Paddle Your Own Waka

The controversy over the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill which the New Zealand First party wants to pass into a law brings to our attention one of the most basic problems of a parliamentary electoral system: the issue of mandate.

The legislation, colloquially called the Waka-Jumping Bill’, seeks to “uphold the proportionality of party representation” in Parliament by mandating a member “to vacate their seat in Parliament if they wish to cease their membership with the party for which they were elected”. The waka is the traditional Māori watercraft that was used for fishing and travel during the pre-colonial times, in the parlance of New Zealand politics waka-jumping is the act of an MP “jumping ship” and defecting to another party.

The bill was one of the concessions successfully negotiated by the New Zealand First party with the Labour Party as part of their coalition agreements. The leader of the former, the Rt. Hon. Minister Winston Peters, signaled the need for such bill “to protect the uppermost value in a proportional electoral system” which according to him is proportionality.

The waka is seen in this photo from the 2011 Rugby World Cup opening celebrations. (Photo taken from www.aucklanddailyphoto.com)

Under our current mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, voters are able to cast their ballot for their electorate representative and for their preferred political party. It is widely accepted that the party vote has a bigger bearing on the election results, given that the percentage of votes a party receives determines their overall seat allocation in the legislative body and therefore could determine the extent of their power to create laws to govern the nation.

This is why political parties vote as a bloc on legislation, rather than as individual members. The only exception is when it is a conscience vote, where issues of morality such as same-sex marriage or legalizing marijuana use, is the subject of the vote then MPs are free to vote with or against their own party.

In all other cases, they are mandated to vote with the political party they were elected from. The number of votes cast per party could decide the fate of key legislative agenda, hence why Peters emphasizes the need to retain proportionality as determined by voters during elections.

It is obvious that the mandate of an electorate representative is to their constituency in the local electorate, but what about a list MP elected from the party vote percentage a party receives? Many wonder who they’re supposed to be accountable to given they were not directly elected at all.

Since the election of a list MP was because of their membership of a political party, then it makes sense that their allegiance should be with that party and therefore should vote according to their principles and ethos. At present, list MPs may abdicate their membership with their elected party – thus freeing them from the constraints of voting with the group – and are able to continue their membership in parliament as independents or defect to another political party as in to jump the waka.

The Waka-Jumping Bill aims to resolve such incidences from occurring by subjecting an MP to vacate their seat in parliament altogether if they wish to end their membership with the political party they were elected with. The bill received criticism from many sides, being labeled as “undemocratic” as it prevents the MP from expressing their own opinions and potentially forcing them to go against their own will since they need to kowtow to the party line.

The Rt. Hon. Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters

However, as mentioned previously the list MPs were not voted directly anyway. They owe their placement in the House to the political party they are members of, which were in turn voted because of their collective party platform and policies. Voters decide for the political party they will vote by examining their principles, policies and track record; the list MPs voted in as a result of the party vote allocation are beneficiaries of their party’s brand and therefore are mandated to help realize the platform promised by their party to the voting public.

To go against that party’s policy platform is an act of betrayal, not only to the party which brought that individual into Parliament but also to the voters who long to see the policies promised by the party be fulfilled. It is possible that an MP abandoning their party causes that political group to lose a crucial vote in determining if a legislation is passed or not, which means it has potential major ramifications.

Hence, it is only fair that safeguards are put in place to prevent that from happening. As for electorate MPs who have a clear mandate to the constituency which directly voted them in, it can be argued that it would be fair if they voted against their political party for an issue wherein the will of their constituency contradicted that of the party.

However, it should be recognized that political affiliations play a large part in determining if whether the candidate gets elected or not. Many voters are mindful of the political party which a candidate is a part of, simply because they understand that the success of that candidate will impact the proportionality of parliament and thus the strength which the different parties have.

It is very common for a voter to say they chose to forego voting for a specific candidate, despite being an admirer of them personally, due to their dislike for the political party they belong to. Likewise, it is also common to hear of a voter giving “two ticks” – an electorate vote and a party vote – to a political party simply because they approve of that party very highly. In that latter scenario, the candidate is a beneficiary of their political party’s brand.

Similar to a list MP, even an electorate MP is expected to share the same policies and principles as their political party. It is very unlikely an electorate MP will campaign for higher taxes when their party is campaigning to lower taxes, just to give a rough example. Therefore, we can argue that even an electorate MP has some mandate to their political party and is expected, even by their own constituency, to vote together with their parties on key legislation.

Opponents of NZ First’s Waka-Jumping ban will use the term “undemocratic” when criticizing the planned legislation, not realizing that it is the act of jumping wakas that is undemocratic in the equation. We have a multi-party electorate system in New Zealand, where the strength lies in political parties rather than in individual members – this is advantageous as the collective decision of a group of people that comprise a political party make the decision, which gives more room for compromise.

The bill aims to preserve the essence of the MMP system and to ensure that when voters decide the political party they want to run the country’s state-of-affairs, the individual members of that party follow suit.  If they choose not to, then they can paddle their own waka outside Parliament.

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