Saturday 6 October 2018

The Political Amnesia Of Winston Peters’ Critics

More Sinned Against Than Sinning: Even today, the man they cast as the villain of the piece; the person held responsible for the collapse of the National-NZ First Coalition in 1998; is the man most wronged by the whole sordid event – Winston Peters.

THE MOST CURIOUS FEATURE of the near universal criticism of NZ First’s waka-jumping legislation is its political amnesia. It’s as if New Zealand has never experienced a government held in place by the deliberate perversion of the proportionality upon which the entire MMP electoral system rests. A government conceived in treachery and kept in office by Members of Parliament willing to nullify the Party Votes of the electors who put them there. A government whose blatant betrayal of the new electoral system was quietly elided from the media narrative. A government whose principal victim was cast in the role of prime perpetrator. The Government of Jenny Shipley.

To hear the likes of The Listener and the NZ Herald tell the story, NZ First’s Electoral Integrity Bill represented a deadly thrust at the heart of what it means to be a Member of Parliament. Rather than acknowledge the role of the individual conscience in parliamentary affairs, they argued, the legislation would turn New Zealand’s MPs into mindless automatons; unalterably programmed to toe the party line. The historical fact that New Zealand has been governed by highly disciplined political parties for the past 80 years is simply not acknowledged by the legislation’s critics.

What these curiously ahistorical critics appeared to have in mind vis-à-vis the “right” of parliamentarians to arbitrarily dissolve all moral and contractual obligations to the political party whose endorsement was crucial to their electoral success, is the romantic figure of a lonely and tormented MP torn between loyalty to party and duty to conscience. All of them appeared blissfully unaware that the actual turncoats of New Zealand’s recent political history had, with the honourable exceptions of Winston Peters, Jim Anderton and Tariana Turia, been sitting MPs who had failed to secure re-selection from their party; become embroiled in scandal, like the ill-starred son of Norman Kirk; or, were straightforward political traitors. Hardly shining beacons of ethical responsibility!

Of those exceptions, only Jim Anderton failed to do what the framers of the Electoral Integrity legislation urged any MP unable to accept their party’s policies to do – resign and secure a new mandate. Interestingly, Anderton’s refusal to seek a mandate from the electors of Sydenham, following his bitter repudiation of the Labour Party, was roundly condemned at the time. His famous quip: “I didn’t leave Labour, Labour left me” – so oft repeated by critics of the waka-jumping bill in 2018 – received scant acknowledgement and even less support from the right-wing pundits of 1989.

It is also interesting to note that when both Winston Peters and Tariana Turia resigned their seats and were triumphantly re-elected by their constituents, the news media responded with thinly disguised disdain. The refusal of the parties they had left to field candidates against them, far from being seen as a resounding vindication of their position, was used as a means of belittling both their courage and their success. The electors’ emphatic endorsement of Peters and Turia was given far less weight by the news media than the haughty condescension and vicious criticisms of the victors’ former colleagues.

Which brings us back to the government formed by Jenny Shipley in August 1998.

The crisis was triggered by the National Party’s decision, in contravention of the National-NZ First coalition agreement, to privatise its shareholding in Wellington Airport. When Peters responded by declaring the agreement void he discovered that no fewer than 8 of his 17 MPs had turned their coats and were proposing to remain part of Shipley’s new government.

The commitment of Tau Henare, Tuku Morgan, Rana Waitai, Jack Elder, Ann Batten, Tuariki Delamere, Deborah Morris and Peter McCardle to the voters who had sent them to Parliament, as well as to the party they had solemnly pledged to support, was forgotten. The 8 MPs of the far-right Act Party, which the deposed National Leader, Jim Bolger, had pledged to keep out of government were now crucial to the maintenance of Shipley’s majority – as was the bewildered ex-Alliance defector, Alamein Kopu. Shipley and her turncoat crew were guilty of a constitutional outrage: they had profoundly distorted the proportionality of the Parliament elected in 1996 and thus made possible a government which, had the choices of the electors been respected, could never have been formed.

That the Governor-General of the day, Sir Michael Hardie Boys, acquiesced in this distortion of the people’s will is only marginally less outrageous than the distortion itself. The proper course of action would have been to dissolve Parliament – thereby requiring Shipley and her supporters to secure a new mandate from the voters. Instead, New Zealanders were forced to wait another twelve months before passing judgement on Shipley’s “Turncoat Government”. Unsurprisingly, it was thrown out.

