Waka-jumping bill breaches Bill of Rights: academics

The waka jumping bill would force MPs out of Parliament if they quit, or were ejected, from their party. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Political and legal academics have told Parliament they believe Attorney-General David Parker is wrong in his assessment the waka-jumping bill does not breach the Bill of Rights.

Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford also called for Parker to release the legal advice related to his decision, while other submitters including current and former MPs told the Justice Select Committee the bill was an attack on democracy.

Formally known as the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill, the proposed legislation would force list MPs out of Parliament if they quit or were expelled from their party. Electorate MPs would face a by-election.

It has been introduced as part of New Zealand First’s coalition agreement with Labour.

Some notable examples of waka jumping include Hone Harawira’s departure from the Māori Party to the Mana Party and Peter Dunne, who left Labour to found United NZ.

New Zealand First itself features heavily in party-hopping history, with six MPs including Tau Henare and Tuariki Delamere leaving to form the short-lived Mauri Pacific. More recently, the party’s MP Brendan Horan was expelled by Winston Peters but stayed on as an independent.

Victoria University professor Claudia Geiringer, representing a cohort of academics who had earlier slammed the legislation, described it as a blunt instrument that was searching to fix a problem when there wasn’t one.

“You don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut," she told the committee on Monday.

In his assessment of the legislation, Attorney General David Parker found it did not breach the Bill of Rights although the issue was “finely balanced”.

But Geiringer disagreed and said it was the overwhelming view of the academics that the bill may violate the Bill of Rights Act by limiting freedom of expression and association.

It was also highly unusual that the Attorney-General had only released his own decision while withholding the advice he had been provided by Crown Law, she said.

Committee member Chris Bishop, a National MP, said he had spoken to Parker about releasing the advice but he had refused to waive privilege, stating it did not provide him with a clear choice either way.

Later Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford also raised concerns that the information had not been released, calling for it to be made available to the public.

Another National MP, David Carter, also appeared to speak to his submission, made in his role as a member of the International Parliamentary Union’s human rights committee.

Carter said that in this role he often dealt with terrible breaches by parliamentarians from countries such as Cambodia and the Maldives, and while New Zealand was not comparable, this bill would raise questions.

He believed the aim was not to make Parliament more robust, but to improve the stability of the current Labour/New Zealand First coalition.

“I was the junior whip between 1996 and 1998 when the National/New Zealand First relationship disintegrated so I know about instability but I also know the pressure that some of you may be under from a coalition agreement point of view to see this legislation through.”

He implored MPs to vote against the bill to prevent damage to democracy, but if that could not be done he recommended a time limit be placed on the legislation so that it expired at the end of the current coalition.

Keith Locke, a former Green MP who was in Parliament between 1999 to 2011, told the committee the bill punished politicians for speaking their mind if they disagreed with their party.

The point of parliamentary debate was to convince the opposition of the merits of your legislation, but this would gag those whose minds were changed during this process, he said.

“There is an important constitutional principle here and that is all MPs are elected as independent, thinking beings no matter the party label attached to them at the election. They are not simply party robots.”

The Greens have wavered in their support for the waka jumping bill, with both Julie Anne Genter and Marama Davidson unconvinced when asked for their thoughts during the recent leadership debates.

National MP Nick Smith asked Locke if he was still a Green Party member and whether or not he had been told why the party would support the bill.

Locke responded he was, and that he had, but he did not want to get involved in internal party politics.