Edwards: A bad bill for democracy

A leaked Green Party caucus document from January, titled “Advice to caucus – Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill”

The waka-jumping bill itself is bad enough for democracy. But according to Dr Bryce Edwards of Victoria University, the process surrounding the bill has also been a blow against democracy – especially with the Green Party misleading the public on their crucial U-turn on supporting the legislation.

Why do people despise politics and politicians? Mostly because of the dishonesty and disingenuous actions of the politicians. Increasingly, the public is wise to the game-playing and base behaviour of politicians who, by their actions, treat their voters with contempt.

Of course, the new Labour-led Government was supposed to be different. Jacinda Ardern proclaimed she wanted “this Government to feel different, I want people to feel that it's open, that it's listening and that it's going to bring kindness back.” Another minister promised that “this will be the most open, most transparent Government that New Zealand has ever had”. And New Zealand First and the Greens went into office opposing backroom deals and “business as usual” politics.

Yet, this coalition Government has quickly found itself in very murky and questionable territory. In particular, the so-called “waka-jumping bill” has turned out to exemplify the worst ways of progressing policy. And the Greens have been at the forefront of this awfulness. They’ve been tricky throughout the whole debate over the waka-jumping bill, giving inconsistent and opaque explanations for their role in progressing the legislation.

The Greens have never been willing to front up over how they were going to deal with this contentious bill. First, when the coalition was formed, we were told by co-leader James Shaw that his party wouldn’t vote for any policies that they disagreed with. The Greens later changed this to say that they would support the waka-jumping bill through the first stages of the legislation, but wouldn’t guarantee that they would vote for it in the end.

Then last week the party finally revealed that they would indeed vote for the legislation, even though they still opposed it. They justified this capitulation with the notion that their hands were tied by the coalition agreement that they signed up to with the Labour Party – especially the part in which they promised to deal in “good faith” with Labour to fulfil coalition agreements with New Zealand First.

It turns out that the Greens have always known that there is nothing in the coalition agreement they signed with Labour that obliges them to vote for the waka-jumping bill. A leaked Green Party caucus document from January, titled “Advice to caucus – Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill”, reports on official advice informing the Greens that there is nothing in their coalition agreement that binds them to provide support.

This is what the document says about the “good faith” provision in their agreement with Labour: “Advice from the Cabinet Office is that firstly this is a political statement around how we’re endeavouring to work with the Government. It commits us to work through areas of concern in good faith, but does not bind us to support everything set out in the Labour/New Zealand First coalition agreement”.

The fact that the Greens have tried to tell the public the opposite therefore raises some big questions about why they’ve mislead the public on this, and what the real reasons are for their U-turn on the bill.

There are two main possible explanations: weakness or opportunism. In the “weakness” explanation, the Greens have acted like doormats – the leader of New Zealand First has simply demanded that the Greens vote for the bill, or there will be some sort of very negative consequence (perhaps even threatening to walk away from the coalition Government). In this scenario, the Greens have meekly rolled over and given away their principles easily.

Under the “opportunist” explanation, the Greens have demanded some sort of price for voting against their principles. Perhaps it was the oil and gas exploration ban. Perhaps there is an upcoming policy announcement about mining on conservation land, or a deal on the Kermadecs sanctuary. What other horse-trading deals are being done between the three parties in government?

The problem is we will likely never know. We now have an opaque Government in which the official coalition agreements aren’t the full story, and instead we’re being governed by backroom deals that the public isn’t allowed to know about. It seems therefore that the waka-jumping deal epitomises the continued decay of principled and transparent politics, and how even so-called principled politicians such as the Greens are willing to buy into it all.

In addition, we’re now we’re learning more about the farce of the select committee process, in which it appears amendments to the bill haven’t been allowed. If so, there’s very little “good faith” on the part of the governing parties, who have asked for public submissions and then ignored them. It makes the whole waka-jumping legislation process look like a turning point in the health of this Government.

It would be entirely understandable, therefore, if the public lost more faith and trust in politicians and the political process as a result of the farcical waka-jumping bill. As for the Greens, they’ve given up even a pretense of holding onto the moral high ground, and have been reduced to being just another political party.