Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: Judith Collins and democracy under threat?

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Judith Collins. Photo / NZ Herald
Judith Collins. Photo / NZ Herald

Judith Collins has been fighting back. Last week she was under attack from all quarters over her decision not to implement the recommendations of the MMP Review. Now she's taken to Twitter (@JudithCollinsMP) and is shooting with both barrels at anyone and everyone, often with wit and verve - see Lloyd Burr's Collins goes on tweeting spree.

Collins' sudden twittering prompted initial questions about the authenticity of her tweets, which led Danyl McLauchlan (@danlymc) to initiate the Voight-kampff test of the day. This is also covered by Toby Manhire in Judith Collins fails replicant test.

The criticisms of Collins over the abandonment of the MMP Review recommendations have certainly been severe, most suggesting that democracy is being disregarded. Law professor Andrew Geddis has complained about the process in his blogpost, Stop wasting our time, John Armstrong says it reflects that Naked self-interest rules, political scientist Janine Hayward bemoans that it is Politicians' duty to implement people's will, and Patrick Gower says the decision means that National's dirty MMP deals are back.

The newspapers have also given a furious response - see the Herald's Collins fails electoral review test, the Dominion Post's Facile justification just doesn't wash, and the ODT's A cynical electoral move. For a more lighthearted, but equally critical satirical response, see Scott Yorke's A day in the life of Judith Collins. (Collins herself has advertised the mocking post to her Twitter followers, saying 'This is very funny Scott. Think it's your best yet').

But does Judith Collins really deserve the contempt and outrage of her critics? After all, she hasn't broken any agreements, nor is she really acting any differently to any other politician. As Graeme Edgeler points out, nearly every party involved in wanting the recommendations implemented or rejected seem to be acting out of self-interest - see his blogpost, On Consensus which is one of the best discussions of the issue. He outlines some major inconsistencies with National's 'consensus' approach to electoral law reform but, despite this, also says that 'I do not think that the Electoral Commission having made these recommendations means that National should support them'. He also points out that the 'recommendations of the MMP Review would have the effect of decreasing diversity in Parliament, and increasing disproportionality'. In fact, the MMP Review's recommendations were extremely conservative and arguably anti-democratic - especially the recommendation that the threshold be retained (albeit at a slightly lower level).

Although many of Judith Collins' critics think she should be implementing the Electoral Commission's proposals without obtaining consensus, that would perhaps be even more outrageous. For example, the Constitutional Review Group is currently considering all sorts of controversial ideas about how our political system should be run, and no one is expecting that the eventual recommendations ought to be binding on the Government. Just because appointed experts recommend something, doesn't automatically translate to a Government being required to accept and implement those recommendations. This should be even more so with electoral law.

Perhaps the problem was not so much Judith Collins not implementing the recommendations, but rather Simon Power's process in which he set up a review without indicating what would happen to any recommendations. Indeed if the review process had been set up to be binding - in the way that critics seem to be (incorrectly) suggesting it was - then there would have been a very different approach taken to the whole review. Certainly the public would have applied much more scrutiny to the whole Electoral Commission process, which was hardly robust enough to deliver binding recommendations. And ultimately if changes are going to be made to electoral laws, then there's a good argument that the public should decide, not governments or political parties - see Vernon Small's MMP proposals need referendum.

Critics of New Zealand's electoral laws might also want to focus on how the rules about campaign finance are poorly policed, and clear violations of the rules are not prosecuted. The Electoral Commission has recently released the donations figures for 2012, and David Farrar has blogged about the discovery of a serious violation of the rules - see: Labour hides $430,000 donation for over a year. Graeme Edgeler intelligently discusses the issue in some detail in his blogpost, $420,259.33, and Scott Yorke lampoons Labour's response to it all in Transcript of Labour Party caucus meeting II. See also, Andrea Vance's Books thrown open on party donations.

