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Keith Rankin: Parliament: People or Parties?

Parliament: People or Parties?

Keith Rankin, 15 August 2002

Is Parliament inhabited by people or parties? The answer is obvious; MPs are people, not numbered tokens on a party ledger. Yet most of the media discussion of politics is confined to the dynamics of the parties, or the party leaders, as the parties joust for positions of influence.

This wrong view of parties is held most strongly by most of the fourth estate, and by the Labour Party. Hence the unfortunate "Electoral Integrity Act" was pushed through by a party (Labour) who sees its caucus as being made up of a general, a few lieutenants, and foot soldiers who are there to make up the numbers.

If we really believe that Parliament is a no more than a Coliseum for political parties, then we might as well reduce the number of MPs to a maximum of say 10. Who needs 99, let alone 120 people? You can have 120 votes without having 120 voters. It's called plural voting.

We would have a general election. Every party with more than 5% of the vote would send their leader (and only their leader) to Parliament. Each MP (ie each party leader) would command a different number of votes. Thus, in the newly elected Parliament, Clark would command 52 votes, Anderton 2, English 27 and so on. We would have just eight MPs, including 2 Green MPs commanding 4½ votes each. Cabinet and other positions would then be appointed by any grouping of MPs who could together command over 60 votes.

In the July 2002 campaign, a visitor from Mars could be forgiven if she thought that Parliament was no more than an abode for party leaders.

Many of us who are not from Mars understand however, despite the best efforts of our media, that our parliament is made up of 120 rather than 7 brains. In the week before the election it was obvious to those of us who think that Parliament is a House for people that there would be many unknown new MPs, especially from the Peters and Dunne parties. Yet, to the mainstream media, these people were no more than fodder for Peters and Dunne. They may as well have had brown bags over their heads, given the lack of attention the media gave to them. It is the media's job to remove those brown bags.

Now some people will argue that party-obsession is due to MMP. No. The presidential-cum-party approach began well before MMP, in the days when two parties completely ruled the roost, and effectively selected all the candidates. We only had one vote in those days; a vote that was, in practice, a party vote.

Nevertheless, MMP does, in some minds, seem to reinforce the view that politics and parliament is about armies called parties rather than about people called MPs. What then is the more appropriate way to understand the role of parties?

There are two valid metaphors which complement each other. The first metaphor is that of a personnel recruitment agency.

The second is that of the "waka" (canoe to non-New Zealander readers), a vehicle on which successful candidates ride into parliament, and then disembark from. No MP, when being sworn in, swears allegiance to their party. A canoe delivering 50 MPs holds fifty intelligences, not one.

Waka are both mode of transport and brand. The easiest way to enter Parliament is by waka. (The only alternative is as an Independent candidate.) Having entered Parliament, MPs formally disembark from their waka. But they continue to associate mostly with those who sailed in on the same waka. And they know that they have to show some collegiality with the other members of their "tribe" if they want to be invited back onto that same waka for the next election. Nevertheless, despite these loyalty constraints (which are similar to those that apply to most of us in our working lives), each MP is a distinct and constitutionally independent voice. So it does matter who is on the Peters waka, the Dunne waka, the Clarke waka. Each has their own independent contribution to make to the governance of New Zealand.

(The first time I heard that one of the new MPs on Clark's Labour waka - the new Otago MP David Parker - was a "genetic engineer" was late on election night. Somehow I think that the Otago Labour Candidate might have been featured by the national media during the week of Corngate, 2½ weeks before the election. But who in the Auckland-based media knew anything about him? I should also note that Parker subsequently stated that he is not a genetic engineer.)

The first role of the parties is to recruit candidates. The parties get to know people who would never become public figures were it not for the parties' abilities to spot (and to attract) talent. When voting for people - eg local MPs or City Councillors - we tend to vote for people we know (or at least know of or know about). If we did not have parties to bring new talent to out attention, we would only vote for existing MPs (the devils we know) or sports stars, film stars and media personalities.

So parties play a hugely constructive role in making a people-Parliament possible. The waka mechanism encourages even those who become well enough known to be elected as Independents to behave in a collegial way. The waka mechanism does not, however, require back-bench MPs to be political infantry, at their leaders' command.

Yet, political infantry most of them become. We see them as lobby-fodder because the national media sees only numbered brown bags, and the party leaders (the Greens possibly excepted) are more than happy to not challenge that view.

We still know next to nothing about the new New Zealand First MPs. Maybe we never will.

© 2002 Keith Rankin

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