Trotter on Electoral Finance Bill Third Reading

I’m reading a column in the SST about Labour’s performance in the third reading of the Electoral Finance Bill:

It’s the little things that get you. Those dismissive, off-hand, arrogant little gestures that suddenly throw the bigger picture into sharp focus.

I’d tuned into the live-feed from parliament to watch the third reading debate of the Electoral Finance Bill. Here, at last, I thought, is Labour’s, New Zealand First’s and the Greens’ big chance to make their case. …  But, what did I see on the government side of the House? Row after row of empty seats. The contrast with the Opposition could hardly have been starker. Around the figure of Opposition leader John Key, I counted off practically all of National’s key spokespeople, and behind them sat most of the party’s backbenchers.

Where was Helen Clark? Where was Michael Cullen? Where was Phil Goff? Where were the serried ranks of the centre-left, proudly demonstrating their solidarity with the bill’s authors? For if ever there was an occasion for the whole of the house to be in attendance this was it.

How well I recall my old political studies professor, Tony Wood, lecturing his New Zealand politics class on matters constitutional. No, he said, this country does not have a written constitution, but it has something which is almost as good the Electoral Act. The clauses of that act, he told us, were entrenched meaning that they could not be repealed or amended except by referendum, or by a majority comprising three-quarters of the House of Representatives. The law pertaining to elections, he solemnly informed us, was the cornerstone of our democracy.

So where, on this day that vitally important aspects of “the law pertaining to elections” were about to be amended and repealed without the mandate of a referendum, and without anything approaching a three-quarters majority of the House of Representatives, were Helen Clark, Michael Cullen and Phil Goff?

Their seats were empty.

They should not have been. By their absence from this crucial debate, Labour’s leaders sent everyone their fellow MPs, their loyal supporters, the electorate as a whole a devastating (and some have said electorally suicidal) message.

They simply didn’t care.

Accused of holding New Zealand’s democratic traditions in utter contempt; charged with harbouring authoritarian, even dictatorial, ambitions; Labour’s leaders simply couldn’t be bothered to defend either themselves or their bill. They had other places to be; other people to see.

John Key knew where he had to be on Tuesday evening and he was there. The cameras captured the image for the whole of New Zealand to see. A young man, his eyes alight with passion, defending New Zealand’s democratic traditions and promising the nation that, should it repose its trust in his party: “We will repeal this bill.”

And as he sat down, all his colleagues rose to give him a standing ovation. The chamber rang with their applause.

He should have been answered by a prime minister. In response to Key’s charges we should have heard the thundering rebuttal of a Labour leader every bit as committed to upholding New Zealand’s democratic traditions as the National Party. We should have heard her prosecute the case against the malefactors of great wealth; against the economic royalists who would buy elections in the same way that they had bought everything else belonging to the people of New Zealand.

And when she sat down, all the government members, and with them all of those representing NZ First and the Greens, should have risen to their feet and cheered her to the echo.

And following the prime minister, Michael Cullen should have stood and eviscerated the Opposition with his rapier wit. And following him, Phil Goff should have bruised them with his wrath. It didn’t happen.

This unmandated, unloved, and probably unworkable bill was voted into law to the noisy condemnation of its enemies and the sullen silence of it friends.

It’s the little things that get you.

As you read about how the Government has broken the constitutional conventions around the “cornerstone of our democracy” you would be forgiven for thinking you were reading Matthew Hooton’s column.  But no, that was last week.  This was Chris Trotter’s column.

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