Winston Peters' pet project - the Waka Jumping Bill - is back, and you should be concerned. With so few checks and balances built into New Zealand's political system, Winston Peters wants to remove one that has become much more important in an MMP environment than ever before - the ability of an MP to leave their party and remain in Parliament.
It's often noted that during the three year term of a parliament, the governing party or parties effectively have a monopoly on power. Fundamentally there are only three checks on their ability to exercise that power - the Governor-General who can theoretically block legislation, the short three year parliamentary term that means governments are forced to return to the electorate on a relatively frequent basis, and within the parliamentary system itself, the ability of MPs who disagree with their party's legislation to either cross the floor to vote against it, or leave their party all together yet remain as an MP.
There are other checks and balances available, such as the judiciary or non-binding Citizen Initiated Referenda, though unlike the Supreme Court in the United States, our courts are reluctant to, and very limited, in their ability to challenge laws passed by Parliament. Citizen Initiated Referenda too are non-binding, meaning that they can have an impact from a public relations perspective, but governments are free to, and do, ignore them.
Which leaves us with the ability of MPs to defy their party should they disagree with a piece of legislation or actions undertaken by their leadership. At a basic level MPs are able to cross the floor and vote against their their party's wishes to express their disagreement at it. As this isn't ideal for a party, it generally acts as a check against them pursuing too radical of a policy course.
When the split between an MP and their party was more irreconcilable, an MP has always had the option of leaving their party and either continuing on in Parliament as an independent, or as Jim Anderton, Peter Dunne, Tau Henare, and Brendan Horan have done, set up their own political parties.
The ability of these MPs to leave their parties and remain in Parliament has become even more important under our MMP system. Unlike when Winston Peters was outed from the National Party - where he resigned from Parliament and, under the old FPP system, triggered a by-election and returned to Parliament as the MP for Tauranga - List MPs don't have that option to go back to an electorate and get a mandate.
Given this, if we remove the ability of List MPs to remain in Parliament after leaving their party, we're effectively giving the leader of that party and its whips an incredible amount of power. It will completely remove one of the major checks within Parliament itself, as it will enable list only parties, like New Zealand First and the Greens, to sack MPs nearly at will if they dissent against the party.
I'll concede, this probably isn't the end of the world, nor is it going to end parliamentary democracy in New Zealand, so let's not lose our heads over this. But at the same time, preserving that ability for List MPs to be able to go against their party is an important check on the immense power we give our Parliament during its term.
What this check forces parties to do, especially List only parties and to a lesser extent National and Labour, is to reach a genuine consensus among their MPs on legislation and policy. Rather than taking the risk of a public schism through overtly controversial or radical legislation, they're (in theory) brought back to a more reasonable middle ground that encourages compromise.
If Winston Peters' wish is granted and the Waka Jumping Bill is passed, it removes the ability of MPs to go against the wishes of their party, and that is really concerning. While they're still free to disagree, and then get sacked, the ability of them to be so easily sacked and replaced will effectively kill off this check within our system.
That should concern us all.
Disempowering List MPs makes our Parliamentary system worse, not better. With so few checks and balances within our system, we must preserve the ones we do have to ensure that our parliamentary democracy remains as one of the best functioning in the world.
If we remove any ability for List MPs to chart an independent course, we may as well not have MMP as a voting system. Simply, what is the point of having List MPs if they're to be little more than lapdogs for their party? This is what they'll end up being if the Waka Jumping Bill passes. The role of List MPs is already unfairly downplayed by detractors of MMP, we don't need to make their fiction into reality.
Now we don't know, and we might never know, if the Waka Jumping Bill would have been part of the price that National would have had to pay to go into coalition with NZ First, but assuming it was, I'd still be writing this blog. Some prices are not worth paying to go into government, and the Waka Jumping Bill is definitely a price not worth paying.
As things stand, it will be up to the Green Party as to whether the Waka Jumping Bill passes. It will be an interesting test of their principles to see whether they'll support it or not. The idea of the Waka Jumping Bill flies in the face of the fifth Green Party value "Make decisions by consensus whenever possible".
This bill will severely curtail the ability of List MPs to dissent from their party's views and disincentive parties from needing to reach consensus by making those List MPs who might disagree hugely vulnerable.
As the Green Party's confidence and supply agreement with Labour doesn't contain any undertaking to support the Waka Jumping Bill (only Labour has undertaken to introduce and pass that legislation for New Zealand First), I'm publicly calling on the Green Party to demonstrate it is the party of principles and values that it so often claims, and when the Waka Jumping Bill is introduced, to vote against it.