Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Whoever The Greens Have Sold Their Soul To – It Isn’t Winston.

"Have I Got A Deal For You!" If, in the course of debating the Waka-Jumping Bill, the Greens really have forfeited their soul, then it is to a considerably more daunting entity than Winston Peters!

TO HEAR THE National Party and other assorted right-wing beasts tell the story, the Greens have just sold their soul to the Devil. By whom they mean, presumably, that double-breasted Lucifer, Winston Peters, and his attendant pandemonium – NZ First. The Devil’s price, allegedly, is Green Party support for Winston’s “Waka-Jumping Bill”.

The constitutional devilry of a piece of legislation intended to preserve the proportionality of our MMP Parliament is, if our top constitutional lawyers are to be believed, huge. The will of the people, as expressed at the ballot-box, we are told, is a second-order issue. What really matters, say the academics, is the right of individual Members of Parliament to spit in the faces of their party comrades and traduce the solemn personal undertakings given on the day they joined themselves to a political collectivity.

Now, this tells us a great deal about New Zealand’s constitutional lawyers. The most important piece of information vouchsafed being just how much they hate the whole idea of collectivism. The idea of entering, voluntarily, into a compact with like-minded people to contest (and hopefully win) seats in Parliament in order to implement a mutually agreed programme of reform – i.e. of becoming a member of a political party – clearly strikes them as an insufferable limitation of their freedom. The claim that they are morally obligated to abide by the decisions and policies of their party is reckoned to be totalitarian in inspiration and politically oppressive in effect.

The rights of the poor old voters are, of course, almost entirely disregarded by these upright constitutional guardians. The electorate’s assumption that the undertakings given to it by political parties immediately prior to the general election will remain viable for the full three years of the parliamentary term is dismissed as quaintly naïve. Much more important is the right of an individual MP to decide, unilaterally, that their party and their caucus colleagues have in some way departed from the straight and narrow path of political rectitude, and that he or she is, therefore, morally obligated to abrogate all former undertakings and, should their conscience require it, violate the proportionality of Parliament.

That the citizens of New Zealand are represented in Parliament in proportion to the size of their preferred party’s Party Vote, and that this constitutes the underlying principle of our MMP electoral system, is not deemed worthy of the explicit legal protection which Winston Peters’ bill provides. Democracy is expected to take second place to the tenderness of MPs’ individual consciences.

Would that this country had constitutional “experts” willing to uphold the notion that, if an individual MP no longer feels comfortable with his or her party’s political direction, then he or she should, first of all, attempt to change that direction by utilising the organisation’s internal democratic machinery. Or, if this proves impossible, by making one of only two morally acceptable choices. Either, submitting to the will of the majority; or, if that is felt to be unconscionable, resigning from Parliament.

In the case of an Electorate MP, that could mean seeking a renewed mandate from local electors by standing in the subsequent by-election as either an independent or as the representative of a new political party. For a List MP, it could mean re-joining the party rank-and-file and organising for a change of direction. Or, in the absence of meaningful rank-and-file support, leaving the party altogether.

That this has not been the position of New Zealand’s constitutional experts bears testimony to the rampant individualism and narcissism of this country’s professionally “gifted” elites. The whole idea that an individual, having voluntarily conceded the right of the majority to determine their party’s direction, cannot subsequently repudiate that concession without resigning, clearly horrifies them. They simply will not concede that it is immoral for an MP to continue to occupy a party’s seat in Parliament in defiance of the wishes of its duly-elected leader and with complete disregard for the collective judgement of its caucus. Nor will they concede that the renegade MP’s immorality is compounded ten-fold if he or she goes on to vote in a way that consistently weakens the party’s voting strength in Parliament.

Sadly, the Greens themselves are no better than the so-called “experts” on these issues. Though they have agreed to vote for the Waka-Jumping Bill, they have made it very clear that they would rather not. In other words, they have exactly the same contempt for the electoral judgement of Green Party voters as the academics!

Those same voters should probably recall that contempt when next they step into a polling booth. Clearly, there is no guarantee that what they see promised to them on the Green Party’s website offers any reliable indication as to what they will get once its MPs are comfortably ensconced in the big leather chairs.

If the Greens really have forfeited their soul, then it is to a considerably more daunting entity than Winston Peters.

A version of this essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 31 July 2018.


peteswriteplace said...

