The waka-jumping bill passed its third reading on Thursday evening, meaning Winston Peters can celebrate New Zealand First’s 25th birthday knowing he has complete control of his party in Parliament. Thomas Coughlan reports.

Proportionality. That’s what the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill, which passed into law on Thursday evening is all about — or at least that’s what the parties of Government are saying. 

The law will mean party leaders can expel an MP from Parliament if an expulsion motion wins the support of two-thirds of their caucus. An expelled electorate MP can return to their electorate and try to win their way back into Parliament in a by-election, while a list MP will simply be replaced by the next person on the party list.

Justice Minister Andrew Little, who introduced the bill to Parliament in January said in its first reading it “affirms a democratic principle that sits at the heart of our MMP system, and that is that the proportionality of party representation in Parliament is paramount”.

If you believe the spin, the bill gives power back to voters who have a right to preserve the proportionality of the Parliament they voted for. If a list-MP defects from New Zealand First to National, for example, it would undermine the principle that the allocation seats in Parliament accurately reflect the proportion of votes won by parties in elections. 

In reality, the law is less about proportionality than it is about one man: Winston Peters. While Little, as Justice Minister, stewarded the bill through Parliament, there was little doubt it is really Peters’ legislation, long campaigned for and hard-won in coalition negotiations with Labour.

A complicated path to get to this point

Waka-jumping bans are not new. A limited ban was passed in 2001, but a sunset clause led to it expiring in 2005. Another bill to ban party defections was entered in 2006, but did not pass. 

Peters suffered a wave of defections in the wake of breaking off his coalition agreement with National in 1998. Eight MPs defected, remaining in Parliament as independents or as members of a new party, Mauri Pacific.

Peters has remained a vocal opponent of waka-jumping ever since. 

But other parties also have skin in the game. The Green Party is opposed to the legislation, having itself been grafted out of the Alliance Party in 1997. Green MPs technically remained in Alliance until the 1999 election, but resolved to campaign separately for the next Parliament. The new legislation could have allowed the party leader to expel them from caucus (although this would have required a two-thirds majority vote). 

The law puts the Greens in a difficult position. They have made it clear they do not support the bill, but gave their backing as part of the coalition Government.

Co-leader Marama Davidson told RNZ’s Morning Report her caucus did not like the legislation but it was the price to pay for being in the coalition. 

“We know that all three of us in this MMP arrangement have to compromise,” she said.

Green Party founder Jeanette Fitzsimons submitted on the bill, saying it prohibited MPs from following their consciences. Her noted opposition to the bill cast a shadow of the Green Party conference earlier this year. 

The death of representative democracy — or a change?  

At its heart, the bill challenges the principle of representative democracy. Traditionally, representative democracy has meant MPs representing the views of their constituencies in Parliament, even if this meant defying the position of their party. 

This bill appears to replace that convention with a different notion of representation. Now, MPs will represent the proportionality of votes cast at an election. 

National MP Amy Adams made this argument in the house. 

“Time after time in this House, we have seen principled members who have crossed the floor from their party, because they’ve said, ‘You know what? I understand that, but my community won’t accept that, doesn’t like it, and does not want me as their representative to do it’,” Adams said.

“Actually, I think the voters and communities who put us here as electorate MPs want us to know that, first and foremost—first and foremost—we represent those communities, those voters,” she said.

National’s Nick Smith has said the bill would see New Zealand’s democracy adopt features only seen in “failed democracies” such as Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. National has pledged to repeal the bill if it wins the next election. 

Smith’s anger boiled over this week, when he attacked the non-partisan officials from the Justice Ministry who drafted the bill, labelling them “buffoons”. 

But there’s nothing Smith can do between now and 2020. Peters will head to Tauranga for his party conference this weekend, where he’ll celebrate 25 years since first launching New Zealand First. 

Having fought for waka-jumping legislation for the better part of that time, its successful passage through Parliament on Thursday will be a fitting birthday present for the party that been both the greatest beneficiary and victim of free-thinking MPs. 

Leave a comment