Who Governs? Every three years New Zealanders elect a new House of Representatives which, in turn, decides which party, or combination of parties, gets to form a government. All governments serve at Parliament's pleasure - and Parliament is regularly re-constituted by the people. That's how our representative democracy works - and don't let any politician, journalist or lawyer tell you otherwise!
I DON’T KNOW about you, but I tend to get quite annoyed when people accuse me of saying things I didn’t say. What makes me even more annoyed is when these accusations come from people who really should know better.
Since he goes under the sobriquet of "Legal Beagle", one has to assume that Graeme Edgeler is a qualified lawyer. As such, he should know how dangerous it can be – when commenting on controversial subjects – to put words in other people’s mouths. And yet, that is precisely what he has done in a posting on the Public Address website – and the mouth he put the word "treasonous" into is mine.
The context in which this misquotation occurs: a discussion about who has the right to govern; is of no small significance.
On Sunday, 26 October 2008, TVNZ ran a story (you can read it here) in which the network’s Political Editor, Guyon Espiner, reported the findings of a poll he’d commissioned from Colmar Brunton. The question asked was: "Should the party that wins the most votes get to lead the government?"
Having secured the entirely predictable response (77 percent said "Yes.") Mr Espiner took the opportunity of indulging in a little editorial speculation: "The latest ONE News Colmar Brunton poll suggests there will be a backlash if Labour comes a distant second to National but still forms a multi-party coalition."
It is important to bear in mind that this "news" item was broadcast less than a fortnight before the 2008 General Election – when it was still by no means certain that Winston Peters would fail to secure the 5 percent of the Party Vote required to win seats in Parliament. What was clear, however, was that if NZ First was returned there was a good chance Helen Clark and Labour would be able to secure enough support in the House of Representatives to go on governing.
By commissioning this poll, and then raising the possibility of a "backlash", Mr Espiner had effectively added his own – and TVNZ’s – support to the National Party Opposition’s campaign to delegitimize in advance any coalition government that did not include the party which commanded a simple plurality of the Party Votes cast. Outraged by this extraordinary display of overt partisanship, I penned "An Open Letter to TVNZ" which was published in The Dominion Post on Friday, 31 October.
Mr Edgeler states in his blog posting "Coalition of Losers" that: "At the time, Chris Trotter had called TVNZ 'treasonous' for running that poll." Well, Mr Edgeler, I have a copy of the open letter sitting in front of me on my desk, and nowhere does the word "treasonous" appear.
What I did say was: "For TVNZ to place the enormous power of the television medium behind this naked attempt to rule the governing party out of contention as a competitor for executive office is not only an egregious abrogation of its Charter, but also an open and extremely dangerous attack on democracy itself ….. I will not be part of any right-wing, media-driven attempt to have every Labour, Green, Maori Party, NZ First, and Progressive vote discounted."
I stand by every word.
The most depressing aspect of Mr Edgeler’s post, however, is not his failure to accurately report what I wrote, but his apparent endorsement of the position which the National Party (aided and abetted by Mr Espiner) adopted on the vital constitutional question: Who has the right to govern?
"There will be those", writes Mr Edgeler, "who will find any objection to a coalition of runners-up to be constitutionally offensive: We don’t elect a government, we elect a parliament, and whoever can command a majority of the House is properly the Prime Minister – whether from the largest party, or merely the largest group of parties. However, this ignores one of the salient points of the concern: the objection itself can be grounded in democracy."
No, Mr Edgeler, it can’t. If representative democracy means anything at all, it means government according to law: law enacted by a legislature which has been elected by the people.
Any attempt to lay aside that law: by claiming, for example, that the voters don’t really understand that what they’re doing in the polling booth every three years is electing a parliament (not a government); is a quite extraordinary stance for a lawyer to take. Ignorance of the law – as any responsible lawyer will tell his or her clients – is no defence.
It’s why I was so angered by Mr Espiner’s item back in 2008. By failing to use the resources of the public broadcaster to educate the electorate, and refusing to criticise the Opposition’s attempt to delegitimize in advance any coalition which did not include the party which had won more votes than any other single party, he allowed the National Party’s constitutional misrepresentations to pass unchallenged.
It makes me wonder what editorial stance Mr Espiner and TVNZ would have taken had National’s worst fears been realised. Would New Zealanders have been treated to the spectacle of the publicly-owned television network openly suggesting that a Labour-led coalition government lacked legitimacy?
If National and Act supporters – buoyed by TVNZ’s (and no doubt many other right-wing media outlets’) support – had taken to the streets, how would Mr Espiner and his colleagues have responded? Would Simon Dallow (as Wendy Petrie nodded in wide-eyed approval) have jutted out his noble chin on ONE News and spoken movingly of "people power" challenging "this coalition of losers"? Would the majority (i.e. 50 percent + 1) of New Zealanders who had voted for parties other than National and Act (parties now commanding a majority of the seats in Parliament) have had their political judgement over-ruled? Would the Constitution of New Zealand have been set aside?
And would Mr Edgeler have hailed such an outcome as "democracy" – or "treason"?