That the critics of NZ First’s waka-jumping legislation have forgotten these events is extremely telling. It betrays their profound diffidence towards the whole democratic process. Twenty years on, they are still unwilling to sheet the blame home where it belongs – with Jenny Shipley and her motley collection of chancers, zealots and defectors. Even today, the man they cast as the villain of the piece; the person held responsible for the collapse of the National-NZ First Coalition in 1998; is the man most wronged by the whole sordid event – Winston Peters.

Far from undermining our parliamentary democracy, the Electoral Integrity legislation, which NZ First insisted form a central part of this new coalition government’s programme, now stands as a solid protection against any repetition of the constitutional outrage of 1998. That blatant attack on MMP which Peters’ perennial critics either cannot, or will not, acknowledge.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 5 October 2018.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

Ah.......... Memories memories. I was at school with Jack Elder. He was known as one of the "Hunt men". Students who sucked up to Jonathan Hunt. They were not popular among the rest of the student body. Although to be fair, maybe they just had an interest in Labour Party politics. They almost all became prefects though, interesting that. But I know that few of us were surprised when he was one of the ones that jumped the waka. Can't find anything much about him or Deb Morris on the Internet though. Sunk without trace.

GrahamCA said...

Well put Chris, and what those critics also fail to recognise is that there is a significant difference between an Electorate MP and a List MP; the former is there as the representative of their community and the latter as a representative of their party.

Anonymous said...

MMP is a scourge, it enabled a seven percent party, with no seat, to select govt. Winston does everything to suit Winston. Watch out for his next move, which will be to lower the threshold, therefore keeping him and in the Greens in power. If that is not corruption, then I do not know what is!!! Winston First, NZ Last, always. One good thing, he will bring down this govt, just like he has before, it is in his DNA. Labour are already being sullied by being in bed with him, watch out for the next poll.


Wayne Mapp said...

It would have been a terrible precedent if the Governor General had intervened in 1998. He rightly kept out of it. Otherwise he would have been seen as taking political sides. To take your approach would mean that effectively the GG is saying (without any legislative cover) that an MP cannot leave their party. A more party political role for a GG to take is hard to imagine.

Effectively what NZ First had done was split down the middle, whereas you are saying that Winston's word should be final (well to be fair, a caucus majority decision). But NZ First is unusual in being so tied to the fortunes of its founder. Hence his outsized say.

Coming back to the role of GG, far better to let the voters work it out, as they did 12 months later in 1999. That is one of the real advantages on our electoral system. The term is only 3 years.

greywarbler said...

I can't forget the comment about Jennry Shipley's first job in the morning was to get in touch with Alamein Kopu and set her up for the day with a cup of tea and chat about what she should vote for today.

Our political ethics are 100% Pure like our rivers and drinking water, that is clear and transparent surely? We seem to be battling against a strong current; I don't know what the situation is called. It's not 'pork barrel politics' because that is where politicians deliver what their electors and funders want, In the split-up of National and NZFirst the opposite is the case.

Geoff Fischer said...

The measures taken to fix current problems in the New Zealand political system in turn create new problems which require new measures to correct, and so it goes on.
The "waka jumping" bill is a natural and predictable response to the parliamentary defections which effectively negated the intention of the MMP system, and while it is regrettable that such legislation should be necessary, it would seem that it is if New Zealand is to retain proportional party representation in more than name.
It is not particularly helpful to cast Winston Peters in the role of victim, and Jenny Shipley as perpetrator of this injustice. The problem is systemic, and if the system is open to abuse, then it will be abused. If it was not Shipley and Peters, then it would have been some other combination of politicians which exposed the weakness in the system.
Having said that, Peters could be asking himself why half of his closest followers chose to betray him. The answer is not, as some might suggest, that those who get close to Peters suddenly discover the flaws in his character or his political philosophy. Rather it is that the Winston Peters bandwagon attracts all kinds of opportunists and self-seekers, and it is precisely that type who get promoted on to the New Zealand First list.
But the same truth applies to greater or lesser degree to every other political party. New Zealand has a system in which power lies with individual politicians, political parties, and the vested interests which seek to control government policy through either individual politicians or political party hierarchies. It is these vested interests who have most to gain from having individual members of parliament who are not bound by party discipline, because these days power in parliament tends to be delicately balanced, and it is always possible to corrupt or win over a few individual members of parliament, in particular those on the left, when needs must. It is generally more difficult, though by no means impossible, to successfully lobby an entire political party.
The left seems reluctant to accept that the answer to the problem is not to shift the balance of power between party hierarchies and individual politicians, but to restore power to the people through a system of political representation based on the open ballot, continuous election and self-selected constituencies.
Anything less will only invite further abuses and perversions of the course of democracy.
One thing is certain. Neither the New Zealand media nor the politicians have an interest in defending the individual conscience of politicians or anyone else for that matter. If they did, they would not have required Hone Harawira to swear allegiance to the Queen, in violation of his conscience, in order to take up a seat in parliament.
For most, the arguments against the waka jumping bill are pure political hypocrisy.

