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Sludge Report #153
Was Ashraf Pushed Or Did He Fall?
Listener Political Editor Jane Clifton this afternoon on 95BFm essentially confirmed observations made by Judith Collins MP concerning Prime Ministerial pressure and influence over Ashraf Choudry MP – NZ's first Muslim MP – and Winnie Laban MP , a Pacific Islander and Christian – on the Prostitution Reform Bill.
To recap, the bill passed last night by the slimmest possible margin – 60 votes to 59 with one abstention. The one abstention was critical as a tied vote would have meant the defeat of the bill.
The allegation hotly disseminating around the corridors on the hill today – and which may feature on the TV tonight - is essentially that Ashraf, and fellow minority representative Winnie Laban were told by Prime Minister Helen Clark that they had few, if any, chances of professional advancement unless they voted with the majority of their colleagues on the bill.
In Ashraf's case it is important to note that he did not vote favour of the bill, and simply abstained.
His abstention nevertheless was critical to the end result. A circumstance that is not known – yet anyway – to have occurred before in Parliamentary history.
Finally by way of legal background – because the issue is a "conscience issue" – MPs are supposed to vote by their consciences and not by party lines.
According to the back channels in Parliament Choudhry and Laban left their meeting with the PM with a clear understanding that they ought to tow the line else their future "political careers could be in doubt". As list MPs this could mean a range of things.
Importantly both MPs are self-confessed believers and active practitioners of their religion, both are also known to have been lobbied very strongly by their minority constituencies, Muslim and Pacific Island Christian , to oppose the bill.
Their decisions are therefore clearly unusual – and as yet –unexplained.
While a complaint of privilege against the Prime Minister Helen Clark may be unlikely to succeed it would seem on the face of it – as discussed below – that it would be at least possible to raise a question of privilege and ask for a ruling on what the acceptable limits are on Prime Ministerial intervention in instances such as this.
Standing Orders 396 and 397 hold:
396 Contempt of House
The House may treat as a contempt any act or omission which—
(a) obstructs or impedes the House in the performance of its functions, or
(b) obstructs or impedes any member or officer of the House in the discharge of the
member's or officer's duty, or
(c) has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such a result.
397 Examples of contempts
Without limiting the generality of Standing Order 396, the House may treat as a contempt any of the
(a) the breach of one of the privileges of the House:
(f) as a member, receiving or soliciting a bribe to influence the member's conduct in
respect of proceedings in the House or at a committee:
(h) offering or attempting to bribe a member to influence the member's conduct in respect
of proceedings in the House or at a committee:
(i) assaulting, threatening or intimidating a member or an officer of the House acting in
the discharge of the member's or the officer's duty:
Firstly it would need to be established that a member of Parliament has a duty, on a conscience vote, to vote according to their conscience.
Admittedly this is a completely new area of legal discussion, but could it be argued that the Prime Minister - in making a suggestion such as that as alleged - has obstructed two members of the House in the discharge of their duties, in preventing them from voting according to their consciences?
The exact limits on what amounts to contempt in such circumstances are not known, and according to a spokesperson from the Clerk's office there is no precedent.
But again, if the allegations are true then Choudry and Laban could be under the examples of contempt in Standing Order 397 be accused of accepting a bribe from the Prime Minister and/or the Prime Minister could be accused of either attempting to bribe or threatening or intimidating the members.
That said at present we know none of the facts and so far the Prime Minister is denying the allegations absolutely.
According to a Radio Pacific Transcript of an announcer this morning:
The Prime Minister says Mrs Collins' claims are "absolute rubbish." She says she has utmost respect for the consciences of all her MPs."
That said, ideally, to set the record straight, Winne Laban and Ashraf Choudry ought to come forward and explain their change of heart in terms that make some sense.
In the meantime a truly bold constitutional lawyer might like to attempt to restrain the Governor General from assenting to the bill until this mystery is sorted out.
Anti©opyright Sludge 2003