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An assault on representative democracy

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 11 May 2018

Otto Wels. That is the name that came to my mind when I read through the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill. It is the proposed law that would allow party leaders to undermine representative democracy and enforce an imperative mandate over their MPs.

Titelseite des Völkischen Beobachters vom 24. März 1933 nach der Annahme des ErmächtigungsgesetzesColloquially known as the Waka Jumping Bill, it sounds almost as harmless as the Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich, the infamous Enabling Act of 1933.

That was the law that allowed Adolf Hitler to bypass parliamentary democracy. It was the act that 94 Social Democrat MPs, chaired by Otto Wels, refused to support despite Nazi intimidation.

I am submitting this column as executive director of The New Zealand Initiative. But I cannot help writing these lines as a German. And this is going to be one of my most personal pieces.

The organised inhumanity of the so-called Third Reich left a permanent stain on my people. After 1945, it was forever difficult to be a proud German.

I was born 30 years after World War II ended. For my generation, of course, the guilt was never personal but the unease of being German remained. We know what injustice and atrocities were committed in our country’s past – and in our country’s name.

But despite this shameful history, there are two reasons that still reconcile me with being German. The first is patriots like Otto Wels, who openly resisted the Nazis and fought for a free and democratic country. The second is the fact that (West) Germany learnt its lessons from the catastrophe of national socialism.

It is well known that Adolf Hitler seized power in January 1933. It is less well known, at least outside Germany, that even after that political coup there was still a rump opposition in parliament, the Reichstag. The Communists had already been outlawed and arrested, leaving only the Social Democratic Party in fierce opposition when Parliament was asked to curtail its own rights in March 1933.

Resisting Hitler and his SA and SS terror groups was futile, and Mr Wels knew it. But that did not stop him from giving one of the most remarkable speeches in parliamentary history. “Freedom and life they can take from us but not our honour,” he explained in his defence of representative democracy.

Because of their defiance, the German Social Democrats were soon banned, their party’s property confiscated, their members arrested and murdered. Mr Wels went into exile, first to Prague and then to Paris, where he died in 1939.

Last year, the German Bundestag commemorated Otto Wels as an exemplary parliamentarian by naming one of its buildings after him. Streets and schools all over Germany bear his name. Not least the German Social Democrats are still proud of his deed. It was one of their finest hours as a party.

Germany learned its lessons from the end of parliamentary democracy under Hitler. In its Basic Law, the post-war constitution, it protected Parliament and its members with iron-clad provisions.

Among these rules is Article 38. It states: “Members of the German Bundestag … shall be representatives of the whole people, not bound by orders or instructions, and responsible only to their conscience.”

This Basic Law rule is a direct reflection on what happened to Parliament in Nazi times. Never again should Parliament be allowed to be beaten into submission, not even by its own party leaders.

It also firmly anchored the new republic in the parliamentary traditions of the West, which had developed the principles of representative democracy since the times of Edmund Burke.

Looking at the waka jumping legislation, I can only imagine the public outrage if such a law were proposed in Germany today.

For good reasons, the independence of MPs from their own party leadership is sacrosanct. In everyday politics, it is compromised enough already by the necessities of party discipline. But no one would call an MP’s mandate into question just because he or she disagreed with the leadership. Such disagreements, unpleasant as they will be for political leaders, are the salt of representative democracy.

Anyone who believes in the need for a waka jumping law has not understood the essence of parliamentary democracy. As Burke put it, “Parliament is not a Congress of Ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain … but Parliament is a deliberative Assembly of one Nation, with one Interest, that of the whole.”

If such historical and philosophical reasons are not enough to convince you that the waka jumping bill is an anti-democratic atrocity, just consider that it would put us in the company of countries like Cuba, China and North Korea. Proper democracies do not have laws like this.

The Waka Jumping Bill is more reminiscent of early 20th century Germany than suited to 21st century New Zealand. It would be an aberration of New Zealand’s democratic tradition if it were passed into law.

None of this is to say that our circumstances are comparable to those in Berlin in 1933. The waka jumping bill is not the Enabling Act. But that does not absolve us of our vigilance against severe encroachments of democratic processes as that one is.

Wels was a good social democrat. His courage to stand up for democratic and parliamentary values should be an inspiration and a commitment – especially to those on his side of the political spectrum.

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