If you get elected through your association with a political party you sink or swim with that party or get yourself out of there and get a review from electors.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Clearly, there is no guarantee that what they see promised to them on the Green Party’s website offers any reliable indication as to what they will get once its MPs are comfortably ensconced in the big leather chairs."
To be fair, there is no guarantee that ANYONE'S promises will be kept in an MMP environment, because there is usually negotiation between parties of what they can agree to. Strictly speaking, the only party that could – but of course won't – guarantee to keep its promises would be National at the moment. And even they have to throw ACT a bit of a bone every so often.:)

greywarbler said...

Peter P
You put it plainly and I totally agree. We must have something to hold onto as a definite outcome, when we vote.

Already a large number of people have lost faith in a definitely good outcome but still keep voting for a face or Party. The Party can still apparently be relied on to continue, even if in name only. If things get to the stage where only the face and name counts, what wildly twisting paths we may be led along to the whimsical end of democracy, both real and apparent.

I don't want politicians slipping through my fingers at their will, nor do I want career pollies who have attained permanence and no longer wish to move from their comfy chair to go anywhere new. In between, middling, with the determination to serve needs and consider wants in a thoughtful and reasonably responsive, practical, and timely manner, is what I as a simple being, hope for.

Polly. said...

The Green party is unsafe.
The Green party is a gutless fraud of a political party.
Their ill compliance against their own standards is the proof.
NZ elections and voter good faith are being battered.
Winston and NZ First are the guilty and devious bullies.
The NZ government, hence its people, are plagued.
Wretchedness will continue.

Nick J said...

That this has not been the position of New Zealand’s constitutional experts bears testimony to the rampant individualism and narcissism of this country’s professionally “gifted” elites.

Wonderful language Chris, can't say how sick I am with over specialisation of roles that involve little real skill or training...seems to me in our public services a medieval guild system on steroids.

What Peter Peterson says is common sense, obviously not common amongst our specialist elites.

Anonymous said...

Polly, the Green Party lost any claim to the moral high-ground when it de facto tore up the MOU with Labour during the Turei debacle. The Greens were incredibly lucky to get back in, and as such are in no position to dictate terms.

Geoff Fischer said...

There are a lot of people out there who hanker for the days when the political representatives of the people were upright men of character beholden to no one and nothing but God Almighty and the directions of their own consciences. Incidentally, these were times when the word "party" and "faction" were pejorative terms, and parliamentarians solemnly abjured all kinds of partisanship. Since then it has become the norm for members of parliament to come from or form themselves into parties, and for the great majority of electors to vote according to the party affiliations of the candidates. Constitutional confirmation that New Zealand has a party political system came with the introduction of mixed member proportional representation which ensured that the composition of parliament reflected the proportion of votes cast nationally for the various political parties. The "waka jumping" legislation merely ensures that party proportionality cannot be upset or distorted by the post-election actions of individual members of Parliament. It does that at the cost of giving party organisations (and arguably party hierarchies) the power to determine who shall be allowed, or not allowed, to sit in parliament as their representative. Electors may not feel comfortable about party hierarchies usurping a right which they have long held to be their own, but they should understand that this is an entirely natural and logical development in the evolution of the party political system. The electors cannot have it both ways. They either have a party based electoral system, or they do not. If on the other hand electors want a system which would give them power over the composition of the legislature and government, while allowing legislators freedom to act and vote in accordance with conscience, the solution is a system of continuous election. When an alternative is available which would meet the legitimate concerns of both sides of the argument, it is nonsensical for us to be debating the merits or otherwise of the waka jumping bill.

Jens Meder said...

Is not compromising politics and democracy a more humane and realistic way than a non-compromising dictatorial one ?

swordfish said...

Alamein Kopu ... need I say more ?

Entirely agree with you, Christopher.

Ian said...

Geoff mentioned (perhaps in passing) the concept of continuous election. There are variety of ways in which this could be accomplished.

One suggestion is that your votes are something that you can change your mind about at any time. In other words there is no election unless an electorate MP leaves. New voters register to vote and cast it at the same time. Existing voters can reassign their votes (assuming we still have 2) whenever they feel the urge. When ever an MP or party looses enough votes they loose the MP, when ever a party or candidate gains enough votes they gain a seat. The main problem I see with this is that is not clear how feasible it would be for a new candidate to over turn a sitting MP (or perhaps it would turn out to be too easy!). The electoral system would have to keep track of voters dying of course.

