Jack Vowles: The case against ‘party hopping’
MPs can't govern effectively if they can decide to jump ship whenever they wish, argues Victoria University's Jack Vowles
Debate about legislation to discourage MPs ditching or switching parties intensified briefly over the summer. The law would not prevent MPs from leaving their parties: but having done so, or having been expelled from their party caucus for voting against their party, an MP would no longer hold their seat in Parliament.
In the case of an electorate MP, a by-election would be held, in which they could then stand; in the case of a list MP, the seat would go to the next person on the list and the original MP could form a new party or join another and seek a position on its list.
The precise details of the law are still open to possible amendment and select committee hearings will take place at the next stage of consideration. The details will be important because there needs to be a balance between the rights of individual MPs to express their views and act on them and the power of leaders and the rest of their colleagues to keep them in line. As the Bill now stands, a party leader will need the support of two thirds of their colleagues to expel an MP, and the conditions are also subject to parties’ internal rules, which could prescribe further limits.
However, the basic principles behind the proposed law have been harshly criticised as contrary to long-established traditions of parliamentary democracy going back to at least the eighteenth century.
At that time, political theorist and politician Edmund Burke argued a strong case for MPs being able to decide for themselves the best interests of the nation, making their own choices independent both of the voters who elected them and the opinions of their fellow MPs. For Burke, the MP is a ‘trustee’: once voted into office, they should follow their own judgment. When Burke was an MP, only a small minority of men with property and wealth were able to vote. These, though, are the assumptions that underpin the main criticisms of stopping ‘party hopping’.
Parties govern on the basis of commitments they have made and the confidence their voters have placed in them to govern effectively. But they cannot govern effectively if they are divided internally and if MPs can decide to jump ship whenever they wish.
This thinking is part of a tradition of some longevity but predates the achievement of democracy with universal voting rights and the associated principles of parliamentary democracy established in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
As Winston Peters has pointed out, these principles are based on the concept of ‘responsible party government’. As collective actors, parties now govern New Zealand, not the combinations of factions and independent MPs of eighteenth-century Britain or New Zealand between the 1850s and 1890s. Parties govern on the basis of commitments they have made and the confidence their voters have placed in them to govern effectively. But they cannot govern effectively if they are divided internally and if MPs can decide to jump ship whenever they wish. Parties that can credibly form a government need to be cohesive and stick together. Otherwise a government may lose its majority, perhaps precipitating an early election.
Electoral research tells us most people vote for parties, more so than for candidates. The moral argument for the prevention of party hopping is equally as strong as that of Burke, and more up to date.
Implicitly, people elected to Parliament as representatives of a political party have entered into a contract to continue in that role until the next election. There may be circumstances where they feel the contract can be voided, perhaps if a party veers away from its pre-election commitments. But by-elections in the case of electorate MPs and new parties in the case of list MPs can test whether voters agree with those claims. Given New Zealand’s short term of Parliament, even the next general election might not be a long time to wait.