Rodney Hide: Too much power for wayward politicians

The one thing the party can't do is fire an MP. No list MP can be made to resign. They can be kicked out of the party but remain an MP. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The one thing the party can't do is fire an MP. No list MP can be made to resign. They can be kicked out of the party but remain an MP. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Former Clerk of the House David McGee is recommending that resigning list MPs not be replaced by the next willing candidate on their party list.

He is suggesting the change to discourage MPs slipping in and out of Parliament outside of an election.

With trepidation I suggest McGee is wrong. I hesitate because McGee knows the rules and ins-and-outs of Parliament better than anyone. His experience is second to none. In the past, whenever I have thought he was wrong, he wasn't.

But the change he is recommending is a big one that I think would have an unfortunate consequence - a consequence concerning less the rules of Parliament and more how politics actually works.

As it stands, if a list MP resigns from Parliament, the next willing candidate on the party's list slips into Parliament. The balance of votes in Parliament is maintained.

To discourage list MPs bailing early McGee suggests a simple rule change: "Any vacancy occasioned by resignation should not be filled."

His purpose is to "largely eliminate list resignations as they are almost always promoted by the parties themselves".

One of MMP's difficulties is that it has centralised political power into the party hierarchy. It's the hierarchy that decides the party list which determines who gets into Parliament and who in the party is up and who is down.

The list-making process is the party's most powerful function. But the rank and file of a party have little say in the process. Ordinary voters have no say. It's the party hierarchy that decides the list in a process that is often far from open.

But the one thing the party can't do is fire an MP. No list MP can be made to resign. They can be kicked out of the party but remain an MP.

That's a very good thing. It forces some accountability on a party's leadership because troublesome MPs can't just be gotten rid of.

Every party leader has MPs they would fire instantly if only they could. Very often they are just a nuisance. But it's the ability of MPs to speak out in caucus and in public that provides a necessary check and balance in our parliamentary system.

Now imagine if disgruntled MPs could resign and drop their party's parliamentary vote by one. That has the potential to change a government and certainly to derail a government's policy programme.

The result would be altogether too much power in the hands of wayward MPs. They wouldn't have to resign but only threaten to resign to cause political chaos.

A sacked minister could bring a government down just by resigning Parliament. Party leaders would become beholden to the least loyal members of their team.

MMP would then be concentrating power into the party hierarchy and also into the hands of the maddest and baddest MPs.

McGee is the perfect gentleman. The shame of it is that our politicians are not so much.

- Herald on Sunday

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Rodney Hide

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