Monday, March 16, 2009

Weaselling out

ACT has announced that it will allow its MPs a free vote on all issues other than confidence and supply. This is obviously a move brought on by the party's internal disagreements over the Wanganui gang patch bill (supported by David Garrett, opposed by ACT's more principled members), but its also something to be generally praised. Excessively strong party discipline has long been a problem in our democracy, and it was virtually unknown for an MP to "cross the floor" even under FPP (and MMP has only strengthened this trend). The sorts of widespread backbench rebellions seen in the UK over human rights issues and privatisation simply are not part of our political culture. This is something I'd like to see changed (though MMP combined with centralised parties makes it difficult), and ACT's move is something I hope will be emulated.

At the same time, it also somewhat undermines the government's confidence and supply agreement [PDF] with ACT. Despite its title, this wasn't just about confidence and supply - it includes a clause which commits ACT MPs to support government policy where they have participated in its development and this has led to an agreed position, and there certainly seems to be an underlying expectation that ACT MPs will support National policy unless there has been a specific opt-out on a matter central to the party's ideology. But now ACT is in danger of not being able to deliver the votes it agreed to. Given National's dominance of the House, its not that critical - at worst, they need only 2 ACT votes, which should be provided by their two Ministers outside Cabinet. But it does look a bit like they're weaselling out (it also looks like ACT has split in all but name into a financial libertarian party and a social reactionary party, which could get interesting next election)

And OTTH, this means that National will have to count its votes rather than assuming they exist, and pay more attention to its other support parties. Which isn't a bad thing at all. The requirement to consult widely and line up multiple support partners was a check on government in the 1999 - 2008 Parliaments, and it led to the place functioning like a proper legislature rather than the rubberstamp National is treating it as. Any move back in that direction is thus a positive one.