People before Party safeguards democratic principles

This is a voice against ‘Waka-Jumping’ legislation

Peter Dunne

Politics often has an irony about it and is frequently accompanied by a good dose of hypocrisy, interspersed with occasional moments of sanity and sound decisions.

All these elements were on display as Parliament resumed last week.

The first action the House of Representatives took after its return was to introduce legislation to effectively convert itself into a House of Party Delegates, where the views of individual MPs count for virtually nothing, and the Party becomes all-dominating.

They did this through the majority supporting legislation to prevent MPs leaving the parties they were elected for, shortly after they paid fulsome tribute to the memory and achievements of an early party-hopper, former Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton, who died over the holiday period, sadly.

Anti-Democratic Law

The argument against such essentially anti-democratic legislation was made cogently a few years ago by a prominent MP who said, “Members of Parliament should have to be free to follow their consciences. They were elected to represent their constituents, not swear a blind allegiance to a political party.”

That MP was acknowledging the long-standing principle of our type of parliamentary democracy first enunciated almost 250 years by the famous Irish philosopher/politician Edmund Burke, who said, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Both statements recognise that ultimately Members of Parliament are accountable to the people who elect them, ahead of the parties or factions that choose them as candidates. If electors are dissatisfied with their representative’s subsequent performance, they can vote for someone else at the next election.

Antithesis in New Zealand

How ironic, then, that New Zealand’s so-called “waka-jumping” legislation – the very antithesis of these two noble statements – should have been promoted by one of those quoted above.

Not Edmund Burke, obviously, but our very own Deputy Prime Minister (Winston Peters)!

Lofty appeals to letting MPs follow their consciences are clearly far less important than blind allegiance to a political party when New Zealand First is in power.

While Labour agreed to this demand in the desperation to do a coalition deal (after all, Labour had previously introduced similar legislation after 1999, but had been happy to let it die unlamented in 2005 and had not raised the issue since), the real disappointment are the Greens, long-time principled opponents of such a draconian law, but now acquiescing to give the Government its majority on the Bill.

Irony turns hypocrisy

The irony turned to hypocrisy the following day over a Member’s Bill on access to cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Suddenly, the conscience and judgement of individual MPs became paramount with every Party allowing its MPs a “conscience” vote on the issue, even if National and New Zealand First then made it pretty clear they expected most, if not all, their MPs to use their conscience vote to support their respective leaders’ opposition to the Bill.

The one bright spot was the introduction of the Government’s legislation to set measurable targets for the reduction of child poverty (although I do wish the Prime Minister would pronounce the word with a “t” and not the “d” she persistently uses).

The legislation, not dissimilar to legislation introduced by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in Britain a few years ago, is a welcome practical step to set goals, measure, and report on, performance, and then if need be, reassess those goals and the Budget resources allocated to achieve them.

It is a pity, though, that such an important issue, which both the Labour and National leaders committed to in last year’s election campaign – now risks becoming mired in petty politicking over the future of National’s Better Public Services targets, and the nature of the briefing the Government offered on its proposals.

The BPS targets

The Better Public Service targets were a positive step towards more focused and accountable government, and the current Government’s laudable objective on child poverty could easily have fitted within that framework, so it is a little petty to now be talking about dumping the BPS targets altogether.

At the same time, National seems to have been remarkably slow to respond to the Government’s briefing offer late last year.

Given that this legislation was a long, clearly signalled part of Labour’s 100-Day programme, National has no real grounds for complaint that Labour moved ahead without waiting for it to respond. National may have the numbers in the select committees and be the largest party in the House, but if it wants to have influence, it needs to take up Labour’s offers when they come, not wait around to see what might happen.

Irony, hypocrisy, and good legislation – and the 2018 Session of Parliament is not yet a week old. At this rate, it is going to be a mighty year.

Peter Dunne is a former Minister of the Crown and former Leader of the now close UnitedFuture Party. He was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM). The above article reflects his personal views. (Picture Supplied).

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