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

Political Roundup: Time to punish career-hopping MPs

Should politicians be free to hop in and out of elected office when it suits their career interests? The increasing number of by-elections reflects the growth in careerist MPs, who are taking the public for a ride.
The idea that political office is merely a stepping-stone is reflected in the increased number of by-elections in recent years. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The idea that political office is merely a stepping-stone is reflected in the increased number of by-elections in recent years. Photo / Mark Mitchell

All around the world, voters are starting to express high levels of disgust and concern about the "political class". At the top of the political class are the politicians who see elected office, not as a calling or way to serve the public, but as a place to further their career. This is part of the reason voters are lashing out and losing interest in voting - they can see politicians are increasingly involved in politics for their own interests rather than the public good.

The idea that political office is merely a stepping-stone is reflected in the increased number of by-elections in recent years, as MPs seek to advance their career by finding better jobs while in office and then desert their current roles. The public pays the price for these expensive career changes.

The most damning critique of this behaviour was made last week - not by some rabble-rousing populist - but by the former Clerk of Parliament, David McGee, who published his important opinion piece, Impose a bond on MPs to stop them quitting.

The highly respected McGee, who is accepted as the authority on parliamentary rules and practice, argued that the increase in resignations from Parliament is a problem that needs a strong solution. He proposes that electorate MPs should pay a bond to Parliament that they would get back when they complete their full three-years. For list MPs, the proposed penalty for their departure would be that the next available person on their party list does not replace them in Parliament.

McGee's argument is helpfully backed up by Audrey Young's extensive survey of MP departures over recent decades - see: MP resignations before and after MMP.

Young shows that there has been a dramatic increase in resignations from Parliament in recent years: "Resignations by MPs has been pronounced since MMP began in 1996, of both of list and constituency MPs. In the 20 years before MMP began in 1996, there were 14 vacancies - nine caused by resignations of MPs and six by deaths while in office. In the 20 years since MMP there have been 48 vacancies - 30 of which have been by list MPs resigning, according to data from the Parliamentary Library.

The cost of by-elections

Young's article details the various reasons for departure, and points out that many further resignations could occur in the coming months. This has also been reflected upon in Joelle Dally's More by-elections than you can shake a stick at. She says that the three resignations this term by electorate MPs "means taxpayers look set to spend $3 million on by-elections this term. That would pay the annual salaries of 63 graduate nurses or 54 graduate police officers."

Similarly, Barry Soper says the money being spent on replacing Labour's David Shearer could be better spent: "Most of us with a social conscience could think of many things to spend a million bucks on. For example it'd provide relief for almost 50 people needing a hip replacement which most of us who're paying our taxes would say, it's money well spent. But as taxpayers we'd resent our hard earned cash going down the gurgler for no reason at all" - see: Mt Albert by-election waste of money.

Soper objects to politicians forcing this cost on the public, and he proposes another solution: "the law should allow a caretaker MP to look after its constituents until the election, which will occur just a few months after the six month time frame that requires a by-election before a General Election once an MP bows out. This will not be money well spent!"

Reaction to McGee's proposal

The New Zealand Herald has published an editorial response to McGee's proposal. The paper shows some sympathy with his argument, but ultimately disagrees with it, saying that Parliament shouldn't be a prison: "If an MP has lost interest for any reason - perhaps their career is going no further or they have found Parliament too frustrating - it is surely better for the country that they give their seat to someone else rather than serve out their time, especially if the cost of a byelection can be avoided" - see: Should MPs be held to their 3-year contract?

Former parliamentarian and Act Party leader, Rodney Hide, also has some sympathy, but says that the proposal not to replace list MPs would then place too much power in the hands of such MPs, who could leverage this against their parties: "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" - see: Too much power for wayward politicians.

David Farrar also finds flaws in McGee's proposals, suggesting that MPs could simply get around the rules by arranging to be expelled from office: "there may be ways to game such a system. An MP could take out citizenship of another country (if eligible) and use that as a way to force their departure from Parliament with sanction. Another is if they gain a job as a public servant" - see: McGee on reducing parliamentary resignations.

