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Opinion: Rankin On Thursday - Electoral Integrity

Submissions to the Select Committee on the "Electoral Integrity Bill" close soon. It's likely to be a done deal, with opposing submissions being ignored.

The EI "party hopping" bill, as it stands at its first reading, reflects the Alliance's position which is softer than the stances of Labour and NZ First. My guess is that any amendments made in the committee process will actually harden the bill. NZ First, for example has promised an extensive submission. Winston' Peters' indicated in December in Parliament the direction of the changes NZ First will seek.

(It is interesting that NZ First voted for the Government in Tuesday's confidence vote. Winston is offering the Government an alternative to relying on the Greens, no doubt with an eye to joining a Labour-led coalition in 2002.)

This exposes a weakness in the Select Committee system. Submissions that favour retaining the constitutional independence of MPs will address the bill as it now stands, and not the tougher bill that is probably sitting in Michael Cullen's bottom draw.

As it is, the EI bill (the "EIEI 'oh'" McBill?) obliges MPs to leave Parliament only if they announce that they are no longer a member of the party with whom they entered Parliament, or they reveal their membership status by joining or starting another party. In this form, the bill would have caused major problems for Jim Anderton in 1989, and Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald in 1999. But it would not have affected the worst examples of party disloyalty (such as that of John Kirk who voted for voluntary unionism in 1984, just to spite his Labour colleagues, when the Muldoon government was on the ropes). Nor would it have forced Neil Kirton or Alamein Kopu, the ostensible targets of the bill, to resign. Those MPs who have removed the brown bags from their heads will be able to vote against their party, just so long as they don't admit to leaving it.

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It is likely that the eventual 2000 Electoral Integrity Act (EIA) will regard a person who consistently votes on the "other side of the House" (to use an expression that still has currency with those politicians and journalists who think in first-past-the-post terms) as no longer a member of the party under whose auspices they entered Parliament. It seems that Labour in particular are seeking to remove people who change sides in a House that they see as being made up of two mutually exclusive groups: Government and Opposition.

Who changed sides in the last Parliament? 10 MPs: Kopu, Kirton, Peters, Brown, Bloxham, McDonald, Mark, Woolerton, Donnelly, Wylie. One (Kopu) moved from Opposition to Government. The others moved from Government to Opposition. If changing sides is the crime, then these 10 should all have left Parliament.

The problem here of course is that the half of NZ First that retained the rights to the name "NZ First" switched sides, while the other half of NZ First were left as Independent MPs. The NZ First MPs whose motto was "where Winston goes we go" left those who were loyal to the Government. Many who were left were ministers with unfinished policy initiatives to oversee.

The EI bill is just another way in which this government can recreate the discipline of First-Past-the-Post, so that the senior Labour Ministers can rule the country in the manner that inner cabinets have ruled NZ since Seddon's time. (In the previous Parliament, the attempt to create a watertight coalition document was the means chosen to create a government that could govern in the old way.)

The inner cabinet would like to run the Labour caucus much as John Hart ran the All Blacks. Persons on the party list who missed out getting into the starting line-up represent the substitutes' bench. "Non-performers" (eg as Jim Anderton was seen to be in 1988) would be substituted.

The EI bill is also about maintaining discipline within the Maori seats. Labour is banking on winning any by-elections that might be held on account of "disloyalty" (ie disloyalty to the Labour sanctum; not disloyalty to Maori).

In practice, most "party hopping" is not disloyalty. There are not many cases in New Zealand where an MP has left one party to join another existing party caucus (as opposed to forming a new caucus). Gilbert Myles leaving the Alliance for NZ First is one recent example; Trevor Rogers joining ROC would be another. (Overseas, Winston Churchill was the classic party hopper. In Australia, there was the recent example of the leader of the Democrats defecting to Labour.)

