Mai Chen

Public and employment law specialist Mai Chen on current events

Mai Chen: Start scaling greasy pole of party politics

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If you want to influence housing policy, don't leave it until the election - it's best to have your say now.

The lack of affordable housing will be a key election issue. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The lack of affordable housing will be a key election issue. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The spotlight has been firmly on political parties this week, which is appropriate given their importance in putting up candidates which, if elected as MPs, can collectively form governments and determine who the Prime Minister is. Political parties are also a major source of policy dear to Aucklanders' hearts, like the housing policy Labour just released on Sunday at its annual conference, and the National Party housing policy released at the end of October.

Both are different policy solutions targeted at inadequate numbers of affordable houses, especially in Auckland. The "boldness" of Labour's policy to build 100,000 new houses over the next 10 years and the vigour with which National is attacking it as unaffordable at a price tag of $1.5 billion (and saying only its market-based approach will work) clearly signals housing will be a key election issue and it may be an election-winner for Labour like Working for Families or interest-free student loans.

Leadership challenges are inevitable as "every political career ends in failure," as the old saying goes. Even a popular and successful leader such as the leader of the National Party John Key will be replaced one day. But what is happening to David Shearer and Labour has a new twist.

Labour members voted unanimously for decisions on leadership not to be the preserve of its sitting MPs alone, but shared with its party members (40 per cent) and affiliated unions (20 per cent). Caucus retains 40 per cent of the vote for leader. This democratisation of the control of the party is rare in major parties in NZ although it is relatively common around the world. In New Zealand only the Greens, Maori and Mana parties give members a direct say in how their leaders are selected.

So those voting in favour of greater democratisation of the control of the party cannot have been surprised that changing the rules creates a different balance of power, and change creates risks and opportunities. This is especially the case given the more controversial decision also to hold a vote endorsing the leader after each election. The convergence of this decision together with the adoption of the new Electoral College process (caucus/party members/affiliated unions) for electing the leader always had the potential to be a game changer.

Labour didn't have to make these decisions for change. Political parties are usually unincorporated societies and the courts are reluctant to get involved. As the High Court observed when Winston Peters attempted to sue the National Party for not selecting him in the Tauranga electorate in Peters v Collinge 1993, "politics is a notoriously volatile, not to say fickle, business".

Apart from recognition in the Standing Orders and in the Electoral Act 1993, political parties are otherwise not specifically referred to in legislation or the Cabinet Manual. Even the Electoral Act 1993 does not attempt to define what a political party is or must be in legal terms. It only requires a political party seeking list seats in New Zealand to be registered under the Electoral Act, have a valid name, have at least 500 financial members, and to ensure that provision is made for the involvement of party members or delegates in selecting candidates - but how individual parties do this is up to them.

So the key accountability for the decisions made by a political party is whether they are endorsed by the voters at the next election. I do not know if the public expectation of greater accountability and transparency from government will translate into an electoral push for greater transparency and a dispersal of power in political party decision making. Labour would have to be rewarded for doing so by electors, but change is messy.

I doubt that those political parties whose caucuses still wield power and control will be quick to change their status quo after seeing what has just happened and is still happening to Labour.

Why we care is because party politics may determine the outcome of the 2014 election and the policies that are implemented thereafter. In an MMP environment this is especially important.

So if you want a say in how a particular political party sets policies or who will be setting its direction, you need to start climbing the greasy pole of internal party politics. If you want to influence what housing policies parties adopt, then now is the time. As the campaigners against asset sales discovered, it is very difficult to persuade any government not to implement a policy which it campaigned and got a mandate for after the election.

Likewise, if you have a problem with National or Labour's housing policies, the time to complain is now.

But you will always have the final say over what policies are implemented - and that's every three years at the ballot box.


Mai Chen, Chen Palmer partner and author of Public Law Toolbox.

- NZ Herald

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