Hard News by Russell Brown

126

Time to get a grip

So, in the end, it appears that all Judith Tizard wanted was to have her say. And given the volume of bile dumped on her in the past week, you can hardly blame her.

I was critical last week of her apparent indecision, but I gather she really was blindsided by events -- to the extent of returning to all the excitement from a spell outside mobile phone range. I still think she'd have been better advised to simply issue a brief press release than to appear on Checkpoint last week without having a decision to announce. (And when a reporter asks you "What's the worst reason you could think of for returning to Parliament?", don't answer the question.) But perhaps now everyone can get a grip.

Because this relatively brief period of flux has triggered some inexplicable fits of hyperventilation amongst the commentators. On an extended Twitter jag yesterday, Patrick Gower declared that "Labour got owned by two right wing bloggers and denied The Tiz her constitutional right . That's called 'getting owned'," and eventually, to what seemed to be quite a number of correspondents: "LAY. OFF. JUDITH. TIZARD."

He was overdoing it. But, it must be said, not nearly as much as Anthony Hubbard was in his startlingly spiteful column in yesterday's Star Times. Barely a paragraph passes without some sort of insult being hurled in Tizard's direction: "undistinguished", "defunct", " nuisance", "never a star" … "But," Hubbard intones," she does have the power to damage the MMP system, and that matters."

The Tizard case – and at the time of writing Tizard had still not decided what to do – shows changes to MMP are needed. We cannot have failed electorate MPs sneaking back into parliament by the back door – that is, through the list. This is one part of the system that infuriates voters, and it must go. It and other flaws in MMP risk bringing the whole system into contempt.

Hubbard mournfully lists the old Labour list candidates who must be discounted before "we find a politician with real talent – Louisa Wall, former netball and rugby star and a political star in the making."

He muses on ways to prevent this "row of dud former electorate MPs able to ooze back into parliament":

One way would be to adopt the Welsh system, which prevents candidates from standing both in an electorate and on the list. In Wales, the aspiring politician has to choose one or the other. Some say that goes too far. After all, nobody complained when the present Minister for Treaty Negotiations Chris Finlayson stood for the unwinnable Rongotai seat as well as on National's list. Some would argue good electorate MPs should be able to get back into parliament by the list when they lose. Steve Chadwick, now a Labour list MP after losing the Rotorua seat, was arguably a good MP, but lost when a change in the national political tide carried her away.

These arguments don't really wash. Finlayson, arguably a talent, would have got into parliament if he had just stood as a list MP. Sometimes electorate MPs will lose their seat through no particular fault of their own. But that's politics. Sometimes good list MPs will lose for the same reasons – when the tide goes out, the talent goes with it. Tough. And electorate MPs might try a bit harder if they know they can't smuggle themselves back into parliament through the list.

The first -- and one would have thought, screamingly obvious -- flaw in this argument is that Louisa Wall, his "political star in the making", has herself twice been rejected by electorate voters -- in 2005 in Port Waikato and in 2008 in Tamaki Makaurau. And -- get this -- she briefly became an MP in precisely the way Tizard could have chosen to: by replacing retiring list MP Anne Hartley in March 2008, only months before a general election.

This doesn't mean Wall is damaged goods -- she's clearly talented -- but it does mean that Hubbard's argument has shot itself in the foot.

With very few exceptions, New Zealand political party candidates will be ranked on MMP party lists, and also contest electorates. Apprentice candidates will be expected to do battle in unwinnable seats. Those who are elected via their party list will generally maintain an interest in their nominal electorates -- and it is never a bad thing for local voters to have an interested Opposition MP to keep the incumbent honest. The idea that parties should be forced to field two separate and incompatible slates of candidates has no virtue that I can think of.

With the exception of occasional flaps like the one now resolved, I'm struggling to see the problem on which Hubbard is bringing down his sledgehammer. And, to be honest, I'm not sure the voters see it either.

I think Judith Tizard has made the right decision, for herself and for her party. Had she returned to Parliament, she'd have done so with a media target painted on her back. It would probably have been vile. It also makes sense for a candidate on this year's party list to take the place vacated by Darren Hughes, as part of a new team.

But now that she's made that decision, perhaps certain people could have a break from convincing themselves that she is the foulest insult to democracy ever to have walked the halls of Parliament and let her get on with her life.

Tim Watkin's post on the matter is worth reading:

It's easy to knock Tizard. So much of her career seemed to be spent protecting Helen Clark's leadership, and there's plenty of criticism to be made of her luvviness and her wine and cheese approach to the Auckland ministership, for example. But there have been plenty of MPs who have achieved less than she did, including some serving now. And many who wouldn't have walked away from that kind of pay-out.

And as Danyl points out, there are a number of more fitting candidates for ignomy warming government benches right now. There probably always will be.

---

If we want someone to pick on, it would make more sense for that someone to be Epsom MP Rodney Hide. Last week, Hide finally released the advice to Cabinet on his Regulatory Responsibility Bill (now the Regulatory Standards Bill). It is an extraordinary document.

No Right Turn quotes from a joint comment endorsed by 11 government agencies, including Justice, Crown Law, and the Parliamentary Counsel's Office, and declares it " the most thorough trashing of a stupid idea I have ever seen in a Cabinet Paper."

It is important to remember this when Hide took his controversial trip in 2009, it wasn't just about scoring his girlfriend a business-class freebie to a wedding on the other side of the world. Hide was also representing.

As I noted in a helpful diary item at the time, this was his billing for a speaking engagement in London:

Reform is pleased to invite you to a roundtable seminar where the New Zealand Minister of Local Government and for Regulatory Reform, the Hon Rodney Hide MP, will outline new developments in regulatory practice, including his work on better institutions and quasi-constitutional reforms in a Westminster system. The merits of a Taxpayer Bill of Rights to limit government spending will be explored alongside New Zealand’s work on a Regulatory Responsibility Bill to introduce greater accountability and transparency to regulatory decision making.

Lunch will be served.

One must hope the lunch was good, because the Regulatory Standards Bill appears to be a dog's breakfast.

Had a less cosseted member advanced a bill this monstrously deficient - say, a Green MP, or Judith Tizard -- they'd have been crucified. There would probably be a national outbreak of MMP-blaming. But Hide has not only escaped this sort of criticism -- he's had his dog's breakfast adopted as a government bill. We would be better served making more noise about that about the return of an Opposition list MP.

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