The important cases which are presented as party-hopping are really party fractures; divorce rather than adultery. In the case of the Alliance and the Greens, the divorce was amicable. Neil Kirton's divorce from NZ First was reasonably amicable. The Alliance-Kopu divorce was at the more extreme end of bitter. Other cases were in-between, with the 1989 Labour-Anderton divorce being towards the bitter while the Labour-Dunne divorce was reasonably amicable. With much rancour, National fractured twice in 1991.

The EI bill gives all the rights to the divorcee who manages to retain custody of the party name. That's about as stupid as 19th century family law which regarded wife and children as the property of the father, meaning that one parent had automatic custody of the children by virtue of his genitalia.

In the case of the Labour-Anderton divorce in 1989, it happened because the party which held custody of the name Labour had actually been applying the 1984 manifesto of another party (the New Zealand Party, which was the precursor of Act). That was the ultimate act of party-hopping, and many of those 1980s' manifesto hoppers are among the most strident supporters of the EI bill. Indeed the irony is that the hardline supporters of the bill - Labour and NZ First - are both parties that ratted on their voters within the last 16 years.

While I oppose the EI bill outright, I would like to suggest that, if passed, the MMP review should strongly recommend that the substitution of resigning MPs be discontinued. Under MMP, there is no need for MPs to be replaced. Parliament can function with 119 or even 110 MPs. Absolute election day proportionality is not the governing principle of MMP. There should be a cost to a party when a member resigns. (The greater problem in the last Parliament was not party-hopping but frivolous resignations.) Indeed, it no longer matters if an electorate has no electorate MP. A list MP from the same party can be appointed to that electorate if there are no list MPs already there. (Indeed all list MPs who are not Ministers should be allocated around the country to share the electorate work, with extra support given to electorates which are geographically large, electorates whose official representatives are sick, and electorates whose electorate MPs are Ministers and therefore have little time for electorate work. Huge regions like the East Coast - as Janet Mackey noted in Parliament on Tuesday - need more representation than she alone is able to give.)

We need a better understanding about the role of parties in our polity. It is my view that, while parties are important in giving structure to Parliament, the structure must have some flexibility. MPs need the constitutional freedom to stand up to control freaks like Sir Roger Douglas. Like a society that forbids marital dissolution, an electoral regime that doesn't allow political divorce is too rigid.

Parties are vehicles for getting people into Parliament. In any country with more than c.100,000 people, most of the non-sitting candidates are unknown to most of the voters. Without parties, we would vote mainly on the basis of name recognition, for sitting MPs, film stars, sports heroes, and media personalities. (Before parties were the norm in New Zealand, voters voted disproportionately for media personalities - ie newspaper proprietors - such as John Balance and William Pember Reeves.)

In New Zealand, party candidate selection is a form of primary election. Party members know the people who can best represent their core voters. Beca use the parties we support (even if we say we don't trust them) pre-select election candidates, we vote trustingly for people we do not know. We only get to know these people after they've been elected. Despite the referendum on the size of Parliament, in most cases we like the people whom the parties selected for us as candidates. We endorse them by reelecting them, as electorate MPs, or by voting for party lists in which they are prominently placed.

Parliament is made up of 120 people, not 7 parties. Despite the "party vote", it is people, not parties who get elected. In voting for parties, we are voting for vehicles - for waka - with people in them. The waka are means of getting candidates into Parliament. When they arrive at parliament MPs get out of their waka; they become servants of the public, not party servants. We do however expect MPs to ally with those who rode on the same waka. If they don't, they cannot expect to ride in the same waka next election. While we "brand" MPs according to the waka they arrived in, and expect a certain amount of quality control on account of that branding, we don't expect slavish allegiance to waka captains.

I find it sad that a government that has so much potential to do much that is good for the public of New Zealand chooses to resort to techniques of control and discipline that should be confined to textbooks on corporate management theory. In a democracy, the people are in charge, the governed govern through their autonomous representatives. The waka captains plan election campaigns.

© 2000 Keith Rankin

Thursday Column Archive (2000):

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