Liam Hehir: The case for ‘party hopping’

With Parliament currently considering a "waka-jumping" law to prevent MPs from switching parties, Liam Hehir argues voters, not party leaders, should hold politicians accountable for any defections.

Comment: Jack Vowles, professor of comparative politics at Victoria University, has put forward a defence of laws against party-switching by members of Parliament between elections. As you would expect, Professor Vowles lays out the strongest case for such laws.

In brief, the argument boils down to the idea that political parties are at the core of New Zealand's democracy. This is because people look to parties, rather than candidates when deciding how to vote. Since members of Parliament owe their position to the parties, rather than any personal mandate, it thwarts democracy for them to defect from the party that installed them.

Taken with the possibility that party switching could bring down a government, Vowles argues, and you have a recipe for instability.

There is a ring of truth about this. I doubt many Alliance voters in 1996 felt they were conferring a personal mandate on Jeanette Fitzsimmons and Rod Donald, who were both elected to the party list. And when Fitzsimmons and Donald used their list seats to establish an independent parliamentary presence for the Greens in 1997, they did so on the basis of their own judgment.

We elect members of parliament, not party delegates

This exercise of independent judgement is, however, consistent with the so-called "trustee" model of representation.

Vowles correctly agrees the trustee model can be used to justify party switching. However, he discounts the continued application of the model on the basis of its vintage. The idea of trusteeship, he writes, "predates the achievement of democracy with universal voting rights".

In other words, the idea of trusteeship made more sense when the franchise was narrow. The voter base was so restricted that there was nothing particularly democratic about following the preference of the small number of electors. So the conception of a member of parliament as a trustee did not violate democratic ideals back then. But it does now.

Personally, I don't agree that the validity of the trusteeship idea hinges in any way on the scope of the franchise. I would say instead that a member elected under full suffrage will probably make a better trustee. He or she will be more attuned to the needs and wishes of the people and therefore be in a sounder position to exercise his or her judgment.

Political parties are just as capable of going rogue

But even if the trustee model was somehow outmoded, it doesn't follow that giving political parties the power to expel members of Parliament will protect or enhance democracy. There is no reason to assume that a "rogue" MP is less faithful to voters than his or her party is. Political parties betray their voters all the time!

In the last election, for example, Winston Peters made many promises on issues about which voters feel strongly. Regarding the future of the Maori electorates, for example, he said, "You won't be talking to NZ First unless you want a referendum." This created a big point of difference between his party and most of the others, and no doubt New Zealand First won votes on the back of that.

And yet, after the election, this pledge was quietly set aside.

What if some New Zealand First MPs decided to defy the party on its broken promise? If they felt that it was a breach of faith with the party's voters, would they really be wrong? Would the voters be served by seeing them ejected from Parliament?

"Of course, not every MP who defies his or her party will do so on a matter of high principle. Sometimes the motivation will be entirely self-serving. On occasion, it may even be corrupt. But we have to tolerate this if we expect members of parliament to hold their own parties to account."

If that example doesn't do it for you because you favour retention of the Maori seats, try this one on.

In the lead up to the election, then-Green co-leader Metiria Turei declared that "The Green Party in government will immediately remove all financial sanctions and obligations that treat beneficiaries as criminals and second-class citizens. They're all gone. All gone."

But this attitude did not carry on with the Greens into government. When the Government decided to sanction beneficiaries who wouldn't participate in forced tree plantings, the Greens acquiesced. Leader James Shaw said: "Our policy is what the Government's policy is. So now we're in government, we need to do what government policy says,"

So what if a Green MP felt duty bound to oppose this sell-out? Would that be a betrayal, or a vindication, of the voters who supported the party in the hopes of ending benefit sanctions? In the case of the latter, why should the party have the power to expel that person from Parliament?

Of course, not every MP who defies his or her party will do so on a matter of high principle. Sometimes the motivation will be entirely self-serving. On occasion, it may even be corrupt. But we have to tolerate this if we expect members of parliament to hold their own parties to account.

Voters chose instability and fragility

As for the argument that party-switching makes party government less cohesive, you can see why that would be a concern for New Zealand First. Since the first MMP election, around half of all party defections have been from that party. And the coalition the party is currently in has a majority of just three seats, which could spell trouble.

So what? The people didn't vote for a strong and stable Labour-Green-New Zealand First ministry. They only gave those parties the means of forming a government on fragile terms. New Zealand First had the option of choosing a somewhat safer arrangement and declined to do so.

If this government collapses due to defections, then the result will be another election. The remedy will then be in the voter's hands. If they want to punish the defectors, they will not hesitate. They never have.

The supremacy of Parliament and the accountability of its members to their own judgement is a time-tested ideal. The perennial dysfunction of one party is no reason to discard the tradition. The problems of New Zealand First are problems for New Zealand First, not our constitution, to fix.

Liam Hehir is a writer and newspaper columnist from the rural Manawatu and a former National Party activist.

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