No case for waka jumping

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 26 October 2018

Political scandals usually have a policy core – unlike Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross’ falling out with his now former party, which appears to be about personal issues as much as anything else.

Yet at least one policy question has arisen out of this political train crash – whether using the new ‘waka jumping’ law would be appropriate to allow a party to remove defectors from Parliament.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters watched with wry amusement as National struggled with its rogue MP. Peters also intimated this is the scenario the new legislation dealt with.

Still, Ross’ case shows why the waka jumping legislation is a democratic aberration and National is right not to use it.

Ross won his parliamentary seat as the constituency MP for Botany. His constituents elected him with a substantial 12,840 vote majority. Like any other constituency MP, Ross owes his loyalty to his local voters, not his party.

Some of the people who voted for him may be disappointed with Ross’ behaviour. They may condemn his reported behaviour towards women; they may disapprove of him recording private conversations with his party leader; they may even be critical of his attacks on his former party.

In short, Botany voters may not have expected such behaviour from their MP when they had voted for him.

In a representative parliamentary democracy, however, that is not the MP’s problem. It is the voters’ problem. With hindsight, they may have elected someone else.

The essence of parliamentary democracy is we vote for people who will represent us in Parliament for the next three years. The people we elect are our representatives, not our employees. Which means we better choose wisely (but sometimes we do not).

Voters can show their disapproval of their elected representatives, but they cannot recall them between elections. Neither should parties be able to throw out elected MPs when they fall out with the party leadership.

As Edmund 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”.

When the waka jumping bill went through Parliament last month, National had objected to it based on high principles. By not invoking this monstrosity of a law even as it would benefit them, National showed it believes in those principles.

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