An integrity law that is not

It was a bad bill and it is proving to be bad act. Predicated on moral indignation, it is now a moral sham. But what’s the fuss? What counts in politics is winning.

The misnamed Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Act turns out to be a screen for, not a ban on, party-hopping. It’s all legal — Bill English should give up pronouncing on the law — but it’s hardly ethical. The “integrity”, note, is in parentheses.

With the blessing of that act, we will have an Alliance-in-Parliament and an Alliance-out-of-Parliament, each with a leader in the cabinet. These leaders will play-act parliamentary oneness and scratch each other’s eyes out outside the House. That’s “integrity”.

If Helen Clark had told her adulatory pre-election crowds that the legislation would be cover for this sort of carry-on, she would have been hooted, not cheered.

The law was passed not because of its intrinsic worth. It has little, if any. It was forced through only because it had been promised and keeping promises is one of this Prime Minister’s most important mantras.

Which is why she can’t credibly call an election soon unless forced to. She took a case to voters in 1999 for a three-year term. Pulling a snap poll on a pretext would not be keeping her word.

But in any case the act is unnecessary and inappropriate and was overtaken by electoral events. This is the view of Sir John Wallace, architect of MMP and first chair of the Electoral Commission, in a paper for a law conference last weekend.

Among the points Wallace made was that someone might be ejected from Parliament under the “integrity” act for actually sticking up for what his or her party promised on the hustings.

This is Anderton’s line about his split from Labour in 1989. It left him; he didn’t leave it. Labour trashed its tradition; he stood up for that tradition.

Now he and Harre are going to play out a ridiculous charade which would be unnecessary if Parliament had buried the “integrity” act on the ground that voters, exercising their often underestimated innate wisdom, buried all last term’s waka-jumpers at the election.

Although, to tangle up Wallace’s two points, what happens if a whole party decamps? Who then is the waka-jumper?

Professor Jack Vowles’ authoritative 1996 election study indicated that Winston Peters skipped away from what most New Zealand First voters divined from his public utterings he stood for: removing National from office. Yet Peters survived, by the skin of his teeth, in 1999.

That, crudely, is Harre’s line on Anderton now. She is purer on Alliance promises than he is. But, like Peters, Anderton will win, because he has Wigram.

Harre will lose because she tried to factionalise the party — just as dissenters tried to factionalise Labour in the late 1980s.

Each time the leadership faced down the factionalisers. Each time it led to a split.

And splits are electoral disaster. Voters see factions as disunity and punish disunity severely. Labour plunged in the 1990 election. The Alliance has plunged in the polls.

This is not the 30 per cent movement of 1994 polls nor the 18 per cent party of the 1993 election nor even the shrunken 8 per cent party of the 1999 election. Anderton and Harre, polls tell us, are dividing a 2 per cent party.

How long will it be before their split works its way into the cabinet? For the moment Harre will abide by cabinet collective responsibility, essentially on the terms negotiated in 1999, of which Anderton is in charge on the non-Labour side.

But if some eyewitness reports I have read of Harre’s utterings in Alliance meetings about the government are correct, she will at some time say too much to keep her cabinet seat. My guess is that she will last until about August — near enough to the election for Clark and Anderton to play for time.

And what then? The public is not interested in parliamentary charades and silly laws, provided they don’t affect household incomes, education, health care and law and order. The Alliance split, while entertaining, does not do that.

The public is interested in benign government. And all the signs are that Clark and Anderton will be able to present such a government in November — and that the public will then generously overlook the “integrity” act.