COMMENT:

This is the best and worst of weeks for New Zealand First.

The best is yet to come. That will happen today at the Tauranga racecourse when members celebrate the party's 25th birthday, and tomorrow when they can anticipate an important speech from leader Winston Peters about their journey, past and future.

The party and Peters have many achievements to be proud of.

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But the party-hopping bill passed in Parliament ahead of the party's convention can barely be called an achievement, let alone qualify as a proud one.

It has been Parliament at its worst - indulging a powerful politician with an obsession with defectors.

The law is a fetter on dissent, and Peters' decision to demand its passage as the price of power stands in contradiction to his own history as a dissenter and maverick.

The law will enable a caucus to fire a duly elected MP not just from the caucus but from Parliament if they decide that MP no longer properly represents the party.

The hypocrisy is galling. Peters built New Zealand First on party-hoppers such as Michael Laws, Peter McCardle and Jack Elder.

In those days, Peters was upholding the freedom of any MP to leave a party without having to leave Parliament if their conscience demanded it.

"Members of Parliament have to be free to follow their own conscience," he said in press statement in defence of their party-hopping.

"They were elected to represent their constituents, not to swear an oath of blind allegiance to a political party. If an MP feels that membership in another elected party better serves his or her own constituents, then that can be put to the test at election time."

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He cited sound constitutional precedent, in 1911, for MPs being able to change parties.

It was only when party-hoppers left New Zealand First rather than joined it that the notion became objectionable, to Peters. It was only after MMP that what the voters decided on election day suddenly became sacred to Peters.

Essentially, the new party-hopping law is based on self-interest disguised as principle.

It is a draconian solution to a problem of defection that has not existed since those formative days of MMP.

The most damaging effects of the law will be invisible and immeasurable.

New Zealand First did not campaign on party-hopping at all last election but then put it up as a bottom line in coalition talks, while the vast number of bottom lines actually enunciated by Peters in the campaign were surrendered in the horse-trading of coalition talks.

The law does not have the true support of the majority of the House but the Greens have been blackmailed into supporting it against the alternative - a toxic relationship with Peters.

Electoral law changes should have wide support of any Parliament but the law was railroaded through by a party with 7 per cent of the vote because it held the balance of power at the election.

If election-day proportionality is so sacred when it comes to numbers, perhaps proportionality should be extended to influence within the Coalition. Imagine that.

The most pernicious effect of the new law is not the actual expulsion of an MP from Parliament. Rather, it is the chilling effect it will have on strong, independent thought and voice of MPs within parties and within Parliament. In turn that will have an impact on the selection of MPs.

The most damaging effects of the law will be invisible and immeasurable.

It was the impact on dissent that drew the harshest criticism from Green luminaries Jeanette Fitzsimons and Keith Locke.

An unkind person might say that Peters has gained power in New Zealand politics by becoming the sort of critic he so despised in his maiden speech.

It has been sad to see a raft of new Labour MPs kowtowing to Peters to convince themselves that the law will enhance democracy when it is really a management tool for Peters to keep potentially difficult MPs in check.

If it had been law in 1991, it may well have been used against Peters by Jim Bolger and the National caucus.

Whether Peters had been fired from Parliament or resigned, as he did to force a byelection, is less relevant than whether the existence of such a law would have dampened his dissenting voice in the National Party at the time.

It is said Peters was sacked in October 1991 for disloyalty to Bolger and a failure to uphold collective cabinet responsibility.

A large part of that was the dissent within caucus to National's broken promise to get rid of the surtax on superannuation and the extremes of Rogernomics, which in turn shaped the New Zealand First Party in 1993.

Dissent has been a strong theme throughout Peters' career.

He talked about in his maiden speech in 1979 when he lambasted people whom he saw as destructive critics who criticised for the sake of it: "Opposition, criticism and dissent are worthy pursuits when combined with a sense of responsibility. They have a purifying effect on society. Areas in need of urgent attention can be identified and courses of action may be initiated. However embarrassing to community or national leaders, the results are enormously beneficial to the total well-being of the community. The critic I am [condemning] has no such goals. He sets out to exploit every tremor and spasm in society, the economy or race relations, seeking to use every such event as a vehicle to project his own public personality."

An unkind person might say that Peters has gained power in New Zealand politics by becoming the sort of critic he so despised in his maiden speech.

That would be unfair. While his plasticine principles on electoral law have bent to whatever suits his party at the time, the party has been consistent on many issues and much of the time it is a constructive player.

The defining quality of Peters' career has been has ability to rise again when all looked beaten and that has happened many times after elections, in the courts, and in Parliament.

It is a remarkable achievement to have built a party, and sustained it, and to be at the peak of his political power when most people his age are checking out retirement villages.

It is also remarkable that Peters should be wasting that power on such a wretched law.