Monday, August 09, 2010

Dealing with absent MPs

Over on Public Address, Graeme Edgeler delves into the question of how to deal with absent MPs. The question has arisen because of Chris Carter taking two months leave from the House to recover from his illness - something that has outraged various people whose leave provisions are not so generous or who (like many of the right) do not believe in mental illness. But while I disagree with the immediate case - Carter is ill, and needs to be given time to recover; any sanction against him violates both the Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability (which includes both physical and psychiatric illness), and the Bill of Rights Act, which binds Parliament as the legislative branch - the general issue is one that is worth looking at. We've had cases in the past (e.g. Alamein Kopu) where MPs have switched parties, proxied their vote to someone else, then never turned up for the rest of the term while collecting their fat parliamentary salary. And the House needs some way of dealing with those cases.

Originally, of course, it could just kick people out for sustained non-attendance. But a change in Parliamentary practice has seen that power wither away. which leaves Parliament unable to effectively deal with cases of sustained, unjustified absence (or, as we would put it, "MP's failing to do their jobs").

Graeme suggests simply making unjustified absence a contempt of Parliament. Its an elegant solution, which recognises that MPs get to regulate themselves, and it doesn't require any law changes. At the same time, we need to be careful not to surrender John Wilkes' victory, and let Parliament rather than voters determine its membership. Censure and fines are one thing, but the power to unseat a member is not something that should be left to politicians; if we want that as an ultimate sanction, then s55(1)(a) Electoral Act will need to be amended with an appropriate threshold.