Another could be based vaguely on the American Senate. Have an election every year (or even more frequently). Divide the electorates (and hence the voters) up into say 3 groups scattered evenly across the country (A, B, C). Every year is election year but it isn't a General Election, it is only a Partial Election. Electoral changes are more gradual. This idea is only a tiny bit different to the current system and doesn't need the record keeping of the other version.

Continuous elections eliminate the 3 year electoral cycle and also reduces the likelihood of the fear that Chris didn't state. The fear that a party will change its mind after getting elected splitting itself into the group of MPs that changed (obviously including the leadership of the party) and the group of MPs that didn't change (being seen by the leadership as the dissidents). If voters don't like what a party does they can change their votes fairly quickly without having to wait years for the next general election.

Nick J said...

Indeed Jans, it is the spirit of democracy. It means you can lose but accept that in the certain knowledge that if those in government go too far they will get voted out. Anything dictatorial on either side is a recipe for arbitrary abuse.

Anonymous said...

The issue I have, is that, Winston, at now a paltry three percent or so of the vote, is getting to change electoral law, without ever campaigning upon it. What a surprise. One Term Govt.


Graeme Edgeler said...

... The claim that they are morally obligated to abide by the decisions and policies of their party is reckoned to be totalitarian in inspiration and politically oppressive in effect.

The rights of the poor old voters are, of course, almost entirely disregarded by these upright constitutional guardians. The electorate’s assumption that the undertakings given to it by political parties immediately prior to the general election will remain viable for the full three years of the parliamentary term is dismissed as quaintly naïve.

My concern with the Electoral Integrity laws is primarily the opposite. I want an MP to be able to stand up in favour of their party's policies, and in favour of the undertakings that party gave the voters. Maybe you think *I'm* naïve?

A candidate who stood for election promising, for example "We're a low tax party. We will not increase GST in the next three years. The Party leader has said we wont. The Caucus says we won't and the wider Party has adopted a policy against it. If you vote for me, and if you vote for my party, GST will stay as it is."

If that MP fights that decision in caucus, but is overborne because the MPs who are ministers have agreed, vote together with enough of the caucus to get a majority. Yes, they agreed to join the party to collectively advance party policy, *but* this isn't party policy. The wider party may still be opposed. It is directly contrary to compact with voters.

Is it your position that the half dozen MPs in that party caucus, who could cross the floor, and vote down the policy, in line with their promise to voters that this wouldn't happen should not do so, that it is part of their compact with voters that they will stand aside from Parliament to ensure that other MPs can replace them to vote for it? These MPs, as candidates, said they would vote against this policy: do they have a moral obligation of some sort to ensure the policy passes because the caucus has decided it should contrary to that promise, and contrary to party policy, etc?

You say they should submit to the will of the majority. Is that the majority of the cabinet, whose minority must now support the decision in caucus? Or the majority of caucus (including Cabinet ministers opposed, but bound to support it)? Or is it the majority view of the party (and at what time, before the election, or subsequently)?

Because I can see the argument for the latter adopting your premises about collective action, but that is not in fact what this bill provides.

ps I really enjoyed your view on this, and it gave me a lot to think about.

greywarbler said...

Already party members sometimes cross the floor or abstain when they are sufficiently exercised. It is wrong of pundits to consider the rare situation, and favour action allowing that, ahead of and without any demur of the resulting weakening of the whole political system and the loss of respect for it by voters.

If pollies don't commit themselves to policies and a Party with honesty and integrity, knowing that later they can claim they are too fine to agree with a change from announced policy, this opens the floodgates to bluffing. Winnie the Pooh announces honestly that he is a bear of little brain, but a really clever, wily polly can adopt either that simple guise of being an honest broker like you guys (Key). or other subterfuges to get elected then pursue his or her real objectives.

This opens the way to a huge loss of integrity from the political system. It is already under scrutiny for loss of strength and reliability; we can't afford to follow the weak steel certified to support infrastructure problem. We will have lasting problems from that, and the same from weakening our political system.

sumsuch said...

You frame it well in terms of the people versus elites. The operating principle is democracy. Where my doubts arose. What will eat at that foundation and what will strengthen it? It's not vital to the Right but it is to us who believe in people-rule. Witness Helen Clark's law against non-party political advertising in her last 3 years (if I remember rightly).Was that authoritarian or democratic? From memory: strange, reactionary -- since that government never involved the people in its liberal on-high decisions.

sumsuch said...