Cedric said...

Our Constitutional Monarchy has democratic safeguards that will be lost when we, ultimately, become a Republic.

MPs have equal standing in our Parliament regardless of how they were elected. Each swears an Oath of Office to the Crown before they can take part in our Parliament. That allegiance to the Crown protects each MP to speak without fear, to stand up for what they believe to be in the best interests of the Country in the secure knowledge that nobody can force them from Parliament for political reasons.

The Waka-jumping Bill seeks to remove that loyalty to the Crown , which guarantees freedom of speech, and replace that with loyalty to Party Leaders who can demand compliance to whatever view that Leader represents at any given time. MMP unfortunately lends credence to the belief that List MPs are inferior in standing to those MPs who are chosen to represent all of the Electorate that voted them into Office. The Governor General should refuse to sign such legislation into law in the event that it passes through our Parliamentary system unchecked.

Our Country deserves better than to be ruled by "fear or favour" political allegiance.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Our Constitutional Monarchy has democratic safeguards that will be lost when we, ultimately, become a Republic."

Yes of course, like it protected the Australians in 1975. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who has some form of power over the constitutional process should be an elected official. Not someone who is appointed by the government, or in the case of Britain someone who is born into a certain family.

sumsuch said...

I throw things up into the air and there they remain til I'm convinced. I hope to goodness there isn't as much harm as Clark's restrictive law against political advertising by private citizens in her last 3 years. Democracy is vital to the Left, in the way mortgages are to National.

Geoff Fischer said...

Cedric wrote "That allegiance to the Crown protects each MP to speak without fear, to stand up for what they believe to be in the best interests of the Country in the secure knowledge that nobody can force them from Parliament for political reasons."

An elected member can be and will be forced from parliament for refusing allegiance to the British monarch. That is, for being a republican, a nationalist, or simply a person of principle.

So do not pretend that your constitutional monarchy "has democratic safeguards". Particularly when you go on to suggest that the monarch should block legislation passed by your supposedly "democratic" parliament.

Rod said...

Well said Mr Trotter. Good to see someone supporting electoral integrity. Shame it isn't on the leading pages of mainstream media. I'd thought you'd given up much of your left leaning ethical integrity and I'd gone off you but this article has restored my trust, something I never had in Ms Shipley whose current court issues could well confirm the legacy so aptly described by you.Interesting times ahead.

Cedric said...

An Elected Member can be, and will be, forced from Parliament when found guilty of committing a crime which carries a penalty of two years in jail, even though that term of imprisonment may not have been applied.

Besides our Parliamentarians, our Judiciary, our Police, and our Armed Services also sign Warrants of Allegiance to the Crown. We are a civilized society. These people cannot be used against the citizens of our country by anyone in political office. Apparently one NZ Prime Minister of relatively recent times tried to send a NZ Naval frigate to interfere in another Commonwealth Country's domestic politics and was told by our Naval Hierarchy that they did not take such orders from him.

In Australia, in 1975, the Government of the day had insufficient support to be able to meet it's own Confidence and Supply obligations. It reneged on its responsibility to advise the Governor General that it could no longer govern and the Governor General was forced to intervene. In NZ Prime Ministers have called Snap Elections to resolve similar situations, eg Muldoon in 1984 when two National MPs indicated they would cross the floor and vote against important Government legislation leaving the Government in a minority situation. The two MPs (as they saw it) and the Prime Minister (by seeking a fresh mandate) acted in the best interests of the Country at the time. We cannot afford to lose such honourble acts of integrity.

Geoff Fischer said...

Cedric wrote: "Besides our Parliamentarians, our Judiciary, our Police, and our Armed Services also sign Warrants of Allegiance to the Crown. We are a civilized society. These people cannot be used against the citizens of our country by anyone in political office."
Have you never heard of Bastion Point Cedric? Ruatoki? Maungapohatu? Parihaka? The list goes on and on...
Ah! But by "our people" perhaps you mean "British people". "A civilized society". Of course.
They are your parliamentarians, your judiciary, your police and your armed forces. They are not ours. Your use of the first person plural inclusive is not appropriate in this context because you choose not to recognise our rights as human beings, as citizens and as a people.