A guest post by former MP Owen Jennings:
Some 264 years ago on the 3rd of November Edmund Burke addressed the good people in his electorate. He had this to say on the matter of representation.
“Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.
In short, you are Parliament’s man not a prisoner of your voters.
For Burke, one of the greatest thinkers and contributors to the ideal of democracy, the House of Representatives was not meant to be “representative” of the community, replete with an exact mix of every shade of differing backgrounds, race, religion, philosophy and opinion but a gathering of the best the community can afford in ability and wisdom who then act in the best interests of the whole country.
The debate in New Zealand over recent years has focused on something different. We have political parties stretching credibility by struggling to bring together a mirror image of the diversity of the voting public. We have focused on Parliament being a place where the variety of cultures and colours in the community is reflected in the members elected.
It is easy to argue the value of that and it fits the notions of fairness and equality that pervade our current thinking. But it is a pendulum that has swung too far. We are now sacrificing merit and ability in our parliamentarians for the pursuit of representativeness of every gradation of thinking that we believe may be offended if not overtly present in the ranks of the party and Parliament.
Burke went on… “parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament”.
How many of our elected MP’s will commit to such a reasoned position? They most certainly would be quick to claim such view as their own but when you have been knowingly selected by your party because of your particular distinctiveness isn’t the reality that you will make sure that particular interest group will receive your attention at the expense, even, of the good of the nation. We have certainly seen indications of that in recent parliaments.
Apparently it was a French lawyer, Joseph de Maistre, who first coined the phrase, “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite” – “you get the parliament you deserve”. Maybe if we were more focused on a Burke style of representativeness and democracy our ‘just desserts’ would be a much improved administration.