Filling the void left by Winston (until he comes back again)

What happens when (or if) Winston quits Parliament before he is declared the member for Northland? Nothing very much at all.

In typically-Winston Peters fashion, we've now been told that he will resign as a list MP and thus allow an additional NZ First MP to enter into Parliament. According to this account, Peters told Radio NZ: "Of course I'll resign, I don't know why it was ever a material question." 

Well, I guess it was a "material question" because of reports such as this one, where it was said: "Mr Peters said the party would 'seriously consider' not taking on the extra MP." I suppose it's another object lesson in not assuming that what Peters says necessarily has any resemblance to "the truth" of an issue.

Despite a bit of excitement around the "what might happen?" question, I don't think there is any great drama involved. Graeme Edgeler already has traversed the legal aspects of the issue, so I'll just direct anyone interested in the full intracacies to his post. I'll also note that the only person who seems to disagree about the issue is the ACT Party's David Seymour - I now await with interest his threatened court challenge to Mr Peters election in Northland.

Anyway, the tl;dr of Graeme's post is that nothing stops Peters from resigning his position as an MP (which he currently holds as a list member for NZ First). Once he does so, a vacancy automatically is created in the House. That vacancy must be filled by asking the next person on the NZ First list at the last election whether they want to become a list MP for NZ First. If they say "yes", then they enter Parliament. If they say "no", then the next person on the NZ First list is asked ... and so on. Then, when the Electoral Commission returns the writ for the Northland by-election (on Tuesday, 14 April), Peters will be returned as the MP for Northland.

That's how the Electoral Act is written, and there's nothing to say it applies any differently just because it enables NZ First to blag one more MP than it was entitled to at the 2014 general election. Whether or not that is "fair" just doesn't come into the picture at all.

However, Peters decision ultimately doesn't change anything in relation to National's ability to govern. As I explained to the NBR here (paywall), it is in the same position whether or not NZ First gain an extra MP:

  • Following the return of the writ for the 2014 general election, National had 60 MPs in a 121 seat House (needing 1 extra vote from Act, United Future or the Maori Party to get anything done).
  • When Sabin resigned, this meant they had 59 seats in a 120 seat House (needing 2 extra votes to get anything done - ACT and United Future, or the Maori Party).
  • At the moment, with Peters victory, they still have 59 seats in a 120 seat House (because Peters was already a list MP, his victory by itself doesn't cause the House to get any bigger).
  • If Peters resigns, they will (after 14 April) have 59 seats in a 121 seat House (still needing 2 extra votes to get anything done - ACT and United Future, or the Maori Party).

The only difference, therefore, is for NZ First. At present they have 11 MPs in the House. But if Peters resigns (and then comes back in as Northland's electorate MP) they will have 12. That not only gives them a slightly larger "team" to cover all the work needed to be done in the House, but it also provides them with more resources. In particular:

  • NZ First gets an extra $64,320 added each year to its "Leadership Fund";
  • NZ First gets an extra $22,000 added each year to its "Party Funding Allocation";
  • The MP gets about $176,000 in funding for things like staff salaries and other sorts of expenses.

That's without considering the other procedural benefits to having a bigger caucus, such as increased representation on select committees, more questions in the House, etc. 

So you can see why NZ First appears to have decided to overcome its alleged preference "for a much smaller Parliament ... that Parliament should be, as the Robertson petition said, no more than 100 people." Such principles carry real costs, and I guess the costs in this case were just a bit too high for Mr Peters to pay. 

I suppose the only outstanding issue then is, who will this new NZ First MP be? The first cab off the rank is Ria Bond, a former Invercargill hairdresser turned parliamentary staffer for the Party. As a matter of formal law, the position would be hers on Peter's resignation if she wanted it.

However, NZ First apparently claims that the decision on who will take the list place will be made by its Board. This certainly isn't true as a matter of law because it doesn't matter what the Party Constitution says on the matter - as I've had cause to remind NZ First before, private contractual arrangements cannot defeat an individual's right to be a member of the House of Representatives. But it may be true as a practical matter - if the NZ First Board tell Ria Bond she's not wanted as an MP, then it would be somewhat uncomfortable for her to enter the House as a part of their caucus. 

Meaning that internal politics within NZ First may be fully in play. There's been media speculation that perhaps the Board instead might prefer the next candidate - Mataroa Paroro, who is married to the sister-in-law of NZ First deputy leader Tracey Martin, who in turn is the daughter of Anne Martin, the party's president. Whether or not that is true is impossible to tell, because everyone - including Ria Bond - apparently have entered into witness protection programmes for the time being.

So, there's still some fun and games in store before the final hooter goes and the ball gets booted into touch on April 14. Note how I didn't reach for a cricketing metaphor there, but switched straight back to rugby?