IN COMMITTEE : A Question of Integrity

When select committee reports back on any Bill, the first order of business is to inform the House whether or not it believes the proposed legislation should proceed. Most Bills that get the thumbs down are Members’ Bills, which only survived their first reading in the House because MPs believed the issues involved deserved public airing, not because anyone seriously believed they would ever pass into law. current example of such Bill is the one that would reduce the number of MPs in Parliament to 100.
Government bills, by contrast, almost always survive the select committee stage; even if some of them do take fair mauling and return to the House plastered with recommended amendments. “this [government] Bill should not be passed” recommendation is rare indeed. Nevertheless it happened recently to something called the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill.
The idea behind the Bill was to amend the Electoral Act 1993 in such way as to ensure that MPs either stay with the party for whom they were elected or exit Parliament entirely. If all of this sounds mite familiar, it is, because there was such requirement on the statute books up until shortly before the last election. It had, however, sunset clause, which meant that – at that point – it lapsed. And that might have been that had NZ First leader, Winston Peters, not had bee in his bonnet over the issue.
When Peters himself left the National Party many moons ago, he resigned from Parliament, fought by-election and returned once again as the member for Tauranga. Other defectors should, he believes, also chance their hands (assuming they have seat to re-fight – list members should simply leave). So, when the numbers fell as they did on election night, he found himself in position to demand the return of the former provisions as part payment for his cooperation, and this time there would be no sunset clause.
The Labour Party was happy to oblige and drafted new Bill accordingly. It was document which some cynical observers dubbed the Winston Peters Retention Bill (at the time dissent was bubbling in the NZ First ranks, Winston having decided to accept the baubles of office, after all).
The Justice and Electoral Select Committee – to whom it fell to consider the matter – was not so enthusiastic. In its report it said: the Bill was neither necessary nor appropriate, it would have “a range of unintended consequences” and would “lessen public confidence in the integrity of the electoral system”. It went on to point out that, in the MMP era, the voters have shown very little patience with MPs and political parties which have failed to keep faith with their electors.
The Labour Party submitted dissenting view and the matter went back to the House to be fought out there. At the time of writing, that fight had not yet been joined; however the emerging situation is an interesting one.
The Labour Government is obliged – under the terms of its agreement with NZ First – to drive the Bill through into legislation. And it can do that, provided all of its coalition partners agree to vote with it on the matter. It can be assumed that Jim Anderton and NZ First will do so. But the third coalition partner, United Future, may not be so inclined. The Party is committed to backing Labour on matters of confidence and supply, and this is neither.
On the face of it this would seem to give Labour way out of the dilemma. The question is whether it wants to take it, or whether it will choose to push ahead regardless.
Labour and Jim Anderton (with 51 seats) need both NZ First (seven seats) and United Future (three) to make up the 61 votes necessary for majority in the House. If just one Labour MP were to defect, this would no longer be enough. Labour would need fourth partner (presumably the Greens or possibly Máori) at which point everything that Clark so painstakingly cobbled together post-election could well begin to unravel.
And it just so happens that Labour has potential defector in its ranks, in the form of Mangere MP Taito Phillip Field, who has been the subject of long-running conflict-of-interest investigation by Noel Ingram, QC. Field has indicated that, if he were to feel sidelined by Labour, he could well go it alone. However, if the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill had been passed, he would be unable to do so.
For the Government, the Bill could prove to be lifesaver. Or put it another way, the “Winston Peters Retention Bill” may become the “Helen Clark Retention Bill”. Its fate will be interesting to watch.

Julie Collier is editor and publisher of Select Committee News.

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