Who controls the past now, controls the future

Should NZ reintroduce legislation requiring MPs that leave their parties to also quit Parliament? The debate over that question involves a battle over what happened in the past.

Today's Dominion Post carries a couple of opinion pieces by Nick Smith and Winston Peters, respectively arguing against and for the reintroduction of an anti party-hopping law (as proposed by the current Labour-led Government, delivering on a part of their coalition agreement with NZ First). Given that Nick Smith's arguments fairly closely track views that I've expressed previously, it's not surprising that I agree with him over Peters.

And given Peters' tendency to shift facts to suit his preferred outcomes, it is also not that surprising that Peters' op-ed contains some, shall we say "dubious", claims about our political history. Here's what he says, in full:

New Zealand First considers it patronising and an insult to suggest that in these circumstances voters can't discriminate between the principled actions of an electorate MP standing up to a wayward party and its leader or a more mundane expression of flawed character.

From the late 1980s voters have sent MPs in the latter group packing and rewarded the former. My esteemed late parliamentary colleague Jim Anderton was one whose fight on principle against the Rogernomes in Labour was supported locally at subsequent elections, while yours truly, alongside Tariana Turia during the following decade, immediately and successfully tested electorate support through by-elections after taking stands on principle.

Contrast those examples with the likes of Taito Phillip Field or Hone Harawira or a list MP like Gordon Copeland. Each was sent packing by voters in subsequent elections after switching parties and putting themselves forward for re-election. In these circumstances, criticism claiming some faux democratic outrage sounds like elitist claptrap neither supported by the evidence nor supportive of the public's intelligence.

Of course, the overall claim here - "voters can decide whether or not a defector from a party deserves to remain in the House" - actually negates the need for any legal intervention. Because if voters repeatedly have fixed the problem of unjustifiably rogue MPs at each election, then why exactly do we need a law to force such individuals out of their seats? 

Furthermore, the various examples that Peters cites in support of needing the legislation don't actually provide the support he claims. Let's go through them one by one.

Jim Anderton didn't resign from Parliament when he left Labour in 1989 (as would be required under Labour and Peters' proposed party hopping law) ... because (he said) it actually was Labour that had left him. So, why should he have to go back to the electorate when his position hadn't changed from when he was elected by them in 1987? That claim then was tested at the 1990 general election - just as would be the case today with no party hopping legislation in place. That hardly makes him a poster-boy for the need to enact this Bill.  

As for Turia, her "decision" to face a by-election in 2004 wasn't actually a decision at all. She resigned from Labour when the previous iteration of the party hopping law still was in force (it only "sunsetted" in 2005). So, once Turia told the Speaker that she had resigned from Labour over the Foreshore and Seabed legislation, then she had to leave Parliament and a by-election had to be held.

And here's how Wikipedia (yeah, yeah ... I know ... ) describes that by-election :

Turia described the Te Tai Hauauru by-election of 10 July 2004 as a chance to test her mandate, and to ensure that she had the support of her voters, but doubts remained about the significance of the by-election, since none of the major parties put forward candidates. Labour called the event "a waste of time and money".

So, to recap ... back in 2004, Turia was forced to resign from Parliament under the previous party-hopping legislation (which Labour and Peters now want to reintroduce) and so had to face a by-election. No-one else then seriously contested that vote, meaning Turia won 92.74% of the bare 7,800 votes cast, and so the party that authored the legislation requiring the whole process described it as being "a waste of time and money". But now Peters wants to put the legislation back in place, so he is holding this episode up as representing an example of high principle that should be replicated.

And what of Hone Harawira, one of those Peters says were "sent packing by voters in subsequent elections after switching parties and putting themselves forward for re-election"? Well, when Harawira left the Māori Party, he actually did what Peters now claims is the right and proper thing; he resigned his electorate seat and faced a by-election in Te Tai Tokerau (which he won, as he did at the 2011 general election). 

The response of the Labour Party, which now has introduced legislation to require such by-elections? That Harawira's move was "a stunt" and "a stupid and unnecessary waste of taxpayer money". So ... why exactly move to make such processes mandatory today?

All of which is to say that there's a fair bit of rewriting of political history going on here. The judgment on whether a given by-election is a brave expression of democratic accountability or a costly and unnecessary exercise in ego-stroking seems driven more by immediate partisan political calculations than any consistent application of principle. To then subjugate these political judgments to a mandatory legal requirement that a by-election must be held in all such case seems, to me at least, to be an unnecessary and potentially harmful extension of the law into an area where it simply is not needed.

One last example of historical revisionism before I leave you. Peters goes on in his op-ed to lambast the National Party for attacking the proposed party-hopping Bill, asking:

Where was Nick Smith, the Member for Nelson, when he and his colleagues failed to act upon the Electoral Commission's independent review of MMP after the 2011 referendum saw voters decide to keep the system, a decision that was based on the conditional promise with the public that the National Government would honour the commission's review findings?

To which I say, preach Brother Peters! Rather than wasting time reintroducing an unnecessary and potentially harmful law against party-hopping, we should be talking about amending those parts of MMP that the public indicated they wanted to see improved

Except ... when it comes to "the conditional promise with the public that the National Government would honour the commission's review findings", who exactly was it that rejected its conclusions? Well, NZ First told then-Justice Minister Judith Collins that it opposed the Commission's recommendation to lower the party vote threshold to 4% ... thus enabling her to claim that "[i]t's not my role to run round getting everyone to agree in political terms" and so refuse to do anything more.

So much for honouring "the conditional promise with the public" that the Electoral Commission's findings would be implemented.