Despite your good argument in favour of the people versus elites I'm still 50/50, so no change til thickwit me is convinced. Democracy matters to democratists in a way it doesn't to the strong and their hangers-on. It's the rock on which we build our house -- that and reason (no more time for organised solipsisms (religion) in the probable last 15 -- 30 years of super humanity).

greywarbler said...

The Greens being so ethical and protecting individual purity of thought and vision is what underlies their distaste fpr the Waka Jumping Bill, it seems to me. It's part of the whole middle class unshakeable belief that 'they know best' and are superior to the hoi polloi.

They have been so long involved and concentrating on green growing things, the environment, climate, things that are complex and can be judged objectively and subjectively. But people have been the outsiders in this Eden, we have been the destroyers and neglectful. And that is true, and we need to pay attention to our responsibilities to the world, and understand that it is the base to our existence; we are dependent on it.

Greens also need to acknowledge that people need care, we can be adversely affected by others, by toxic cultures, by nature running amok. Humans are burdened with the problem of choices, of deep and enduring cultures, torn between simple living with reasonable standards for all and the ability to have advanced and luxurious conditions ordering our world to suit ourselves - past kings and queens had less. But in the process many people drop out and are refused respect, consideration and resources for even simple living. Greens need to be aware that humans can become as helpless as birds and other animals and need held and conservation of habitat!

We all need to take care to absorb and preserve principles that include caring and kindness for other humans. We need to accept and acknowledge in society, our human weaknesses which goes beyond a simple mantra of just caring about the unknowing and innocent or inanimate aspects of the world. Greens have to stretch their minds to a wider spectrum of colours and matters, not simply black and white.

David Stone said...

There are some issues that come up in the course of a parliamentary term that are not really a critical part of a manifesto . And there are also occasions where the parliament is content with an individual conscience vote anyway. There must be a distinction between disagreeing with the party on an issue that has not been established and incorporated as part of the party policy announced to the voters, and an issue that has not been decided on collectively.
Then there must be another level of controversy when it is the party that is moving away from the platform they were voted into parliament on and the individual member who feels the greater responsibility/allegiance to what they have undertaken with the electorate than with the party. Or by now you might not be able to say the party, because it will have come down to the caucus of the party which must most likely have diverged from the agreed direction of the party as a whole. As with the 1984 situation.
I haven't made the historical study, but I have always imagined that the westminster system that we have sort of copied began as Geoff Fischer indicates , without the decision making distortions that party politics forces on it. If every representative was elected from a community wherein they were known personally to a large proportion of the voters entirely on their personal merits and known judgement/wisdom and integrity. With no predetermined constraints except those they had committed to themselves. And went down to Wellington to work with 100 or so other individuals similarly chosen by their community, I think we would have what the originators of the system intended , and it would be IMHO the ultimate in honest representation. Political parties have I believe fucked up a very good concept.
However unfortunately I can't see how we could get rid of them. If they were illegal they would just become more secretive. So working with them is what we must do unless we were to institute a jury type random selection from the whole population which would make it very difficult for parties. So as no-one is going to go for that idea we have to work within the party system.
But like Jim Anderton did years ago I believe the individual who keeps faith with the promises/ long established beliefs , when the rest of the parties' representatives (who might themselves be violating the wishes of most of the party membership) , has more legitimacy in keeping their seat than do the members who are breaking those promises .
If it is the individual that is breaking both from the promises and the rest of the party, they don't have a leg to stand on and shouldn't have a chair to sit on either.

Anonymous said...

A simple refutation of CT's argument is that for the electorate MP, the voter votes for the individual, not the party, along with that individuals personal principles and contradictions. As did the party when they selected them. Then when the election is over, the party does not get to change the rules and say 'we know you got the most votes in your electorate, but we want to use those votes to achieve something that you object to so strongly, that you put your career on the line to pointlessly oppose us. Begone.'

Danyl Strype said...

These arguments are totally fair enough when it comes to list MPs, and I have been supporting the "waka jumping" bill because I assumed it only applied to them. Electorate MPs are elected to personally represent the people of their electorate, not their party, and need to be accountable to their constituents, not party leaders. I agree with the bill's opponents that applying its powers to electorate MPs is a major constitutional change, for which the government has no mandate.

Applying the "waka jumping" rules to electorate MPs has a number of negative side effects, including increasing public spending on by-elections (not required for replacing list MPs), and making it much harder for new parties to enter parliament. If proportionality is really the concern here, why does this bill not also drop the 5% threshold down as recommended by the Electoral Commission, or get rid of it altogether, so that smaller parties can get represented?