How much democracy is "enough" democracy?

Is Hone Harawira's decision to force a by election a cynical abuse of public money or a noble commitment to accountability? Yes.

There appear to be two lines of thought on Hone Harawira's decision to resign as an MP and thus force a by-election in his Te Tai Tokerau electorate.

The first, as argued here and here, is that it is a ridiculous and wasteful publicity stunt intended to generate media coverage for his newly minted political party.  (Although any further claim it is designed to secure extra cash for this new organisation's election campaign has been pretty thoroughly debunked here.) Central to this thesis is the fact that Harawira will have to stand again for election on November 26 - less than 6 months after his virtually certain return at the by election. So why spend good money deciding who will represent the area, only to refight that battle a matter of months later?

The second is that it is a worthy example of a politician being accountable to those who sent him to Parliament, by seeking their endorsement for his decision to change his allegience in mid-term. Central to this thesis is the fact that other MPs - Matiu Rata; Tiriana Turia; Winston Peters - have acted similarly in the past when they have departed their parties. And is not Hone Harawira's stance more commendable than that of (say) Chris Carter, who continues to cling to the claim "the voters chose me in 2008, so I am entitled to stay until 2011" after parting ways with the vehicle that carried him into the House?

At the risk of trying to have a bob both ways, I'm not sure that it is entirely necessary to choose between these narratives. That is to say, I'm pretty sure Hone Harawira's reasoning contains both an appreciation that this is a golden opportunity for his message to carry to the public as well as a genuine belief that he owes it to his people to give them the chance to reject him. (Remember that one of his central critiques of the Maori Party was that they had become too divorced from their support base.) So the fact ideals and pragmatic benefit align here - as well as the knowledge he is a virtual shoo-in at the polls - makes this a pretty straightforward call on his part.

But what of the complaint that, motivations aside, this is still a waste of money because we'll have a do-over in November? Well, we have something of an acknowledgement of this argument already in our Electoral Act. So, if a by election is triggered within 6 months of the end of Parliament's maximum term, or the PM advises the House there will be an election held within 6 months, then 75% of MPs can agree there is no need to hold it. Under these rules, the relevant dates are May 22 or May 26 ... unless John Key were to decide to change the already announced election date to avoid this by election ... which he won't.

Therefore, we have in law a judgement that the people of an area must be represented in Parliament, with an opt-out only possible if they'll get to choose another MP within a defined period of time. Hone Harawira's resignation will take place outside that defined period, so there must be a by election. It's not for Hone Harawira's sake, its for the sake of the people living in his electorate.

Consider this counter-factual: rather than Hone Harawira quitting as an MP next week, he is run over by a bus. (Those of you who thought "great!", for shame ... is he not a man whose life is precious in the eyes of God?) In such a case, don't the people of Te Tai Tokerau have the right to elect a new replacement to voice their concerns through the next few months of Parliament's life? And if not - if "near enough" to the existing six month rule is good enough - then where would you put the line?

Ah! But it can still be argued that the current case is different, in that the Tai Tokerau do have someone to voice their concerns, and thus this by election is purely a matter of choice on that representative's part.

Well, yes there is voice for Te Tai Tokerau in Parliament. But is it the right one to be there? And isn't that point of the by election; to test whether Hone Harawira's departure from the Maori Party has cost him the support of those who chose him whilst he wore that badge? Because is it not actually worse to have the wrong (i.e. unsupported by a plurality of voters) MP continuing to sit in the House as a representative of the people than to have no representative at all? (I reference readers back to Chris Carter, and ask what would be better for the people of Te Atatu - him or an empty chair in the House ... and how would you tell the difference?)

Now, of course we know that Hone Harawira will win the by election, so in a sense the exercise largely is a formal one. But again, the fact the result is a virtual certainty is a pretty poor argument against having an election. For example, we already know who will win election this November in Dunedin South, or Botany, or Mangere, or Selwyn. Does this mean setting up polling stations and distributing ballots (at least, ballots containing an electorate vote component) in those electorates is just a waste of money that we ought to dispense with?

(Actually, there is a way such niceties as polling booths and ballots might be able to be avoided. If no one else steps forwards as a candidate by the close of nominations, then Hone Harawira must be declared duly elected as MP for the electorate. While the legislation isn't entirely clear on the point, it has been interpreted in the past as meaning that no voting is required in a situation where only one candidate is standing. So, in a sense, any "waste of money" on this event will be as much the responsibility of anyone who (probably hopelessly) decides to take Hone Harawira on, as well as the two electors who nominate the candidate!)

Which brings us back to the question of motive. For if the issue simply is one of choice - that Hone Harawira is insisting on a by election that is his to have or not to have - then the reason for his choice matters. And it seems to me that discussions of Hone Harawira's motivations about anything form a sort of Roschach test, in which we learn more about a commentator's own preconceptions than "the truth".