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Waka jumpers: Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons at the Green Party Campaign Launch in 2005. Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images
Waka jumpers: Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons at the Green Party Campaign Launch in 2005. Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images

PoliticsFebruary 5, 2018

My old party is betraying its own proud history on the waka-jumping bill

Waka jumpers: Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons at the Green Party Campaign Launch in 2005. Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images
Waka jumpers: Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimons at the Green Party Campaign Launch in 2005. Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images

If the Green Party leadership continues to undermine its hard-won integrity in supporting the Winston Peters driven law around disillusioned MPs, they could lose a number of their more thoughtful members and supporters, argues former Green MP Sue Bradford 

Last week the Electoral (Integrity) Bill passed its first reading in parliament with the support of Labour, NZ First and the Green Party. If this bill becomes law, any MP who leaves their party during their three-year term will no longer be a member of parliament. In the case of an electorate MP a byelection will be called. For list MPs the next person on the party list will come through.

What’s wrong with this, you might say?

A lot, if you have any sense of history and of the underpinning purpose of MMP. When it was established in 1996 MMP promised much greater diversity in parliament than first past the post (FPP), a system in which, basically, a one-party dictatorship was exercised for each three-year term. Under FPP many people’s votes ended up not counting at all if their party couldn’t secure a constituency seat.

The latest waka-jumping bill is driven by Winston Peters. Five out of 17 NZ First MPs jumped ship in the late 1990s and he fears a repeat. I’d suggest that perhaps he should look at his own management style and candidate selection processes again rather than doggedly pursuing legislative means to stop defectors.

During the second reading of the Electoral Integrity Bill (2001), then Green Party Co-Leader Rod Donald asked why the Labour-Alliance government was depending on Winston Peters to ‘”impose the most draconian, obnoxious, anti-democratic, insulting piece of legislation ever inflicted on this parliament”.

The 2001 bill did become law, but had a sunset clause which meant it ran out in 2005, when parliament got to debate it again. With a new balance of parties in parliament it failed this time round, after the Green Party stood firm in opposing legislation which proposed, in Rod’s words, to “stifle democracy”.

Some 13 years later waka-jumping legislation is back on the table, once again driven up by Winston Peters, and backed by a Labour Party dependent on his party for power. The strangest thing is that this time around eight Green Party MPs have also offered up their votes in favour.

There are always going to be occasions when sitting MPs choose to leave because they have a profound disagreement with where their party is going. One of the best examples of this was the late Jim Anderton. The party which he thought held deeply-felt, traditional Labour values became a tool of rightwing businessmen in the 1980s. He left, using his parliamentary resources to underpin the building of the New Labour Party.

Hone Harawira did the same thing in 2011 when he left the Māori Party over its relationship with National, quickly proceeding to set up the Mana Party.

It is very difficult in Aotearoa New Zealand to set up new political parties as recent efforts by several very rich men have demonstrated. The resources of even one sitting MP give a new organisation at least the chance of growth and survival, especially given MMP’s current 5% threshold.

At the moment it is virtually impossible for a new party to break through from nothing to the required 5% unless there is at least one sitting MP among the ranks.

And what about list MPs? What are their choices? For most list MPs who leave their party, winning an electorate seat is simply not an option. Unless they do a dodgy deal like ACT, small parties without a sitting MP tend to have no chance of winning an electorate.

Apart from higher resourcing for their electorate work, in every other respect list and electorate MPs have the same rights and powers to do their job in parliament.

Waka jumping legislation reduces the power of list MPs, deliberately relegating them to a second rate category.

Each list MP validly represent the interests of a certain proportion of voters. For a list MP to seek a refreshed mandate they can only turn to supporters who are scattered through the country. There is no independent mechanism for doing this. The solution becomes to set up a new party and work to build a substantive voting base from that.

Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald were Alliance MPs when they were first elected in 1996, but left the Alliance as part of the Greens’ formal withdrawal from that party. As sitting MPs they led the Greens into the 1999 election, using parliamentary resources to establish for the first time an independent Green presence in parliament.

Now we have the disturbing sight of their successors flying in the face of their own party’s history and policy as they vote for the latest electoral “integrity” bill.

The Greens really need to get a grip on what being part of a government coalition requires. There is a basic rule of negotiation: don’t give stuff away if you don’t need to.

In sacrificing principle on electoral law they’re gaining no advantage at all. They’re also running a high risk of being seen as nothing but a Labour/NZ First doormat for the next three years.

The Greens don’t have much time left in which to make it clear they are still able to carve out their own identity within a three-way government. Their bedrock 5-6% support will collapse if they simply focus on playing nothing but nice with Labour and NZF in return for a few ministerial posts and a small selection of reformist policy gains.

In sharp contrast NZ First voted wholesale against Chloe Swarbrick’s medicinal cannabis bill this week. Winston and friends don’t give a damn about keeping their partners happy. The Greens just cave.

If the Green Party leadership continues to reject their own proud history and hard-won integrity, they may lose a number of their more thoughtful members and supporters. With their support sitting at just above the 5% cutoff point, this is a risk they can ill afford.

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