Elsewhere, Farrar argues in favour of extending the current rule that means a resigning electorate MP will not necessarily trigger a by-election if an election is scheduled within six-months. He advocates changing "the law so that by-elections are not necessary for say nine months before an election instead of six months" - see: Silly reasoning on early election call.

Interestingly, McGee says the current six-month rule "is inherently undemocratic and should not be extended". He argues that having an electorate without representation is "a denial of representation".

For other critiques of McGee's proposal, see Edward Willis' Should we punish resigning MPs?, and Leonid Sirota's Do You Really Have to Go? The first, is from a "public law and regulation" viewpoint, while the latter is from a Canadian constitutional law expert.

It seems that these various critiques highlight that McGee has identified a significant problem, but argue that his proposed changes to electoral law are too interventionist and unworkable. Perhaps the answer therefore lies instead in the hands of voters and journalists. During this year's election campaign, all candidates for office could be asked to commit to seeing out the full parliamentary term if they make it into Parliament. Indeed, they could be asked to sign a pledge to that effect - not to apply for other jobs or resign to undertake a career change.

Local government as a stepping-stone to national politics

It's not just Parliament that has a problem with career politicians looking to advance to better jobs. According to Hannah Bartlett's Nelson byelection could be parting gift from councillors bound for Beehive, the Chief Electoral Officer at electionz.com, Warwick Lampp, says there are "10 byelections on the go in New Zealand currently, and there could be as many as 60 or 70 in any three-year election cycle."

The article reports on two Nelson City councilors who have just been elected, and are now announcing that they are standing for Parliament this year, which would lead to by-elections costing the council $80,000. Green councilor Matt Lawrey suggests the answer to the problem is to "revisit the legislation that governs how city councillors are replaced".

There are all sorts of reasons elected politicians resign. One of the more controversial was Lucy Schwaner, wife of Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross, who was sworn in at as a Howick Local Board councilor two months ago, but "when she was defeated in the vote to be chair of the board she immediately tabled her resignation and walked out of the meeting, followed by MP husband who had been there to support her" - see P J Taylor's Local board member is sworn in, resigns, walks out.

Many local government resignations are caused by politicians deciding - like Phil Goff, but in reverse - to shift from local to national politics. This appears to happen in virtually every political party. This is currently causing contention in the Hawkes Bay, with newly-elected mayor, Lawrence Yule, announcing he wants to stand for the National Party in the Tukituki electorate, despite campaigning that he would remain in the role for the full term - see Nicki Harper's Yule's resignation would prompt costly by-election.

Similarly, Wellington's deputy mayor has only been in a position a few months, and is now about to cause a by-election by taking up Annette King's Rongotai seat later this year - see Tom Hunt's Paul Eagle confirms he will put his name forward for national politics.

While Labour has been very critical of National Party local councillors running for Parliament - see, for example, Nicki Harper's Call for Yule to resign mayoralty due to other commitments - it seems unlikely that Labour will have a problem with their own candidates career hopping.

And even John Key is looking to resign his electorate seat before the next election. Regardless of whether a parliamentary by-election occurs, it looks possible that a local government by-election could happen as a result, with "Auckland councillor Linda Cooper announcing her bid to be the National Party candidate in Helensville" - see Nicholas Jones's: Who will replace John Key? Auckland councillor confirms Helensville bid.

Aucklanders will be getting used to by-elections caused by career-hopping politicians, with Maungakiekie MP Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga possibly about to be replaced by Auckland councillor Denise Lee (formerly Krum) - see Nicholas Jones' Auckland councillor to seek Maungakiekie nomination.

Finally, with all the discussion of career-hopping MPs and the problems of the political class, perhaps it's time to ask, as Doug Bailey does, Should politics be a career in itself?

- NZ Herald

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