Dunne Speaks: Irony, Hypocrisy, and Good Policy
Politics often has an irony about it, and is frequently accompanied by a good dose of hypocrisy, interspersed with
occasional moments of sanity and sound decisions. All these elements were on display as Parliament resumed this week.
The first action the House of Representatives took after its return was to introduce legislation to effectively convert
itself into a House of Party Delegates, where the views of individual MPs count for virtually nothing, and the Party
becomes all-dominating. They did this through the majority supporting legislation to prevent MPs leaving the parties
they were elected for, shortly after they paid fulsome tribute to the memory and achievements of an early party-hopper,
former Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton, who died over the holiday period, sadly.
The argument against such essentially anti-democratic legislation was made cogently a few years ago by a prominent MP
who said, "Members of Parliament should have to be free to follow their consciences. They were elected to represent
their constituents, not swear a blind allegiance to a political party." That MP was acknowledging the long-standing
principle of our type of parliamentary democracy first enunciated almost 250 years by the famous Irish
philosopher/politician Edmund Burke, who said, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement;
and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion." Both statements recognise that ultimately
Members of Parliament are accountable to the people who elect them, ahead of the parties or factions that choose them as
candidates. If electors are dissatisfied with their representative's subsequent performance, they can vote for someone
else at the next election.
How ironic, then, that New Zealand's so-called "waka-jumping" legislation - the very antithesis of these two noble
statements - should have been promoted by one of those quoted above. Not Edmund Burke, obviously, but our very own
Deputy Prime Minister! Lofty appeals to letting MPs follow their consciences are clearly far less important than blind
allegiance to a political party when New Zealand First is in power. While Labour agreed to this demand in the
desperation to do a coalition deal (after all, Labour had previously introduced similar legislation after 1999, but had
been happy to let it die unlamented in 2005 and had not raised the issue since), the real disappointment are the Greens,
long-time principled opponents of such draconianism, but now acquiescing to give the Government its majority on the
The irony turned to hypocrisy the following day over a Member's Bill on access to cannabis for medicinal purposes.
Suddenly, the conscience and judgement of individual MPs became paramount with every Party allowing its MPs a
"conscience" vote on the issue, even if National and New Zealand First then made it pretty clear they expected most, if
not all, their MPs to use their conscience vote to support their respective leaders' opposition to the Bill.
The one bright spot was the introduction of the Government's legislation to set measurable targets for the reduction of
child poverty (although I do wish the Prime Minister would pronounce the word with a "t", and not the "d" she
persistently uses). The legislation, not dissimilar to legislation introduced by Conservative Prime Minister David
Cameron in Britain a few years ago, is a welcome practical step to set goals, measure, and report on, performance, and
then if need be, reassess those goals and the Budget resources allocated to achieve them. It is a pity, though, that
such an important issue - which both the Labour and National leaders committed to in last year's election campaign - now
risks becoming mired in petty politicking over the future of National's Better Public Services targets, and the nature
of the briefing the Government offered on its proposals.
The Better Public Service targets were a positive step towards more focused and accountable government, and the current
Government's laudable objective on child poverty could easily have fitted within that framework, so it is a little petty
to now be talking about dumping the BPS targets altogether. At the same time, National seems to have been remarkably
slow to respond to the Government's briefing offer late last year. Given that this legislation was a long, clearly
signalled part of Labour's 100 day programme, National has no real grounds for complaint that Labour moved ahead without
waiting for it to respond. National may have the numbers in the select committees and be the largest party in the House,
but if it wants to have influence, it needs to take up Labour's offers when they come, not wait around to see what might
Irony, hypocrisy, and good legislation - and the 2018 Session of Parliament is not yet a week old. At this rate, it is
going to be a mighty year.