New Zealand First leader Winston Peters says a new plan to fine its MPs if they leave the party but stay on in Parliament will help ensure fairness for voters.
The party is changing its constitution to stop its MPs staying on in Parliament after they have resigned or are expelled from caucus.
The new constitution states that any new member who agrees to become a New Zealand First candidate will have to sign what's intended to be a legally enforceable contract.
That stipulates that if they resign from, or are expelled from, the New Zealand First parliamentary caucus, they must quit their seat in Parliament within three days. If that contract is broken, the new rules say the member would be liable for $300,000 in damages.
Clearly, this is designed to mitigate the embarrassment Winston First has endured since the summary expulsion (without a fair trial) of Brendan Horan from the WF caucus in 2012. Mr Horan has since been cleared of any wrongdoing with regard to his mother's estate by both the police and the executor of the estate, but natural justice seems not to be of any interest to Mr Peters. What will happen is that members serve totally at the whim of Peters, not the party. That is simply unacceptable, and completely undemocratic.
Meanwhile, Stuff reports on Mr Horan's reaction:
NZ First MPs who are sacked or resign from the party could face a $300,000 fine if they don't give up their seat within three days, though legal experts say it's unlikely to be enforceable.
The rule was written into NZ First's constitution after Brendan Horan was sacked by party leader Winston Peters in 2012. Horan, who has remained in Parliament as an independent MP, has dubbed it "Winston ruling by decree".
"That's bullying and intimidation of the worst sort and it's another way to make sure MPs stick in line with whatever the leader said. It's just about giving Winston Peters more power," he said.
Horan was expelled after allegations he took money from his late mother's accounts, though he has strongly rejected the allegations.
And the initial legal opinion on this "rule" will not endure Andrew Geddis to Mr Peters; read on:
Professor Andrew Geddis, a constitutional law expert at Otago University, said the clause was unenforceable.
"What they're trying to do is essentially strongarm someone out of Parliament through this fear of a financial penalty."
There was no law preventing an MP from switching parties during a parliamentary term, with the Electoral Integrity Act expiring in 2005, and this was NZ First's attempt to create a restriction.
Geddis said Peters had successfully challenged a similar situation in 1993 when the National Party tried to make him sign a clause preventing him from standing on his own or for another party in Tauranga when he failed to win its nomination.
"The High Court said, no, we won't enforce that on public policy grounds because the question of who can and can't be elected a member of Parliament, that's too important to be decided by an employment contract between individuals."
You'd have to be mad to sign a contract with Winston Peters and then expect everything to be plain sailing. After all, the taxpayers of New Zealand are still waiting for Peters to pay back the $158,000 that NZ First spend unlawfully in 2005. With nine years of accrued interest, that amount must be well over $200k by now.
Then again, cast your eye over the current Winston First caucus; perhaps they will all gladly sign up...