A small serving of the rich rhetoric of the late Rod Donald rang through the Parliamentary debating chamber yesterday – so rich that one MP could not stomach it. He raised a point of order to insist he had been offended.
Astonishingly, this bizarre attempt to be spared from having to hear Donald’s strongly expressed views was made by …
Drum roll, please…
It was made by James Shaw.
We kid you not, dear reader. The offended MP was James Shaw, a delicate creature (apparently) who holds the Green Party co-leadership job that once was impressively held by the politician whose views he seemed intent on suppressing.
We can only imagine that – somewhere in The Hereafter – a bemused Rod Donald was tuned into these goings-on and was wondering what Shaw was trying to achieve.
On the other hand, Donald would be pleasantly surprised to be quoted by a National MP.
His words were tellingly injected into a speech by Nick Smith, who has become a formidable champion of the same cause Donald championed almost 20 years ago.
The issue was the Waka Jumping Bill, a measure designed to enable party leaders to be rid of MPs who rock the boat.
At its second reading, Smith denounced the Bill with forceful oratory:
“Freedom of speech, tolerance of dissent, and respect for democracy are core Kiwi values that are worth fighting for. National opposed this bill at first reading, at select committee, and we will do so at every stage of the Parliamentary process. The right of voters—and voters alone—to dismiss MPs was established 330 years ago with the Bill of Rights. The powers in this bill, for a party leader to dismiss an MP, have no place in a liberal democracy like New Zealand.
“This bill is, ironically, named the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill. Its purpose, process, and the behaviour of Government MPs have been completely lacking in integrity.
“The Government says the purpose is to prevent distorting the proportionality of Parliament from party-hoppers. This is bunkum. The number of MPs switching parties has been negligible in the last six Parliaments. There has only been one in the last decade, and that was Brendan Horan, who was desperate to stay in New Zealand First.
“There have been far greater distortions in proportionality from by-elections, from MPs resigning under the six-month rule, and from the threshold rule.
“The real purpose of this bill is to prop up this fragile Government by silencing any internal criticism. The Government’s own statement on this bill says, and I quote, ‘[It] will have a chilling effect on the expression of dissenting views by MPs.
“That sends a shiver up the spine of every Kiwi who loves and believes in democracy. This bill is about Parliament giving Mr Peters a legislative hammer to nail MPs, like Brendan Horan, who he falls out with.”
Smith recalled “the lacking of integrity of the select committee process.”
The committee had considered 55 submissions, he said. Not one supported this bill unamended.
Submissions opposing the bill were made by 21 constitutional and electoral law experts from four universities, the Human Rights Commission, the Law Society, former Speakers, and even the Clerk of the House.
Smith set out “concerning aspects” about the committee process:
“Government MPs refused to discuss or consider any amendments, despite dozens of reasonable proposals from both officials and submitters; secondly, Government MPs, shamefully, blocked the committee from even providing a report to this House on the bill.
“The Government refused to release the advice on this bill’s compliance with the Bill of Rights, despite them always being made public in the past, and it’s an important issue when we have 21 legal experts saying it breaches the Bill of Rights.
“We also wanted it recorded that the committee unanimously resolved for officials to appear to answer questions on the Bill of Rights issue, but they refused to attend—something I have not seen in 28 years. These unprecedented lengths the Government has gone to to hide critical advice completely contradicts this Government’s position that it is the most open and transparent Government ever.”
Smith then assailed the Green Party for supporting the bill, saying it set “a new low” in parliamentary integrity.
“Co-leader Marama Davidson says this bill is undemocratic. She says it is a threat to democracy. She says it goes against Green Party principles and policies, but they are voting for it.
“She justified it by saying this, and I quote, ‘It is in our supply and confidence agreement and we had to.’ That is untrue and contradicts the advice from the Cabinet Office that has now been leaked by horrified Green insiders.
“Late last year, Mr Shaw stated that the advantage of the supply and confidence agreement was this, and I quote him, ‘Green MPs will not vote for anything they do not agree with.’ That is exactly what is happening here. This betrayal of core values could not be more serious…”
Shaw doubtless was discomforted by these remarks.
