Friday 17 May 2013

The Lies That Bind: National's Attack On Parliamentary Sovereignty

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.


Anonymous said...

No parliament may bind another? Technically perhaps, but we seem to be bound by various trade treaties. Far more dangerous than the basically piddling sky city deal.

Jigsaw said...

I seem to recall that the last Labour government bought the railways back (at a hugely inflated price)even though it was obvious that they were going to lose the election-leaving the incoming government with a huge millstone.What has this cost since?Amazing how you can present such a one-sided article-politics and life is seldom so clear cut.

Jack Scrivano said...

I would have thought that all treaties - including Waitangi - intend to bind subsequent parliaments.

Chris Trotter said...

No, Jack. Treaties can be abrogated just like any other agreement.

As I said, the popular will admits no impediment.

The past cannot indefinitely circumscribe the future.

Kat said...

"The past cannot indefinitely circumscribe the future."

Agree, but the past definitely has a tendency to shape the future.

OneTrack said...

Chris, but, as you say, the Greens are going to abrogate the Sky City contract, the same as any treaty. So National aren't binding future governments at all.

Jack Scrivano said...

Interesting, Chris. I had never thought about it like that. And I suspect that I am not alone.

peterpeasant said...

Aww.. C'mon Chris everyone knows that the Nats are born to rule so that their cronies can deal crap to rest of us.

The Nats have always had a solid core of supporters that are suspicious of the less than wealthy.
To the Nats democracy is a commodity to be processed by spin doctors to allow the ruling elite to bamboozle the electorate.

The so called move to the centre has made Labour resemble the Nats.
The LP caucus cabal has assumed it is born to rule and is suspicious of the less than wealthy.

Hardly surprising that voter turnout is low.

National is born to rule as long as there is no opposition.

The current government has got away with truckloads of undemocratic and unprincipled behaviour, let alone bullshit (anyone remember matching Oz wages? Anyone remember "step change? Aspirational?)

Why have they got away with it?

No opposition.

No opposition, no democracy.

No democracy leads to forms of anarchy or totalitarianism (part of a circular spectrum, very Hegelian.)

The Nats were always going to win after Labour lost its moral compass in the rogernomic years.

It took a while for The Nats to fully realise what a gift they had been given by Douglas and Prebble.

Shonkeys appearance on the scene was no happenstance. It was very well planned years in advance.

Two wunderkind, dotcom AND shonkey arrive in NZ in the same decade? Wunderbar!

Boy wonder appears out of the blue? Yeah Right!

Which ever political parties dominate as ruling parties would love to ignore the less than wealthy.

The less than wealthy cannot afford to support campaigns that do not further their own interests.

The less than wealthy certainly cannot afford to support campaigns that work against their own interests.

Bye bye Labour.

Bye bye democracy (unless it is a US/Chinese/Indian/Indonesian/Australian variety.

Davo Stevens said...

Well said PeterP. This is what I have been saying for a while; there is no effective opposition here. We have the Gnats and the Gnatslite (Labour).

I see the Greens becoming the party that supports the poor and the workers now but they are only a small party yet. Will be interesting to see how they do in the next Election. They have moved away from the tree-hugging, hair shirts and sandals.

Shearer is as bland as a bowl of junket and Cunliffe is a rightwing socialist! so, as long as we have the two main parties like Tweedledee and Tweedledum nothing will change.

Dave Kennedy said...

"I see the Greens becoming the party that supports the poor and the workers now but they are only a small party yet. Will be interesting to see how they do in the next Election. They have moved away from the tree-hugging, hair shirts and sandals."

Interesting perception, Davo, I wonder what evidence you used to base it on. Some points to think on:

The membership numbers for the Greens and Labour are no longer that different (approx 4,000 compared to 5,000). I would also hazard a guess that Labour's membership is an aging one while the opposite is the case with the Greens.

The KOA campaign displayed the fact that the Green's capacity to organise volunteers on the ground was considerably greater than Labour's.

The Greens have raised their public profile to the extent that many are now calling them the real opposition.

