It's the job of MPs to push the policies they believe in. It would be constitutionally outrageous if they didn't.

Dr Michael Bassett occasionally ventures into cyberspace to vent his spleen on the decline of civilization and the antics of "the Left", or to reproduce verbatim some other person's views that he happens to find attractive (see here, or here).

And more power to him for doing so. The beauty of this interweb thingy is that aging, embittered ex-politicians and self-important legal academics alike can send out their meandering thoughts to be generally ignored. That's the awesome power of e-democracy at work.

But his most recent post seems to me a bit, well, silly. In it, he takes both the NZ Herald and Labour MP Phil Twyford to task. The Herald catches flak for reporting that some 150 protestors turned up outside a meeting of the Auckland governance select committee to oppose various aspects of the Government's Auckland supercity proposals. Apparently this fact, along with an accompanying photograph placed 7 pages into the paper, was not worthy "news" in Bassett's eyes. After all, everyone who really matters thinks that the proposed Auckland supercity model is just peachy - don't they?

But the Herald really is just collateral damage in Bassett's field of fire. The real target is Phil Twyford, who apparently perpetrated a "constitutional outrage" by organising the protest and addressing it during the Auckland governance select committee's lunch break. (You can read Twyford's response here.) Such behaviour by a member of the committee considering the proposed legislation was "completely inappropriate". "Just imagine", Bassett asks of us in horrified tones, "if a judge hearing a court case decided to duck out during the break, megaphone in hand, to stir up supporters of the defendant appearing before him/her. Even the Herald just might realize this to be constitutionally improper?"

Well, yes. I'm sure it would do so. But as this analogy is plain daft, Bassett's point is risible. As I've said before, we expect judges to act impartially towards the parties appearing before them and to avoid any conduct that might give an appearance of bias because this is a critical feature of the rule of law. Judges have no basis for their authority other than that they are seen to be neutral, disinterested interpreters and appliers of the law to the case before them.

Members of Parliament are in a completely different position. When they engage in lawmaking, we expect them to have an existing viewpoint on the issues before them that they will strongly advocate. That's why we voted for them - because of the substantive values and policy preferences they already hold. And we should not want them to set aside those values and policy preferences while they deliberate on and debate legislative change. Nor should we want them to separate themselves from others who hold those values and policy preferences.

That's why it is perfectly fine for an MP to turn up on Parliament's steps to accept a petition on some matter that is, or may come, before the House. (Just imagine if a judge were to personally meet a plaintiff in the court's registry to accept his or her pleadings!) That's why it is perfectly fine for an MP to meet with lobby groups to discuss issues and coordinate strategies for advancing some legislative goal. (Just imagine if a judge were to meet with the lawyers for one of the parties to a case and plan how that party can best achieve a favourable decision!) You might even go so far as to say MPs should be allowed to drive tractors up to Parliament's doors to carry their supporters' views. (Just imagine ... oh, you get the point.)

Nevertheless, Bassett probably would claim that Twyford went too far by instigating protest action designed to influence the select committee's deliberations. It is at this stage of the legislative process that MPs should be turning their minds to the details of the Bill before them, and carefully and respectfully listening to the views of those who submit to the committee. Partisan politics has no place in the select committee room.

[As a snide aside, I note with some surprise Bassett's silence when another MP, ACT's David Garrett, appeared to fall short of this standard of legislative behaviour when questioning witnesses appearing before the law and order select committee. Surely not a case of "political rhetoric: one law for [his] opponents, and another for [his] own side? I leave it to you to work that out."]

Even if we accept this (completely idealised and unachievable) description of legislative duty, how exactly has Twyford fallen short of it? His actions in encouraging protest action surely cannot create any unacceptable perception of bias - is there anyone who didn't already know that Labour's MPs believe that the Government's Auckland supercity project is a big mistake? Equally, is there any evidence Twyford is not engaging in the select committee's deliberations in a conscientious and serious fashion - has he berated witnesses, or listened to his ipod during submissions, or the like? Are the protests outside the committee room hampering the select committee's ability to carry out its enquiries and deliberations (and if so, why hasn't a privileges complaint been lodged with the Speaker)?

Apparently not - or I suspect Bassett would have told us all about it. In the absence of any actual interference with the select committee's operations, Bassett's real gripe simply seems to be that he doesn't like seeing "a rag tail and bob tail army of opponents" protesting a policy he thinks is to the good, and it irks him that attention is being paid to their views.

But you know what? I don't really like what Bassett puts out on the net. So when I read something I don't like, I write a response. That's the consequence of a healthy and open democratic system.

So here's some advice for Bassett, which he is entirely free to ignore. Rather than bitching and moaning about specious "constitutional outrages" on the part of those whose policies you disagree with, make yourself up a placard saying "Rodney's vision is great!' and show up at the next select committee meeting.

Who knows - the Herald might even publish your photo.

Comments (1)

by Justin Maloney on March 08, 2010
Justin Maloney

"Partisan politics has no place in the select committee room."

This made me chuckle. I know you covered this 'dream' off above but perhaps MB has forgotten the make up of select committees is done (last I checked) to ensure that it is representative (at least partially) of parliament. It is therefore designed to take into account partisan politics (and in theory the peoples views through a democratically elected and representative parliament)?

One could rightly complain about bad behaviour or unprofessionalism but to complain about a politician in any functino being partisan in a select committee is surely akin to complaining that grass is green.

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.