Sitting MPs shouldn't be standing

01:50, Aug 27 2009

Should sitting MPs be allowed to stand? In by-elections, I mean.

It's one of the vagaries of MMP that I least like, along with the back-door entry system that allows defeated electorate MPs like West Coast Labour MP Damien O'Connor to return to Parliament courtesy of the list system.

With the almost certain confirmation of National's list MP Melissa Lee as that party's candidate for the Mt Albert by-election tonight, there will be three MPs vying for the electorate next month.

Greens co-leader Russel Norman has already confirmed his nomination, as has ACT MP John Boscawen.

We could have easily had four - Labour's Phil Twyford was keen as mustard, and was only prevailed upon not to put his name forward because of the possibility of that very back-door entry method that would have returned another retread, defeated Auckland Central MP Judith Tizard, to Parliament.

Should sitting MPs be allowed to stand? In by-elections, I mean.

It's one of the vagaries of MMP that I least like, along with the back-door entry system that allows defeated electorate MPs like West Coast Labour MP Damien O'Connor to return to Parliament courtesy of the list system.

With the almost certain confirmation of National's list MP Melissa Lee as that party's candidate for the Mt Albert by-election tonight, there will be three MPs vying for the electorate next month.

Greens co-leader Russel Norman has already confirmed his nomination, as has ACT MP John Boscawen.

We could have easily had four - Labour's Phil Twyford was keen as mustard, and was only prevailed upon not to put his name forward because of the possibility of that very back-door entry method that would have returned another retread, defeated Auckland Central MP Judith Tizard, to Parliament.

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So how will voters react to MPs banging on their door, asking to be returned to Parliament when they are already there? It's bizarre, in my opinion. Fancy Lee? Admire her journalistic background, or feel a connection through her Asian ethnicity? Vote for her and get a white dentist called Cam Calder.

Admire Norman's boyish charm and passion for the environment? Go ahead and vote for him (even though he actually lives in Wellington) and you'll actually get David Clendon, a small-business adviser who last stood in Helensville against John Key - and actually lives in Mt Albert. 

Well, then, vote for Boscawen - a bloke's bloke, strong on law and order, and lives in Auckland. And you'll get Hilary Calvert, a female lawyer, who lives in, um, Dunedin. 

Of course, these backdoor MPs won't be the electorate MP for Mt Albert. But they will be the new additions to Parliament. And while the list MP who wins the seat will become a constituency MP, it makes precious little difference to the voter.

The reason list MPs want electorate seats has very little to do with wanting to represent their communities. They already do that. Show me a list MP without a constituency clinic. The reason is that it secures their own future.

List MPs serve at the mercy and the whim of party officials. Piss them off too much and they'll dump you down the list next election, and your chances of re-election are consequently toast. Electorate MPs get more money, they are treated better by their parties (high-fliers parachuted into the top five excepted), and their job security is much better.

That's why I think Labour's nomination, David Shearer, is now all but a shoo-in to win. He's the only credible candidate who can claim that if you vote for him, you just get ... him. He's not currently in Parliament, and wants to be. Surely that is a better reason to vote for him than someone who just wants to secure their own tenure?

The Right-wing blogs have done a real number on Shearer, trying their best to knee-cap him before the campaign even starts. David Farrar and Cameron Slater have worked in tandem to reveal Shearer's writings about private armies in third-world countries like Iraq.

It's been interesting stuff, and good on them for dredging it up. I don't have a problem with it, except for that I think it might backfire.

For one thing, it's all been great publicity for Shearer. I didn't know him from a bar of soap before, and I doubt anyone else did either. Now I know he's an aid worker who's distinguished himself in some of the most desperate and war-torn places on the planet.

The fact that he advocated guns-for-hire in an academic journal a decade or so ago bothers me not an iota, and I doubt it'll bother the good people of Mt Albert either. They'll be more interested in his views on the Waterview connection and public transport, I'd imagine.

So it's likely the Right will turn their guns on Shearer as a carpet-bagger. But this is a bit rich, too. It's not as if National hasn't done the same, time and again. John Key himself was parachuted into Helensville, an electorate he's never even lived in. Melissa Lee doesn't live in Mt Albert. Neither does John Boscawen.

By-elections have always attracted out-of-towners, because of the platform they provide for parties to showcase their wares. It's why local toilers like National's Mt Albert candidate from the last couple of elections, Ravi Musuku, frankly don't have a chance.   

So far so good for Labour, then. Phil Goff has got his man, and that was step one. Now he just has to mount a decent campaign.

Update: Anyone who doubts that these candidate selections are a complete stitch-up by party head office should look at the National Party's South Island conference agenda next weekend, a copy of which has just been emailed to me. Among the speakers is Melissa Lee, who is described in the programme as "Mt Albert's list MP Melissa Lee''. The only problem is, National hasn't held its candidate "selection'' yet - it's tonight, and Lee's victory will be news to Ravi Musuku, who's also hoping to get the nod. Lee was one of the five "list only'' nominations by National last election, meaning she currently has no electorate.