Opinion: Lonely existence for MP without party

Friday 7 December 2012, 4:05PM
By Massey University

Winston Peters has been back on the front pages this week, but for all the wrong reasons. On Tuesday he expelled Brendan Horan, a New Zealand First MP about whom distasteful allegations concerning his dying mother’s money have been swirling, from the party’s caucus. Subsequently, he had Horan thrown out of the party.

The furore raises several issues, one of which is Horan’s continued membership of Parliament. He may have been expelled from the caucus and the wider party, but New Zealand First cannot fire him as an MP, because the relevant statutory provisions (section 55 of the Electoral Act 1993) do not allow a political party to remove a Member of Parliament.

There are various grounds on which a vacancy in the House of Representatives can be created (such as taking an oath of allegiance to a foreign State, ceasing to be a New Zealand citizen, or being convicted of a crime punishable by a prison term of two years or more). But leaving the party on whose ticket you were elected is not one of them.

Between 2001 and 2005 that was not the case. Following the defection of a number of so-called ‘party hoppers’ (who joined another party) or ‘waka jumpers’ (who chose independence) between 1996-1999, the law was changed so that an MP who left or was biffed out of a party’s caucus also ceased to be an MP.

That provision lapsed, however, in September 2005. In short, there is presently no legal way in which Winston Peters (or anyone else, apart from the man in question himself) can force Brendan Horan to vacate his seat.

Your feelings about this will depend on your views regarding the relationship between an MP and his or her party.

Those who think that the former are primarily accountable to the latter are likely to oppose the present legal situation.Why, this argument goes, should Horan be able to continue as an MP when the party he was elected to represent no long wants him? Were he an electorate MP things might be a little more complex, but as a list MP things seem pretty cut and dried. (They’re not, of course, because electorate MPs are beholden to their parties just as much as list MPs are. If they were not we would have a Parliament full of independents, which hasn’t been the case since the emergence of organised political parties at the end of the 19th century.)

But there is also an argument that a return to the old party hopping law would give political parties too much control over MPs. This may be fine if an MP has demonstrably done something wrong (and we should bear in mind that, in the Horan case, the allegations have yet to be established).

However, it could also lead to the abuse of power by a party’s leadership – by, for instance, silencing a dissenting voice within the caucus. Hypothetically, imagine what might have happened to David Cunliffe had the 2001-2005 law still been in place. Would Labour’s leadership have been tempted to expel him from the party (thereby triggering his removal from Parliament)? And how might the voters of New Lynn felt about that?

In any event, changing the law may not be the best way to resolve this issue. (And might, in fact, produce protacted legal action that, as in the case of former ACT MP Donna Awatere-Huata, goes all the way to the Supreme Court.) As Patsy Wong, Philip Field and Chris Carter might attest, going solo in Parliament can be a miserable sort of existence. Horan will need all the resilience he developed in his days as a professional lifeguard if he is to survive it.

Associate Professor Richard Shaw is associate head of Massey's School of People, Environment and Planning