Academics slam 'waka-jumping' bill

The vitality of New Zealand's democracy relies on healthy tension between party loyalties and individual conscience, a group of academics has argued. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

A group of political and legal academics has urged the Government to scrap its controversial waka-jumping bill, calling it an “undesirable and harmful” law which could damage New Zealand’s democracy.

The Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill, which would force list MPs out of Parliament if they quit or were expelled from their party and require electorate MPs to contest a by-election, passed its first reading in January.

The bill was part of New Zealand First’s coalition agreement with Labour, but has attracted criticism from some who claim it will hurt New Zealand’s political process.

In a submission to Parliament’s justice and electoral committee, provided in advance to Newsroom, the group of nearly 20 legal academics and political scientists said the bill should not proceed “with or without amendment”.

“We believe that it represents an undesirable and harmful extension of legal regulation into an area that is better controlled by political imperatives and electoral judgments," their submission said.

“No matter how well intentioned, this proposed legislation will have negative effects on our system of representative democracy.”

“Healthy democracies can tolerate dissent. ‘Electoral integrity’ legislation empowers party hierarchies to stifle debate within the party - to use party rules and party disciplinary procedures to force dissenting MPs not only out of the party but out of the House itself.”

While there was “an intuitive appeal” to the legislation, it would create more problems than it solved by placing too much power in the hands of party bosses instead of MPs.

“The vitality of our system of representative democracy relies on an on-going and healthy tension between party loyalty and individual conscience…

“Healthy democracies can tolerate dissent. ‘Electoral integrity’ legislation empowers party hierarchies to stifle debate within the party - to use party rules and party disciplinary procedures to force dissenting MPs not only out of the party but out of the House itself.”

Political defections were not a major problem within New Zealand, with only four MPs falling within the criteria since the last waka-jumping law expired in 2005.

The group said there were already political sanctions for waka-jumping, including public and media disapproval and the unlikelihood of re-election.

Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis was among those who signed onto the submission, and said the joint submission was an opportunity for experts to more easily express their concerns about the bill.

“It’s one of those issues that while it’s very important, it can also drift across people’s horizons without them feeling motivated individually to take action on it.”

The concept behind the legislation was “flawed, and so flawed that it can’t really be rehabilitated by any safeguards”, Geddis said.

“Parties have every right to discipline and make membership decisions, but to then turn back and effectively say a person cannot be a representative of the people anymore empowers party rooms beyond where they should go.”

While New Zealanders’ love of team sports led many to argue that MPs should “stick with your team” despite any disagreements, he said that was not always practical or right over a three-year term, pointing to the Alliance’s split over its response to the September 11 attacks and war in Afghanistan.

“No-one could have predicted that, no-one could know what the party ought to do as a result of that, and to say that the party had to stick together on the issue obviously didn’t work.”

Green candidates waver on waka-jumping support

Last weekend, both Green Party co-leadership candidates would not guarantee the party's support for the waka-jumping bill during a debate on Newshub Nation.

Julie-Anne Genter told the programme the Greens had "serious problems" with the legislation, while Marama Davidson said she had raised concerns from the outset.

Labour and New Zealand First require the Greens' support for the bill to pass, with National steadfastly opposed.

However, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters told Newshub Nation he was confident he had the numbers to get the bill through.

Justice Minister Andrew Little was travelling and couldn't be reached for comment.