But the quoting of Rod Donald to reinforce Smith’s case triggered what happened next:
Hon Dr NICK SMITH: “A founding Green co-leader said of the same bill, in 2001, that it was the most Draconian, obnoxious, anti-democratic —
Hon James Shaw: I raise a point of order, Madam Speaker. Dr Smith has now brought the memory of Rod Donald into this debate and into question time a number of times. I think this is the fourth time that I’m aware of —
Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER: Would you get to the point? Is there a point of order here?
Hon James Shaw: Yes, there is. I’m offended and I would like him to withdraw and apologise. It is called waving a dead man’s hand —
Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER: Everyone will sit down.
Hon James Shaw: — and he has no right to speak—
Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER: Sit down!
Hon James Shaw: — for Rod Donald.
Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER: Sit down! When the Speaker is on their feet, members resume their seats. That is not a point of order. Unfortunately, you cannot take offence on behalf of another member. That member is absent; you cannot take offence on behalf of another member. That is not a point of order, and I call the Hon Nick Smith to continue.
Hon Dr NICK SMITH: Let me quote from the Hansard—
Hon James Shaw: I raise a point of order, Madam Speaker.
Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER: Are you going to re—
Hon James Shaw: I am not offended on behalf of anybody else; I am offended.
Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER: I am sorry, but the point of your offence is on behalf of another person. You are taking offence at reference to another person. You cannot do that. It is not a point of order.
Smith carried on by completing the quote from Hansard:
” ‘ The most Draconian, obnoxious, anti-democratic, insulting piece of legislation ever inflicted in this Parliament’, yet it is now to become the law with the votes of people like Mr Shaw.”
Smith proceeded to recount the select committee’s hearing of evidence from officials who said the bill breaches the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“Only six months ago, I heard the member in this House quoting the importance of those treaties and human rights, yet today is the vote on a bill that tramples on those very rights.”
The lack of integrity from New Zealand First on the bill was no better, Smith insisted.
“When a National MP left for New Zealand First Mr Peters totally backed him, saying it was his right and he was not elected to swear an oath of blind allegiance to any political party. Mr Peters’ principles are as shallow as a bird bath. If an MP leaves a party for New Zealand First, that is their constitutional right. But if an MP leaves New Zealand First for another, he calls it a constitutional outrage.”
Smith then referenced “one of the most substantive submissions” to the committee, from a former Speaker. David Carter had provided a report of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, on 162 parliaments around the world. The report states that laws of this sort create “political party dictatorships” and goes on to say:
“The free mandate of MPs is an indispensable part of our democracy.”
None of the countries with which New Zealand would want to be associated had such laws and most parts of the world the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill would be against their constitution and wrong, Smith contended.
He asked the House to reflect on the war memorials in Parliament for those who fought in World War II who then had a part in writing the constitution of Germany to protect the values of freedom which the Waka Jumping law would offend.
Then he referenced a concern raised by constitutional experts like Professor Maclean, from Auckland University.
“The most important rule in our constitution is that Government must remain a confidence in this House; that is why confidence votes are so important. They have been lost 13 times in this Parliament, due to MPs losing confidence and voting the Government down.
“This bill weakens that check by enabling the Government to sack those MPs and replace them with compliant ones. If it was a court, we would call it jury-rigging.”
“… this bill is not about the rights of MPs, but the rights of the public. They lose the exclusive right to fire MPs. MPs will be more subservient to their party leaders and less responsive to their constituents. MPs will be more party robot and less individual thinker.”
The Government had time to pull back, Smith pleaded.
He asked it to reflect on Helen Clark who, in the same position in 2005, abandoned an identical bill. And he called on Green Party members throughout the country to encourage their MPs to at least vote for amendments that set a sunset clause and greater judicial checks.
At Point of Order, we fear the Greens – like Labour and New Zealand First- will remain implacable.
Wherever he might be, Rod Donald has cause not to be be merely offended but to be profoundly outraged.