[This orginally appeared in the Spinoff Ātea on February 8 2018]
Labour’s Electoral (Integrity) Bill has passed its first reading. It’s likely to pass despite some criticisms. It demonstrates how far our political parties in Parliament have wandered away from us, the voters in the electorates. In a system where party loyalty reigns supreme, what is left of our representative democracy?
In 2012, Sir Lockwood Smith spoke to a group of us on a leadership course, in the Legislative Council Chamber. He was in the last few months of his parliamentary career, a point at which more than a few politicians find themselves less constrained and more honest in their assessments.
Prior to this encounter, my impression of Lockwood had not been particularly positive. He was the minister of education in my first year of university at Canterbury, and I take no small pleasure in having been a part of the protest in 1994 at which he had to escape angry students by barricading a lab and jumping out the lab window.
But it turns out Lockwood is a passionate student of democracy. And what we received was a masterclass in civics, representative democracy and MMP. It really was one of the best speeches I have ever heard. He reignited my love for democracy and provided insight into the tricky waters ahead for MMP.
His reflection on MMP was that it had improved diversity but reduced representation.
As has been borne out again in the last election, the party vote allows parties from across the spectrum to improve the mix of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, religious affiliation, socio-economic profile and so on, within their MPs on their party list. But our system has done so by building a power imbalance into our system. In our Parliament, each party above the 5% threshold for the party vote receives an almost equivalent proportion of the seats in Parliament.
Parties know what side their bread is buttered on; the party vote is their focus. This reduces the importance of representation to political parties. Parties prioritise the party vote over electorate votes. They play to their base. They have invested, time, money and I.T. to have an exact and powerful lens on that base throughout the country.
So in Tauranga, Labour don’t need to win the electorates. In Wellington, National don’t need to win the electorates. They just need to energise their party voters in those electorates to party vote for them. Local representation has no compelling authority in this system.
What we have created in MMP is a system in which MPs, even electorate MPs, are loyal to their party before their electorate because their political power is derived from the party.
But I still have a hankering for representation. The central organising principle for our whānau, for our hapū, for our iwi, is whakawhanaungatanga. Our wellbeing derives from building close, trusting and intimate familial relationships with each other.
We expect our Waiariki MP to be as whānau to us: present, available and most importantly accountable to us first. They must be he kanohi kitea and they must commit to kanohi ki te kanohi.
I voted for Te Ururoa Flavell because he turned up to everything, he took note of the things that mattered to us and he voiced that in Parliament. I didn’t vote for the Māori Party, I voted for the whanaunga. While I am excited by many of the policies that Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First have brought to this government, none of them can claim to speak for Tauranga Moana in Parliament. Only Tamati Coffey, our Waiariki MP has that mantle in the House.
Māori voters expect their MP to be loyal to them over the party. Our whanaunga, our relations. It might be naive, but the expectation is that when push comes to shove, those Māori MPs in Labour will stand with their electorate if there were a conflict between Māori and Labour.
The waka-jumping bill is a barrier to whakawhanaungatanga. It wrestles our whanaunga in Parliament away from us and declares that their key familial relationship is with their party. It is an attack on our whakapapa. It goes further than the Electorate Integrity Act 2001. That 2001 act required that any party list MP resign from Parliament if they left their party. Even in that instance there was a work around; the late great Jim Anderton resigned from the Alliance party but stayed a member of the parliamentary wing of the Alliance to avoid having to resign from Parliament.
The waka-jumping bill requires that any MP who quits or is expelled from their party is ejected from Parliament. This affects even electorate MPs who would have to win their way back in through a by-election.
A political party should not be able to force any Māori MP to abandon the needs and wishes of their people. The mana of all Māori MPs is derived from their whakapapa and the leadership role given them by their people. It cannot be removed by a party executive. Only we have the authority in our electorates to eject our Māori MPs.
So I find myself in the strange position of siding with Amy Adams and Nick Smith on this issue. This is an anti-democratic wet dream from Winston Peters. Winston has always been suspicious of his fellow NZ First MPs and has had many a memorable stoush, but Peter’s neuroses are no foundation for legislation.
The waka-jumping bill reduces the space for te ao Māori in Parliament because it makes demands for loyalty that rip our whanaunga away from us. I fear they become nothing more cowed brown servants protecting their salary in predominantly white parties rather than tall chiefly representatives of our Treaty partnership.