Horan's mandate to stay too weak

Alamein Kopu jumped from the Alliance to her own Mana Wahine party in 1997.
Alamein Kopu jumped from the Alliance to her own Mana Wahine party in 1997.

There's nothing very edifying about Brendan Horan staying on in Parliament after being ejected from his seat in the NZ First caucus.

He came in as a Winston Peters acolyte, and he owes his existence as an MP - as do arguably the rest of the NZ First caucus - to the old war horse's pulling power with the voters.

He will be next to useless to the voters and the body politic as an independent MP, without the respect of the House and without a party behind him.

Sure, he feels he has been hard done by, in being kicked out before the rights and wrongs of his actions have been ascertained.

But he has a thin to non-existent moral mandate to stay, and should prepare to do the decent thing.

Prime Minister John Key made the general point himself yesterday: "If an MP comes in as a list MP and is thrown out I don't think they have a mandate to stay there."

Saying that, though, is a long way short of a forced exit, as some politicians, including Labour deputy leader Grant Robertson, are now arguing.

Parliament has been there before, with the so-called waka-jumping law of 2001, which included a sunset clause that saw it fade from the statute books in 2005. Labour was reluctant to let it go, and that instinct obviously still exists inside the party.

The 2001 law - the Electoral Integrity Act - was aimed at enhancing public confidence in the integrity of the electoral system and maintaining the proportionality of political party representation in Parliament.

Its provisions made a seat vacant if a member ceased to be a parliamentary member of the political party for which the member was elected.

That could come about if the MP quit or if the party leader advised the Speaker, backed ultimately by two-thirds of the caucus, that the MP had acted in a way that had distorted, and was likely to continue to distort, the proportionality of political party representation.

Its passage was in response to a number of party-hoppers. Perhaps the worst was Alamein Kopu, who jumped from the Alliance to her own Mana Wahine party in 1997 and then gave her vote to the National-led government - a direct contradiction of the Left-wing mandate under which she had been elected.

But there were others. Frank Grover jumped from the Alliance to Christian Heritage and the bust-up in the National-NZ First coalition in 1998 saw a raft of refugees head for the new Mauri Pacific or into independent status.

The only case to be tested under the new law - and the best parallel to Mr Horan's situation - was that of Donna Awatere Huata, who was ejected from ACT in 2003 and became an independent.

The party subsequently tried to have her turfed out of Parliament, under the waka-jumping law, even though she had offered the party her proxy and, she argued, had continued to vote in line with the platform she was elected on.

After a protracted court battle the Supreme Court determined that on the facts the party was entitled to eject her.

It became obvious during that case that it was at least strongly arguable that "disrupting the proportionality of Parliament" went beyond the simple exercise of a vote. It can include broader issues such as the party's reputation, its ability to use Parliament as a platform to campaign from, and to the resources available to that party through the membership of a caucus member.

That opened a broad front. Not only were "waka-jumpers" who left their parties at risk of being expelled from Parliament, so were cases of "man overboard" where the MP was booted out.

Mr Peters himself highlighted the problems associated with that, immediately after announcing Mr Horan was outski from the caucus and the party.

It opens the way for a leader to purge list MPs for ideological reasons - or even theoretically those who threaten his or her leadership - with the expectation that, drawing on the Huata case, a more compliant replacement becomes available in time.

Against that possibility - with the power it gives party leaders and ruling cliques to control the membership of Parliament - the current laws, rough as they are, are about right.

Disapproval, pressure and isolation of the stranded MP will usually do the job over time, as Mr Horan is likely to find out.

The Dominion Post