Opinion: The upheavals within the Labour Party and the Greens over the past week have changed our volatile political landscape once more.
They have highlighted the failure of the Electoral Integrity Act, the so-called waka-jumping legislation, as a constitutional nonsense that now should be permanently buried.
Labour introduced such legislation in 1999 as a temporary measure. It expired in 2005 and was not renewed by Labour or the subsequent National-led government. However, its restoration was a key part of NZ First’s coalition agreement in 2017, so a revised Electoral Integrity Act was passed in 2018. But, between 1999 and 2005, and again since 2018, the act has never been used against any MPs who have defected from their parties. It was far more about controlling the behaviour of potentially dissident MPs than preserving the integrity of Parliament as claimed. As such, it has proven to be a toothless tiger that ought now to be repealed.
Waka-jumping legislation contradicts the classic liberal principles promoted by the great Irish statesman Edmund Burke that MPs are elected to Parliament to exercise their collective judgment, rather than just act as delegates of their respective parties. The latter position was contemptuously satirised by Sir William Gilbert a century later in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera HMS Pinafore with his immortal line, “I always voted at my Party’s call, and never thought of thinking for myself at all.”
Voters will be expecting clear statements of intent from Hipkins, not more of the side-stepping waffle we are seeing at present
The current Electoral Integrity Act does exactly what Gilbert pilloried. It reduces the role of the backbench MP to one of a mere cipher, voting the way senior members of their party decide, with limited opportunities to pursue the issues of real importance to them, let alone their constituents.
But there are equally other pernicious aspects to the act, alongside this affront to constitutional principles. The Electoral Integrity Act is an awkward reminder of what can happen when major parties cede too much to minor parties during government formation negotiations, and then proceed to implement legislation accordingly.
At the weekend, Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi defiantly claimed his party would definitely be the kingmaker at this year’s general election. As Te Pāti Māori looks far more likely to support a Labour-led government, along with the Greens, Waititi’s statement immediately raises two questions. First, what concessions Labour will be required to make to gain the support of Te Pāti Māori, should it end up the kingmaker, and second, how willing Labour would be to enact those concessions if confirmed in power.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has immediately brushed those questions aside as speculative and premature matters that Labour has not yet considered. That is fair enough at this stage, but only up to a point.
Given that Te Pāti Māori and Labour’s other likely partner, the Greens, are advancing policy positions much more radical and left-leaning than the current “bread and butter” government, voters have a right to know before the election the extent to which Labour will be willing to meet the likely demands from its potential support partners, and the consequent shape of the government to follow. It will not be good enough for Hipkins to keep saying that such questions are premature before the election and for voters to discover once the post-election agreements have been reached just how radical a Labour/Greens/Te Pāti Māori government will be in practice.
For most of the past three years, a resurgent ACT has been the tail wagging the National dog, and, as this week’s announcement on youth crime shows, it is likely to continue in that role up until the election
Much of Labour’s difficulties in the current term arose because, having secured a historic overall majority, it proceeded to introduce a suite of policies that it had either not campaigned on or had been constrained from introducing during its first term. The fall in Labour’s popularity resulted in the wholesale policy bonfire Hipkins unleashed at the beginning of the year as he tried to regain lost public support. Feeling they had been caught already by Labour’s ‘secret agenda’ after 2020, voters are likely to want to make sure they know before they vote in October what precise plans Labour and its two potential partners have.
Sooner rather than later, Hipkins must spell out not only Labour’s specific election policies on key issues (eg tax), but also which key policies of Te Pāti Māori and the Greens they will be prepared to adopt in government, and which ones they will not. Voters will be expecting clear statements of intent from Hipkins, not more of the side-stepping waffle we are seeing at present.
Beyond that, they will want to know how such a potentially fractious arrangement can be held together for a three-year term, and whether, if it is the kingmaker, Te Pāti Māori can be relied on, like its predecessor from 2008 to 2017, to stay the course if the going gets tough. Hipkins’ challenge is to persuade voters that not only can he be an effective ringmaster of this potential three-ringed circus, but also that he can deliver a coherent policy agenda at the same time.
To a lesser extent, the same issues apply to the centre-right. For most of the past three years, a resurgent ACT has been the tail wagging the National dog, and, as this week’s announcement on youth crime shows, it is likely to continue in that role up until the election. National Party leader Christopher Luxon will have to make it clear to voters before the election which parts of ACT’s agenda National could live with in government, and which parts are a complete anathema that it would never agree to implement. Like Hipkins, he needs to spell out National’s bottom lines to make it clear a National/ACT government would not be one where National provides the numbers, but ACT runs the policy.
Whatever the election outcome, the last thing the country needs as the price of coalition unity is another piece of fanciful legislation such as the Electoral Integrity Act.