Waka jumping bill is a Peters bottom line
By Richard Harman (author)
Even though the overwhelming majority of the 56 submissions so far heard on the waka jumping bill oppose it, the Government is unlikely to back off.
That is because the Bill is regarded by NZ First as critical to the coalition agreement.
The legislation would require an MP who resigned (or was expelled) from a party to resign from Parliament.
Research presented to the Select Committee considering the Bill shows that since 1996 NZ First has been the most affected by members resigning for one reason or another.
POLITIK has learned from a source from one of the parties involved in the coalition negotiations that the Bill was a key bottom-line demand from New Zealand First.
“It was one of the very first issues raised by Winston,” the source said.
It is clear that the Government believes that to not get the Bill through would imperil its coalition arrangement with NZ First and that the Greens are being pressured to support it because without their vote it will fail.
However, a procession of former Green MPs and party members have come to Parliament to oppose it.
They have been joined by two former National Party speakers and with a significant question about aspects of it, by the Clerk of the House.
It is a Bill with very few friends however it is not new legislation.
A similar Bill was introduced in 2001 but had a sunset clause which meant it expired in 2005.
Simply it (and the current Bill) provided that when a member resigned or was expelled from a political party that party was entitled to ask the Speaker to declare that MP's seat vacant and either have a new member appointed off the list (if a list MP triggered the vacancy) or a by-election if it was an electorate MP.
Privately both labour and National are resigned to the Bill having to be passed because of its importance to NZ First.
But Parliament’s Clerk, David Wilson, is concerned that the Bill threatens Parliamentary Privilege because it would allow the Courts to conduct a Judicial Review of any decision to force a member to resign and that review could involve examining an MP’s speaking and voting record in the House.
The earlier Act was invoked by ACT to force the sacking of its MP, Donna Awatere Huata who had been charged with fraud.
She sought to stop the sacking through the courts.
Wilson said the court relied heavily on her voting record in Parliament to determine whether she had caused a distortion of proportionality.
“ Voting is one of the most significant elements of the proceedings of the legislative branch, and it is highly undesirable in constitutional terms for a court to inquire into the meaning of how a member voted or the weight to be placed on that vote,” he said in his submission.
The former Speaker, Sir Lockwood Smith, also raised the privilege issue.
“The notion that an MP could be dismissed from Parliament for not following the Whip, criticising a leader or expressing strong concern about an aspect of party or government policy should be anathema to those who care about our parliamentary democracy
“It should never be forgotten that the rights and privileges claimed by the Speaker on behalf of the House are the privileges of Members, not of political parties.”
Another former Speaker, David Carter, said the Bill would put New Zealand at odds with most Parliamentary democracies around the world.
He quoted from an Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) report which cautioned against the power of political parties to revoke the mandates of their MPs in case of expulsion from their parties.
“ In a similar vein, the IPU Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians has repeatedly publicly affirmed its position that loss of party membership should not automatically lead to loss of one's seat in parliament," he said.
“I do not doubt that the high respect New Zealand's Parliament and democracy is held in will be damaged by this bill if passed.
“There would be strong protest in Parliaments like Australia, the United States, Canada or even Germany (the home of MMP) if any Government proposed laws of this sort.”
But the real problem for the Government is the weight of opposition coming from the Greens.
The former MP Keith Locke has presented a submission opposing it as have a number of ordinary members of the party.
The party’s former co-leader and one of its founders, Jeanette Fitzsimons said she opposed the Bill in its entirety.
“Integrity cannot be legislated for,” she said.
“ It is a matter of conscience and judgement.
“In some cases leaving one’s party is an act of integrity – as when the party has departed from the policies it took to the election, or has abused proper process.
“ In other cases, it may be just self-serving political expediency.”
She referred to her own experiences as co-leader.
“Dissent is a valuable part of the political process.
“Without it, MPs are just clones of their leader. Having dealt with it as co-leader of the Green Party caucus at times, 1999 – 2009, I know it is uncomfortable, but the remedy is inclusiveness and listening and wide discussion, not shutting down the political process.”
She said that she strongly disagreed with the stance taken by former Green MPs Kennedy Graham and David Clendon over Metirira Turei last year.
“I was highly critical of the way they went about it, which was unnecessary and damaging.
“But I would defend to the end their right to freedom of conscience, and to express their views in opposition to the rest of the caucus, without being thrown out of Parliament.”
Another of the Greens’ founders, Dr Christine Dann, said that there had been 18 MPs who for one reason or another had either resigned or been expelled from their political parties since MMP was introduced in 1996.
Nine of those eighteen MPs had left NZ First. The other nine came from four parties with four from the now-defunct Alliance.
“So the answer to the question ‘is party-hopping currently a problem in New Zealand?’ has to be ‘Not unless your name is Winston Peters.’” she said.
And that’s the problem; the Bill is a concession to NZ First, demanded during the coalition negotiations, and it would appear that the Government is putting considerable pressure on the Greens to vote for it lest it threaten the relationship between Labour and NZ First.