Waka jumping - has electoral integrity jumped the shark?

The Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill is currently before Select Committee. The Bill – colloquially known as the Waka Jumping Bill – is a product of the Labour‑New Zealand First coalition agreement and it reflects what has been New Zealand First policy for a significant period of time.

The Bill introduces into the Electoral Act 1993 a handful of provisions that effectively force a Member of Parliament out of their seat if they cease to be a member of the political party that they represented when they won their seat. This rule applies to both list MPs and electorate MPs. So, if a New Zealand First Member of Parliament disagrees with the direction New Zealand First is taking, they must toe the line or risk being kicked out of Parliament if the New Zealand First leader notifies the Speaker that the Member no longer represents New Zealand First.

There may be certain benefits to this approach. For instance, it could better preserve the maintenance of the proportionality of political parties as reflected in the voting results at the last election, at least as far as it applies to list MPs. That seems to be one of the goals of MMP, and on the surface at least maintaining proportional representation seems like a goal worth pursuing. But as a justification for this particular amendment the concern with proportionality seems a bit superficial to me, at least in the absence of the wider context of the effects of the change.

It’s one of those wider contextual points that I want to flag up here. Obviously this change puts a lot of political power in the hands of political parties and their Parliamentary leaders. An MP’s job is on the line, with their fate in their party leader’s hands at all times. Whenever constitutional or political changes like this increase someone’s power, it’s worth asking if someone else’s power in the constitutional and political system has been reduced. In this case, I think that Parliament itself is directly affected. I understand that Professor Andrew Geddis put it this way in a public statement earlier this week: The Bill makes the rules of each political party around membership the de facto rules of memebership of Parliament. And that's the kind of significant change that must have an impact on the way we think about political accountability and its effectiveness.

(Incidentally, the Professor's earlier blog post on this issue gives an interesting account of some of the trade-offs and possible unintended consequences).

With that context in mind, I also think it’s worth pointing out that the difficulty a party leader faces in managing the Parliamentary members of their political party has long been a feature of New Zealand’s constitutional system, not a bug. Members of Parliament who are free to act on their own judgements based on what they see as best for the electors they represent are representatives have the power to put their party leader on notice – do the right thing, or lose my support. Sure the 'right thing' is subjective, and there could be robust disgreement with a political party about what the right thing is. But if the party can’t work that matter out internally, we would usually expect to see that disagreement play out publicly in the House and in other forums allowing the public to decide the merits at the next election. In the case of list MPs at least (where no by-election will follow the MP leaving their seat), this contest of ideas is effectively muted with the party leader and the party establishment they represent much more likely to get things their way in an unimpeded fashion.

That's not the whole story, of course. There will be political costs to the party leadership associated with losing members of their party. But how high is that political cost? Is its high enough that party leaders will only (or at least usually) use their new powers in appropriate circumstances? To be honest, we just don't know - we haven't had that discussion yet, but it really feels like we need to.

One of the stated purposes of the new provisions proposed by the Bill is to “enhance public confidence in the integrity of the electoral system”. On the face of the Bill, it’s not clear to me that it does this. There are constitutional and political trade‑offs involved. To my mind, openly addressing rather than ignoring those trade‑offs is what really promotes the integrity of the electoral system over the long term.

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