The fuss over the Electoral Integrity (Amendment) Act continues. From the opponents’ side, the debate is often emotional: some say the law is ‘undemocratic’. According to their arguments, above all else, Members of Parliament are assumed to have more important individual than collective responsibilities.

It is not at all clear whether those individual responsibilities are to their consciences or to those who voted for them, but apparently when push comes to shove, MPs should have no responsibility to the parties that selected them as candidates and secured their election to the House in the first place.

The principles of Edmund Burke must prevail: once elected, an MP should be entlrely free to decide what he or she perceives to be in the public interest. These principles predate organised political parties, and, even more significantly, democracy itself. We are transported back into the world of 18th-century gentlemen politicians elected by a small constituency of property owners. It is believed that principles developed in those circumstances should still be applied today.

The Green Party is a particular target of criticism for apparently abandoning its principles. Some have claimed that had the proposed law been in place in the late 1990s the two Green MPs disengaging from the Alliance – Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimmons – would have been forced out of Parliament. Yet it has been widely forgotten that, like others standing, those Green MPs signed a pledge on becoming Alliance candidates that they would resign as MPs if they left their party. If the Green Party has strong principles opposing such a requirement, they were not apparent then.

More to the point, when they disengaged from the Alliance the Green MPs did not leave their party, which was a component of the Alliance. They remained in the Alliance parliamentary caucus until asked to leave when campaign strategies began to be discussed. They continued to vote as an Opposition party. The Alliance did not trigger its resignation clause by demanding the two MPs resign their seats. Had the Electoral Integrity (Amendment) Act been in force then, it would almost certainly not have been triggered.

The Electoral Integrity (Amendment) Act has its flaws. But it does not justify the intense emotions expressed by its some of its opponents.

Something similar happened when the Progressive Party split from the Alliance in 2002 when the original Electoral Integrity Act was in force: the Act was not triggered. Where genuine differences emerged in both cases, a parting of the ways could be negotiated without triggering the party constitution in 1997 or the law in 2002.

Legislation against party hopping has not been developed to deal with such scenarios. Its intent has been to prevent the calculated detachment of an MP or set of MPs elected from one party to the support of another, thus either maintaining a government’s majority when it has been lost for other reasons or alternatively destroying it.

In 1998, after Winston Peters withdrew New Zealand First from coalition with the National Party, sufficient New Zealand First MPs were convinced to leave New Zealand First to support the National government and maintain it in office, preventing what otherwise should have happened: a new election. In 1997 MP Alamein Kopu left the Alliance. Very soon after, she was voting with the National Party and provided another crucial vote in maintaining the government after the collapse of the coalition. Kopu went on to form her own party, receiving generous parliamentary support to do so.

Whatever lies behind it, Winston Peters’ claim that the National Party has sought to detach Ron Mark from New Zealand First should bring these events back into memory. In a closely-balanced Parliament there can be strong temptations to seek to suborn members of a pivotal party. Success in doing so could have the effect of depriving a government of its majority, possibly leading to a change of government with no reference to the electorate or precipitating an early election for which there is no apparent public mandate.

Promises can be made of jobs or other preferment. Or otherwise encouragement to set up one’s own mini-party, which can generate parliamentary resources: a bigger office and support staff. Opponents of the Electoral Integrity (Amendment) Act argue as if every person leaving their party would do so only for noble and selfless reasons. Past history does not bear this out. Electoral law should not be based on such assumptions: not everyone in politics always has the best motives.

The Electoral Integrity (Amendment) Act has its flaws. But it does not justify the intense emotions expressed by its some of its opponents. Whatever is wrong with the law, it is not ‘undemocratic’. The debate is between those who value democracy more and those who value individual liberties more in this particular corner of political life.

Professor Jack Vowles is in the Political Science and International Relations programme at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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