The mother of all parliamentary problems

Westminster is both the legal and the spiritual mother of New Zealand's Parliament. But just at the moment, it looks to be ripping itself apart. Where she goes, will we go? Where she falls, will we fall?

We all know the debt (in both the positive and negative sense) that our society owes to British colonisation. Sure, the development of an independent sense of "being a Kiwi", helped along by the Maori renaissance and a healthy dose of overt nation building by the last Labour-led Government, means that we are no longer just a country of South-Seas Britons. But the imprint of our colonial legacy remains everywhere to see – from the Union Jack in the corner of our flag to teams called "the Highlanders" and "the Crusaders" representing Te Wai Pounamu in the Super 14.

Nowhere is our society's path of dependence more evident than in our parliamentary arrangements. The fundamental constitutional concept of parliamentary sovereignty was forged in the 17th Century battle between the Stuart Kings and the UK Parliament. If you want to discover what privileges our House of Representatives enjoys, you'll have to refer back to those possesed by the UK House of Commons as of 1 January, 1865. The parliamentary offices of "Speaker", "Serjeant-At-Arms" and "Usher of the Black Rod" reflect roles and traditions invented hundreds of years ago on the banks of the Thames.

All of which is to say that not only are the Houses of Parliament at Westminster the legal mother of New Zealand's Parliament, but they continuously have provided both a practical and a principled inspiration for us half a world away.

That may be why the current implosion of Westminster's institutions holds such a morbid fascination for us here in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Sure, there's a fair amount of schadenfreude in seeing politicians of any nationality squirm. But the close linkage between our Parliament and Westminster makes it a bit like watching a car crash in slow-motion, when it's your cousin behind the wheel. And it also raises the question of what, if anything, Britain's current travails mean for us.

It looks unlikely that the immediate issue wrenching Westminster apart – the extremely self-serving application of the rules governing MP's personal expenses – will arise here, despite some local attempts to fan the flames. Our real problem with parliamentary expenses is not so much individual MPs enriching themselves, as political parties using this money to entrench their positions in Parliament. This is one of the more pressing matters the upcoming review of electoral funding will have to address.

Nor has New Zealand seen anything like the repeated and serious allegations of corruption levelled at individual British lawmakers. Sure, Taito Phillip Field is in the dock over the tiling of his house, and some of Winston Peter's behaviour raised eyebrows. But that is nothing compared to the "cash for questions", or even "cash for legislation", scandals seen in the UK.

So while there's no great love for individual MPs in this country, they haven't given the public quite the same reason to outright loathe them as have their UK colleagues.

Instead, any lesson that Britain may have for us lies not in the personal foibles of our MPs, but more in the shortcomings of the Westminster parliamentary model. As The Guardian has editorialised;

[T]he expenses crisis is not simply a set of personal failings and transgressions, occasionally exaggerated. That is why it is not enough to call for heads to roll. The deeper problem is systemic. It is rooted in the whole way we do our politics. A general election is certainly not irrelevant to addressing that problem; but it is not a fundamental solution either. In the end, we need a new politics more than we need a new government.

One might argue that New Zealand had its own momentary crisis of confidence in the Westminster system in the early 1990s, which we answered with the introduction of MMP. I'm certainly one of those who thinks that this change, plus the alterations to parliamentary procedure adopted in its wake, have been generally positive for our political culture.

But our post-MMP era politics don't mean our governments have stopped treating Parliament as no more than an inconvenient roadblock to "getting things done". Most recently, the National-led government has decided to get the Associate Local Government Minister, John Carter, to chair the select committee hearings into the Auckland super city legislation he was intimately involved in designing. There goes any pretence whatsoever that this committee will be able to check the government's preferred policy in a real fashion.

It's this sort of casual abuse of process – which then produces silly Opposition tactics like Labour's recent attempted filibuster of the House – that really drags politicians into disrepute. It's hard to convince the country that you deserve much in the way of respect when the future governance of a third of the country becomes just another football in a parliamentary game of one-upmanship.

So sure, allegations that MPs lined their own pockets at the public expense have been the spark for Britain's current conflagration. But it is the slow, gradual piling up of the fuel of public contempt for what they do – and what they don't do – that
is really feeding those flames. Perhaps that is another lesson we could try taking from the Mother of all Parliament's.