'Democracy under threat' underlies the criticism being levelled this week at the passage of laws under urgency. The two most important posts are by Andrew Geddis - I think National just broke our constitution, and Keith Ng - What Andrew Geddis Said, But Shorter and With More Swearing. For additional comment on related issues, see Carrie Stoddart's Legalising discrimination, Clare Browning's Kicking the tyres from beneath New Zealand, No Right Turn's Another abuse of urgency, and David Farrar's Geddis cries foul. For a mainstream media take on the issue, see Isaac Davison's Govt slammed over censored caregiver legislation, and for the satirical view, see Scott Yorke explanation for Why the Regulatory Impact Statement was so heavily redacted.

There are plenty of voices continuing to argue that the Government's SkyCity Convention Centre decision also puts 'democracy under threat'. Toby Manhire makes the case most succinctly in SkyCity smirking all the way to the casino and economics academic Eric Crampton makes some similar points, from a different perspective in SkyCity revisited. But the harshest criticism is coming from the newspapers - see the Herald's SkyCity deal too soft on social issues and the Dominion Post's Key's casino a misery shrine. But is National really doing anything significantly different to what the last Labour Government did? David Farrar says 'no', in Labour on convention centres, and Russell Brown says 'yes' in SpinCity. Regardless, John Armstrong declares Labour in corner over convention centre deal.

So how is the fourth estate doing in protecting the public from threats to democracy? John Armstrong has just won a prestigious Canon Media Award for Keeping the politicians honest (and also putting parasitical bloggers in their place, it seems). Scott Yorke suggests that some in the media might be taking their role of 'holding the powerful to account' too seriously - see: Another day in the life of Patrick Gower. Russell Brown discusses the role of Parliament Live in keeping us informed (and you can watch his Media3 Online episode about it all. Also of note, TVNZ announces new Head of News, TVNZ's Shane Taurima is considering standing for the Labour Party - see Claire Trevett's Broadcaster eyes vacancy, and Maori TV is about to get a new boss - see Yvonne Tahana's Names in hat to head Maori TV.

Other recent important or interesting items include the following:

Major housing reform appears to have been the most significant issue to come out of last week's Budget, and for an insightful discussion on issues around housing see Tracy Watkins' National redrawing lines on the battleground, and John Armstrong's National gives mixed signals with housing.

For the best post-Budget analysis, see Colin Espiner's Bill English's vanilla Budget, Tracy Watkins' Scene set for next year's election, Vernon Small's Just more skinny rats and mice, John Armstrong's Something for everyone makes it hard to hate, and Chris Trotter's Taming The 'Devil Beasts': National's 2013 Budget Feints To The Left. For the most interesting alternative Budget - see Matt McCarten's My Budget would do the trick. And to see how the cartoonists and photographers covered the Budget issues, see my blogpost, Images of the Budget.

The Aaron Gilmore saga is officially over. For the best coverage of his departure speech, see Jane Clifton's Gilmore bows out and forgoes utu and Colin Espiner's Not with a bang or even a whimper. Claire Trevett provided the most interesting profile of the outgoing MP in Do you know who I am now?. And Rodney Hide has given the best explanation for why errant MPs like Gilmore shouldn't easily be expelled by their leaders - see: More than Gilmore let us down. See also Matthew Hooton's own argument against party leaders having more power: Aaron Gilmore debacle put Budget at risk. And for a more conspiratorial take, see Martin Bradbury's Was Aaron Gilmore an inside political hit job?.

The tax-free status of charities continues to be debated and put under scrutiny - see Olivia Carville's Flush Kiwi charities failing to pay out and the Press' Charities must be closely scrutinised.

Apparently it costs about $450,000 for each hour of Parliament. Emma Jolliff asks if MPs should therefore really be spending valuable time debating whether to wear woolen vests under suit jackets - see Parliament debates dress code on taxpayers' time. Meanwhile, Claire Trevett reports on the Call to relax rules for MPs with babies. This issue arises appropriately after Jackie Blue's call for more women MPs - see Kate Shuttleworth's Outgoing MP tackles gender inequality in valedictory speech.

He used to be an environmentalist socialist. What made Rodney Hide change his mind? See: Confessions of a former leftie.

Finally, for political geeks, David Farrar challenges you with some interesting facts in Some quiz trivia questions. And for those worried about the GCSB misusing the greater powers it's about to receive, see Andrew Gunn's Don't worry, the bureau is listening.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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