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The Government’s Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill has no integrity at all

Winston Peters and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images
The Government’s Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill is misnamed. It is unnecessary, unethical and an example of coalition trade-offs of the worst kind. It has no integrity, not even in brackets.

Known as the “waka-jumping” bill, the proposed legislation has quietly slid down Parliament’s Order Paper and is now in about 12th spot. The public might surmise that the Government is in no mood for another round of slap-downs from the wide range of voices – on all sides of politics – who argue this bill should be abandoned.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Governments should be very careful about making changes to the way MPs are hatched or dispatched, or the way Parliament functions, that require only a simple majority. The same caution would have applied to the National Party, which, when previously in Opposition, proposed abolishing the Māori seats. Dropping the proposal was one of the concessions the Māori Party extracted from National in exchange for its support in 2008. The status quo prevailed. The integrity of the electoral system would also be served if the Greens voted against the waka-jumping bill, as respected former co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons has urged. Unfortunately, they show no sign of heeding her.

The bill’s explanatory note begins by saying that it amends the Electoral Act “in order to enhance public confidence in the integrity of the electoral system by upholding the proportionality of political party representation in Parliament as determined by electors”. This is pure spin. The bill, if and when it becomes law, will unashamedly and blatantly serve political parties, rather than the public. It does not enhance public confidence in the integrity of the electoral system. Quite the reverse – it invites cynicism towards political parties and, in particular, their leaders.

When enacted, this bill will mean that the leader of a political party can write to the Speaker saying they believe that one of their MPs has distorted the proportionality of Parliament and may do so again. In other words, the MP has not voted with the rest of their caucus. As long as the leader has the agreement of two-thirds of the parliamentary party, the MP will lose their seat.

Jeanette Fitzsimons. Photo/David White

In New Zealand, members of Parliament are elected either to represent an electorate – the people living in a particular geographical area – or from a list published by a political party before an election. In either event, voters are aware who they are voting for. Once in Parliament, the public expects those MPs to exercise good judgment. Usually, that judgment will be consistent with the philosophy of the party to which an MP belongs. However, there are sometimes good reasons an MP may not always vote with the rest of their caucus. Jim Anderton, who founded the NewLabour Party, argued that he did not leave the Labour Party; it left him. He had a good case for making that claim. Under waka-jumping legislation, he may well have lost his seat in Parliament, where he was the duly elected MP for Sydenham.

The proposed law is harsh in applying to electorate MPs. Plenty of electors split their vote – choosing the party they wish to see govern and an electorate candidate who may or may not belong to that party.

Electorate MPs, in other words, are not elected solely on party affiliation. It may even be their maverick status that got them elected. But at least, if thrown out under the waka-jumping law, they would have the opportunity to contest a by-election.

List MPs who get offside with their party leader face electoral oblivion. That threat can only turn these representatives into slavish devotees of their leaders. In some parties, the leader already has a huge amount of sway and can influence the order of the party list and the selection of electorate candidates. But whether or not those candidates make it to Parliament is the prerogative of the people. Whether they are kicked out should also be the prerogative of the people.

The effect of this bill, if passed, will be to silence voices in the one place where vigorous debate is required, and even has particular legal protection. Parliament is big enough to cope with dissent. Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens, it seems, are not.

This editorial was first published in the September 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.