The “Brendan Horan (Never Again) Bill”
Power corrupts. It corrupts principle and it can corrupt your own heritage.
The Greens, in government for the first time, are finding this out the hard way.
They voted on Tuesday for the New Zealand First-inspired Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill which prevents so-called waka jumping by allowing parties effectively to expel from Parliament dissidents within their own caucus. Serious dissidents, to be fair, but those like NZ First's first cohort of MPs in the 1990s who walked away from leader Winston Peters, and his carry-on, to keep supporting the National government of the time.
The anti waka-jumping legislation had a brief life under the Clark Labour government but that law expired. Its rebirth under the latest Labour-NZ First coalition has put the Green Party in a bind.
The Greens were ardent opponents of the previous law, citing its threat to MPs' freedom to stand aside from prevailing orthodoxies and to advance a radicalism the party cherishes.
Great names of the party, including former leaders Rod Donald, Jeanette Fitzsimons, decried the anti-democratic nature of such a law, which curtails an individual MP's rights in the face of the party machine.
But because NZ First made its pet law a subject of the coalition agreement with Labour, and Labour's agreement with the Greens (delivering the party a role in government for the first time) effectively binds the Green Party to these NZ First policy wins by barring the two separate agreements being in conflict with each other, Green MPs have waved the new law through to the Justice select committee. It passed its first reading by 63-57, with those eight critical Green votes pushing it over the top.
It fell to new MP Golriz Ghahraman to defend the Greens' new stance in the House, citing conditions the party says it has had inserted requiring leaders to provide reasons in writing to the errant MP, and time for that MP to respond; and that a leader must have "reasonable cause" to seek the MP's removal from Parliament.
"The Green Party will be voting for this bill at its first reading, to send it to the select committee. We want to ensure that the concessions that we've won on this bill are preserved. We do so, while shouldering considerable concern within our party and our caucus about the implications of this bill on our democracy and the critical role of MPs to speak out with freedom and without fear of expulsion.
"Many of our MPs and members come from a radical position that relies on the freedom of speech and speaking truth to power. We value those freedoms. We value them in our political system and in this House. All true and great change has relied on people standing up bravely against an oppressive status quo, regardless of how many they offend or disagree with. That process is valuable. Any further changes we can secure to this bill, in the select committee, will hopefully in some way come to protect the traditions of radicals and those standing up for truth and human progress."
The party came under predictable attack in Parliament from National, which opposes the bill as an affront to democracy by limiting not just list but electorate MPs' rights to stand against their parties' positions. MP Nick Smith played the party history card. "I ask those Green Party members to go look at the speech content of your founding leaders of the Green Party when this absolutely identical bill was introduced into the Parliament. I say absolutely genuinely to the Green Party: to vote for this bill on to the law books of New Zealand will be an embarrassment for our democracy, and will be an embarrassment in terms of our human rights, of which your party so adequately, and, in my view, in times rightly, champions."
Papakura MP Judith Collins, never one to leave a raw nerve un-rubbed, weighed in: "Oh, well, we know what the price of the Greens is. The Greens have always been completely opposed to this sort of legislation, every single time. Even when the Alliance were voting for it in 2001, along with Helen Clark's Labour Government—there is a theme here really, isn't there? Power and control—the Greens didn't like it at all. And why didn't they like it? Well, because they apparently used to think that you could have different views, but we now know what their price is."
And it wasn't just their opponents highlighting the Greens' discomfort.
Former Green MP Sue Bradford tweeted after the debate: "How dishonourable of the Greens to support the waka-jumping bill. If Rod and Jeanette hadn't been able to leave the Alliance, Greens would never have entered Parliament in 1999 and the whole journey may have been stillborn. It's sad to see history forgotten."
Labour MPs, whose party has enacted such a measure before, argued the bill was pro-democracy by ensuring the proportionality of the party vote was upheld. Justice Minister Andrew Little said the rights of 2.6 million voters, not the rights of individual MPs or parties, were of paramount importance.
"What right does an individual MP have, in light of the bargain they have struck with the electorate, and in light of the bargain that every single party who is represented in Parliament has struck with the electorate, to stand in the face of 2.6 million voters and to distort and undermine the decision of those voters? That's the fundamental question this legislation, effectively, seeks to answer. And what it says is that individual MPs do not have the right to undermine and overturn and distort the verdict that has been cast by 2.6 million voters. That's the fundamental point."
He said five areas of protections in the bill meant no party leader could act on a whim against an MP. The process required two-thirds of that party's caucus to have voted for the move to remove an MP, the leader had to give notice and time for the MP to reply and had to believe the MP's actions distorted the proportionality of the Parliament.
It wasn't just the Green Party under attack from National in the debate. New Zealand First and Peters, in particular, were condemned for acting in self-interest because of the party's history of personality fall-outs and schisms.
Matt King, National's MP who took the Northland seat from Peters at the election, called the bill the "Winston Peters (Save My Party) Bill" and the "Brendan Horan (Never Again) Bill" after the ex television weatherman who was one of the list of New Zealand First MPs to have fallen foul of Peters in the past.
"We all know what happened in the 1990s. New Zealand First MPs with principles—there are some apparently, in the past—jumped off the sinking Winston ship. He doesn't want that happening again, so he's made sure, as part of coalition negotiations, that he included this affront to democracy.
"I look across at those New Zealand First MPs—I see there's only one of them in the House today. I know they can't seriously believe that this is good for them—seriously. If they cross swords with their leader, Mr Peters, they are "gone-burger". No ifs, no buts; they are gone."
NZ First's Darroch Ball said his party was protecting the country's democracy. "There are two main considerations that need to be made when approaching this legislation and whether one would like to support it or not. The first one of all is understanding what the people voted for on election day to represent them—to represent them. The second is: is it our responsibility to ensure that we maintain that level of proportionality? In a robust and fair democracy, it is our absolute obligation to ensure that is the case, and it can only be addressed robustly and properly through legislation such as this."
During King's speech, Ball objected to the assistant speaker, Adrian Rurawhe, over what he believed was a slur on his party. "That member is now questioning whether our principles are for sale, and that's exactly what he said. He's been talking about New Zealand First member's lack of principles and lack of integrity throughout this entire speech, and that last statement that he made, implying that our principles are for sale, is not acceptable."
He failed to convince Rurawhe, however that the statement was out of order and King had actually been referring to the Greens at the time.
Nerves were raw throughout. Both New Zealand First and the Greens can expect some further neural stimulation at the select committee.