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The waka-jumping bill brouhaha is not as clear-cut as it seems

Jeanette Fitzsimons: not a fan of the waka-jumping bill.

The measure used to tip rogue MPs into the drink – the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill – hoves into view again.

The Clash sang it with a twang: “Should I stay or should I go?” Burt Bacharach approached it philosophically: “Knowing when to leave may be the smartest thing anyone can learn.”

It’s politics’ most painful decision, which is one reason there’s so much melodrama surrounding pending restoration of the waka-jumping – Electoral (Integrity) Amendment – bill. It’s designed to give MPs the definitive exit nudge in certain circumstances.

While hastily noting the many high-minded and historically resonant arguments against this law, let’s also consider how hard superfluous politicians can be to get rid of – even post-checkout. John Howard left Australia’s Parliament in 2007 and John Key quit ours in 2016, yet both ex-prime ministers drew much limelight at last weekend’s National Party conference. Helen Clark is so often in the headlines, and on the phone with her various suggestions, that Labour politicos are drawing straws to decide who might survive the task of Having A Word about the desirability of her maintaining a slightly more enigmatic profile.

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The waka-jumping bill is Clearasil for a narrower range of conditions than ex-politicians with a lingering sense of relevance. Designed as a temporary trainer-wheel when we embarked on MMP in 1996, it in effect allows parties to expel rogue MPs in order to preserve Parliament’s proportionality. Leave, or get lawfully expelled from, the party you were elected for and your seat can be declared vacant. Its original purpose was to ensure stability in case too many parties fractured early on. Given our history of political duopoly and commanding one-party majorities, this was a reasonable fear. But we’ve learnt to cope with MMP barn-dancing, to the point where we could almost call its rough patches “conscious uncouplings”. The Greens left the Alliance; New Zealand First left the Government; various MPs made themselves independent; and no Government has ever fallen.

Peters principle

The waka-jumping bill expired as planned in 2005 without tears. But last year, given the globally rare mathematics of our three-way coalition, NZ First saw the need for a bit of extra insurance. The party was riven, right to its caucus, over whether to deal with Labour or National. Leader Winston Peters didn’t want the inevitable resentment of those favouring a National deal to undermine the new Government’s stability. If an MP got the pip, he wanted the ability to replace them, rather than dissidents having the ability to imperil the whole administration.

Seems fair. Why should one grump be allowed to distort the proportionality of Parliament? That, after all, was decided by voters. The voters’ will should trump that of the lone MP in a democracy, right?

Wrong, according to a stampede of legal and constitutional wallahs, and again, that Hotel California tribe, ex-politicians including Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Jeanette Fitzsimons. They insist the lone MP’s will does trump the people’s, and that it would be unconstitutional and anti-democratic to give anyone or anything the power to force an MP out of Parliament, save death or a serious criminal offence.

Our parliamentary system has given MPs special tenure protection because of actual attack and murder by monarchs and sundry vested interests throughout history. Given the present bumpy geopolitics, with its terrifying rise of autocrats and of state- and party-sanctioned racism and anti-religious bigotry, this is not a protection to discard lightly.

Trouble is, a realistic appraisal of the true nature of an MP’s democratic endorsement is hard to reconcile with such sacrosanctity of tenure, particularly for list MPs. No voter enters the booth thinking, “I’m voting for X party because I really rate their No 32 list candidate”.

Even electorate MPs depend overwhelmingly on their party brand rather than their own qualities to win the ballot.

An election, as one lawyer put it to this writer, could be seen as meaning “the shop is now sold”. If an MP later disputes the shop’s management or quarrels with the inventory, tough. The sale has taken place.

Then let’s look at the lasting influence and inspiration of dissident MPs who were able to stay on in Parliament after divorce from the parties that got them elected: ummm …

That was quick. There isn’t any influence – much less inspiration. NZ First’s Brendan “TAB” Horan, National’s Brian “I speak my mind!” Connell, the Alliance’s Alamein “Tea with Jenny Shipley” Kopu and Donna “Secret Stomach Staple” Awatere Huata were never in any danger of re-election. Their stands against their parties failed to resonate or even convey any discernible principle. Rather, the public saw that they had behaved unreasonably – for example, Kopu frequently wagging Parliament and Awatere Huata facing charges of defrauding her own charity.

Cue dramatic soundtrack

In contrast, it was a veritable Merchant Ivory production when first Jim Anderton and then Winston Peters took their well-articulated grievances against Labour and National respectively to the electorate and won their by-elections. Peter Dunne, more of a Carry On, Mr Sensible, waited until the next election to test his support after leaving Labour, but endured a remarkable 21 further years on his own merits.

Not to be too romantic, as careerism was also in play in these exits, but the next trip to the ballot box is the ultimate row-settler.

An un-ironable wrinkle was enshrined when Anderton fairly pointed out, “I didn’t leave the party, the party left me”, after Labour plunged into deregulation it hadn’t campaigned on. But should disgruntled MPs have the power to hold a party to ransom if it changes course? Anderton was vindicated – but so was Labour, which also won the next election. Again, the voter is the cleanest decider.

We rightly fret about oppressive party discipline. Yet this is the basis, and the only practical basis, of the very list and candidate selections themselves. Our brand, our policies. Beyond a reasonable tolerance, there’s no cherry-picking.

The Greens detest having to support the bill, having lacked the foresight to ring-fence it in their confidence and supply deal. But for timing and personal conscience, they might be suffering dissidents on their own flank. Kennedy Graham and Dave Clendon quit over the Metiria Turei benefit-cheat ruckus last election. Another MP another time might stay and cause the Green brand big problems.

Had a politician written that Clash hit, it would have asked, Should I stay or should YOU go?

This article was first published in the August 11, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.