Does the ‘Waka-Jumping Bill’ Address a Problem that Does Not Exist?

By Ben Bowley-Drinnan

The Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill may prove to be one of the most significant pieces of legislation passed by the coalition Government. However, in the media’s fawning over Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy and the birth of baby Neve, the Bill has largely lapsed from the public view.

The Bill itself proposes to amend the Electoral Act 1993 to ““enhance public confidence in the integrity of the electoral system”. The Minister in charge of the Bill, Andrew Little,  has stated at the first reading that the Bill is designed to “affirm a democratic principle that sits at the heart of our MMP system” relating to the proportionality of Parliament. The agreement for such a Bill could be found in the coalition agreement between New Zealand First and the Labour Party, where it was agreed that the Government would  “Introduce and pass a ‘Waka Jumping’ Bill”.  Such legislation is not unusual in New Zealand, as similar legislation was introduced in 2001. However, a major difference between the previous iteration and the proposed Act is that the 2001 edition possessed a sunset clause that the Act would expire two elections after the commencement of the Bill. The current 2018 edition has no such expiration.

Arguments for legislation

Whilst the Minister in charge of the Bill is Andrew Little, there is little doubt that the chief architect is the leader of New Zealand First, Winston Peters. Mr Peters has claimed that the Bill “protects proportionality” and, in the same article questioned “Why should the individual will of one disgruntled Member of Parliament subvert the general will of voters on election day?”  However, it has been noted that Mr Peters generally lacks support from others in this point of view, as very few supporting articles have been written. Nonetheless, that is not to say that he is alone. Some commentators have decried the action of waka jumping as “constitutional vandalism” , supporting the Bill as necessary to ensure Parliament remains representative of the people’s desire, and is not undermined by individual maverick MPs.

Furthermore, it has been noted by political professor Jack Vowles that effective government cannot occur if the threat of waka jumping materialises. Indeed, according to Vowles, New Zealanders vote for parties as much as they vote for people, and parties cannot govern effectively if there is internal division caused by rogue MPs. Indeed, given the short electoral term of Parliament, Vowles argues that it would not take much time for such MPs claims of division to be put to the test by the electorate, either in byelections in the case of electorate MPs, or new parties in the case of list MPs.

 

Arguments against legislation 

However, it has been noted that the Bill proposes a solution to a non-existent problem. Waka jumping has been a rare occurrence, with no such acts occurring in the 2014-2017 Parliament. Moreover, there has been significant criticism from various academics regarding the necessity of the Bill. Moreover, former MPs have claimed that it contravenes the New Zealand Bill of Rights and indeed, Dr Nick Smith of the National Party has stated that the Bill has evolved from Peters’ “deep resentment” of MPs defecting in the first MMP government.  Moreover, previous political leaders described similar legislation as the most draconian, obnoxious, anti-democratic, insulting piece of legislation ever inflicted on this parliament”. Indeed, it has been noted that New Zealand democracy relies on waka jumping, and that we should make it easier for new parties to enter Parliament, not harder.

 

Government response

The Attorney General has said that the Bill is not inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act, as the limitations are demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society, and hence sees no reason for the Bill to be reconsidered in light of these criticisms.

However, all these arguments were rendered moot recently by the conduct of the Green Party. The party agreed it would support the legislation at the third reading, with Minister Eugenie Sage describing it as “some things you have to do as part of a coalition agreement”.  However, it was noted by Dr Bryce Edwards that the Greens had, in effect, misled the public about this, as the Cabinet Office stated that the Greens were not bound to support the Bill.

I find the comments of the co-leader of the Greens, Marama Davidson, particularly telling in that regard. Simply parroting lines about ‘compromise’, and highlighting that this is the price of government shows the embarrassing nature of the misstep, particularly given the Green Party’s previous opposition to the Bill, a principle echoed by former MP Sue Bradford. Given the Green Party is in this position due to their own failures, supporters will hope the party learns from this, and avoids such symbolic pratfalls in the future.

Given the purpose of the Bill is to “enhance public confidence in the integrity of the electoral system”, I personally agree with Dr Edward’s assessment of the legislation. The waka jumping bill solves a problem that does not exist, and could likely have significant effects on New Zealand’s democratic systems. Such effects could work contrary to the purpose of the legislation, and reduce confidence in Parliament.

Meanwhile, the media focuses on Jacinda being both a mum and Prime Minister, leaving the Deputy Prime Minister victorious whilst the Greens lick their wounds.

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Featured image: https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/36720