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.