The Greens have comfortably held polling levels at double that of the previous term and at one point last year there were only 13 percentage points between them and Labour.

The Greens have been praised for the quality of their election campaigns over the past two elections and the main reason that we have struggled is because of Labour, National and the media creating a "presidential" style contest between only two leaders.

We have not been a small party for many years, visit Green website sometime and compare it with Labour's and National's to see the capacity of our organisation.

Victor said...

NZ and the UK are, to the best of my knowledge, unique in having totally sovereign parliaments, untrammeled by written constitutions.

This can have its drawbacks but also its advantages, as we may yet discover when the time comes to dismember some of the current government's legislative nonsenses.

Davo Stevens said...

Good points Mr. Sprout.

My comment is simply based on the number of seats in Parliament not membership.

Yes, I do read your site regularly as I do with all the others.

Our elections have become a personality cult now instead of policy, that is why I have repeatedly stated that the two Big Parties are just Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

That is the first step toward true Fascism. The second is the watering down of Human and Civil Rights, eventually to the point of there not being rights at all. Have we got to that yet?

Scouser said...

I’m forced to call you out for exaggeration and poor logic.

By definition Parliamentary sovereignty is absolute - it cannot be changed or reduced without parliament deciding to change it - National thus cannot 'attack' it.

So, you had to go back over 50 years to find a COMMERCIAL agreement that the government reneged on. My understanding is that the protocol for 40 ish years was not to renege on commercial agreements without allowing for recompense. The intention being that if governments cannot be trusted to follow a commercial agreements then companies will not enter in to such agreements with the government - God help us all if that occurs. Sky City made sure the recompense was built in to the contract, which can be voided by any government, of course as government SOVEREIGNTY IS ABSOLUTE.

The Greens can emulate Muldoon and void the agreement, and, in fact have many of his traits including arrogance and a ‘I/we know best’ attitude. This says more about the Greens and their, now open, representation as a hard left party rather than an environmental one that they have pretended to be.

You then attempt to conflate changes in legal employment rights with a commercial agreement with the reference to the Employment Contracts Act. There literally is no relationship between the two

That now leaves us whether it is a good deal. Personally, not convinced, but it seems better than Cullen hugely overpaying for rail and the various trade sell offs of the equivalent of SOEs by both parties at a stupid discount. That is a relatively childish, if accurate, comparison I admit.

Is it a moral deal? Assuming gambling with assistance for those who don’t manage and cannot afford to gamble. More moral than pokies in a pub. The deal’s consequential effects have not been accurately represented.
In terms of generalities. Common sense tells me that the more well off gamblers go to Sky City and that the ones who really cannot afford to lose money go to the local pubs. My observance of behaviour matches this. I played poker tournaments for a few years in South Auckland (entry fee – not money stakes) and I would regularly see someone coming to the bar and getting $100 via EFTPOS and then straight back in to the pokie pit.

So – the government remains sovereign and your examples don’t really stand up – reads nicely though.

peterpeasant said...


You mentioned exaggerstion.

Could you please define "hard left"?

Gerrit said...

Was the Labour government scuppering the sale of Auckland Airport shares to a Canadian Pension fund not an example of government sovereignty over riding the COMMERCIAL contract of selling and buying privately held shares?

And yes totally agree that the Greens are no longer an environmental party.

As noted by the huge air miles compiled by Gareth Hughes and the lack of offsetting of those air miles by ETS payments to make those air miles carbon neutral.

More Greens "Do as I say, not as I do" attitude.

Victor said...


I think the point is not the sovereignty of parliament vis a vis other players but the sovereignty of any future parliament vis a vis the present one.

There is a convention that parliaments do not lightly interfere with the contractual relationships entered into by their predecessors, as to do so would unnecessarily weaken the nexus of laws, trust and understanding by which a sophisticated modern society lives.

But it's just that....a convention. It doesn't hold water in all cases. Nor, to my mind, should it hold water where the proposed deal (however legal) involves gross moral. turpitude.