A House of Representatives or party poodles?

Todd Talk
with Todd Muller
National MP

Democracy is a fragile flower that must be vigilantly protected. That is why all New Zealanders should be concerned by the government’s proposed changes to the Electoral Act pushed by Winston Peters that will enable party leaders, rather than the public, to dismiss MPs from our parliament.

This law risks turning our parliamentarians into party poodles. An MP who questions a policy, criticises a leader or votes differently to his or her party faces the prospect of dismissal from parliament by their party leader. This is a fundamental change to the centuries-old principle that the public, and the public alone, get to hire and fire MPs.

The greatest harm from this change is to stifle debate. It will further concentrate power with political parties and leaders. Our Parliament is already much more rigid along party lines than most western democracies and this provision will make it worse. Dissent and debate can sometimes make parliament messy, but they are essential ingredients to a properly functioning democracy.

Unconstitutional laws

A survey of other parliaments around the world shows just how far out of whack this bill is from democratic norms. Every democracy faces this tension between MPs standing on a party ticket but who fall out with their party.

Only a few failed democracies like Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Bangladesh enable a party leader to sack an MP. The courts in Europe have struck down such laws as unconstitutional.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union, based in Switzerland, represents 173 parliaments and has been advocating since 1889 on best practise for parliaments around the world. It is damning of the sort of law being proposed for New Zealand, saying it creates “political party dictatorships”.

It argues the free mandate of MPs is an “indispensable guarantee of parliamentary democracy”.

It states: “While party loyalty and discipline are necessary for the proper functioning of a democracy, they must never impair the full and effective exercise of freedom of expression and association by any member of that party since these are overriding fundamental human rights.”

Too great a cost

This concern is shared by New Zealand constitutional law experts. Professor Andrew Geddis of the University of Otago says that using the law to quash internal party disagreement comes at too great a cost to our wider parliamentary democracy.

The origin of this law change lies with Winston Peter’s deep resentment during the first MMP government of nearly half his MPs defecting. These eight MPs dared to disagree with their leader over his walking out of the then Jenny Shipley-led Government. They believed they were acting in the best interests of New Zealand.

New Zealand First now has a rule in its constitution that any MP who leaves or is kicked out has to pay the party $300,000. I do find it ironic that when I was a junior member of the National caucus in the 1990s, Winston Peters was the strongest champion of the rights of MPs to free speech and association. Consistency is not his strongest personal trait. 

Parties are tribal

It is claimed the power of the leader to sack a MP from parliament is constrained under the Bill by party rules and a two-thirds vote of MPs. This is ineffective. Two thirds of New Zealand First’s caucus hold ministerial and other positions at the discretion of the leader.

Parties are tribal and do as their leaders wish. Parties are entitled to exit MPs from their caucus but not from parliament. This law change is particularly obnoxious for an electorate MP with a direct mandate from his or her constituents.

The government justifies this law change on the basis that MPs who vote differently to the party line are upsetting the proportionally of parliament and the integrity of the election outcome. This erroneously assumes that political parties and leaders have a monopoly on integrity.

The history of New Zealand parliamentary dissidents suggest it is the party and its leadership that more commonly strays from a party’s elected mandate. Derek Quigley was closer to core National values than Prime Minister Rob Muldoon. 

Most people today would accept that Jim Anderton was closer to Labour party philosophy when he left during the Rogernomics era in 1989. Tariana Turia totally reflected the views of Labour Maori voters when she left over the foreshore and seabed issue in 2004.

Hone Harawira left the Maori party in opposition to their agreement with the John Key-led National government. The latest example was Kennedy Graham and David Clendon's abandoning the Greens pre-election over the benefit fraud controversy.

Crossed the floor

A simple tick in the ballot box can never be simplistically translated into clear positions on every issue. I crossed the floor as a junior MP over the Employment Contracts Act in the 1990s to provide for a graduated minimum wage for workers under 20. Such dissent would be impossible under this proposed law.

I am particularly astounded by the Green Party support for this law change. They described a near identical bill in 2005 as one of the worst to ever come before our parliament. 

It is hardly acceptable for the New Zealand Green Party to be the champions of human rights and democracy abroad while voting for erosion of these values at home.

Freedom of speech and tolerance of dissent are core Kiwi values. We must reject this attempt to weaken our parliamentary democracy.


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