot of dopies as per that woman over in Aus with no brains. Parliament is the testing of ideas.

If you are right we'd remember Tau Henare's 'cleaving' as a great betrayal of democracy rather than a footnote.

Willing to be convinced.