By Peter Dunne*
The 52nd Parliament is hurtling towards an inglorious end. It will finish in just over two weeks and will be dissolved shortly thereafter on August 12 in preparation for the September 19 general election. It has been a dramatic term – dominated by huge tragedies, from the Christchurch Mosques massacres, to the Whakaari White Island eruption, and now Covid-19.
But in recent weeks the focus has been more on what many would describe as farce. The revelations concerning the personal conduct lapses of a number of MPs that led them to stand down have raised many questions about the culture of Parliament, the stresses placed upon MPs, and the responsibility of political parties. But while inappropriate and unprofessional conduct by MPs should never be condoned, no matter their status, the current situation needs to be kept in perspective.
The present number of 20 MPs (at last count) standing down at this election is not out of line with the numbers retiring at previous elections. Historically, New Zealand has had a relatively frequent turnover of MPs – the average length of service is just over six years. Of the MPs elected at the 2014 election, 53 have now either retired or been defeated. Only 26 of the MPs elected at the 2011 election are seeking re-election this year.
So, the turnover of MPs is not the problem – indeed, many would argue that a frequent turnover and refreshing of the House is no bad thing. Others argue for term limits to stop MPs serving for too long, although just as many are surprised to learn that very few MPs serve for more than ten to fifteen years, let alone longer.
Also, the average age of MPs has been dropping over the years, meaning that, consistent with patterns in the wider workforce, MPs are more likely to move on to do other things, as part of a range of career experiences. If anything, the turnover rate for MPs is therefore likely to increase in the years ahead.
But the unusual thing about this year’s crop of Parliamentary departures is the number where the decision to stand aside has been brought about by circumstances relating to personal conduct. During this term, National has been rocked by the scandals involving Jami-Lee Ross (now running as an independent and unlikely to succeed); Hamish Walker and Andrew Falloon. But the problem is not solely related to National. Labour has lost two Ministers for personal conduct lapses: Meka Whaitiri following an altercation with a staff member (although she is seeking re-election as an MP) and now Iain Lees-Galloway, as well as others for incompetence.
Most of the cases have been clear-cut, but there are some aspects of the Lees-Galloway case that are curious. He had been a controversial Immigration Minister, and there had previously been calls for his resignation, especially in the wake of his decision to grant residency to the convicted Czech drug smuggler Karel Sroubek, who had a lengthy criminal record in both the Czech Republic and New Zealand. Had the Prime Minister dismissed him at the time of that incident, there would have been little argument, given the lapse of judgement involved and his admission that he had not read the full file before making his decision.
Yet she did not, and instead backed him strongly. All of which makes the decision to get rid of him now because of a consensual affair with a staff member that ended some time ago and was apparently widely known a little puzzling. It leaves unanswered questions about whether, for example, he used his Ministerial position to the advantage of the staff member. The Prime Minister’s call – after the sacking – for Ministerial Services to investigate whether any official resources had been misused during the affair is also bizarre. Normally, the evidence is gathered first in a serious matter like this, not called for after the event.
Overall, it raises the suspicion that Lees-Galloway’s dismissal was based more on getting shy of a potential embarrassment ahead of the election than a judgment on his personal conduct. The Prime Minister may also have felt she had no alternative, given both the way in which the Leader of the Opposition had raised the matter, and had the previous day dismissed Andrew Falloon. Whatever the reason, it will have further eroded confidence in a political system reeling after recent events.
Nominations to stand for Parliament at this year’s election close on August 21. With dark rumours still swirling from both sides of politics, and the mentality of “gotcha politics” that has become an unwelcome aspect of New Zealand politics in recent years, the daunting reality now is that more scandals coming to light before then cannot, unfortunately, be ruled out.
*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.