The Electoral (Administration) Amendment Bill, ostensibly drafted to bring about a merger of the Electoral Commission and the Chief Electoral Office, would allow Simon Power to appoint a new Chief Electoral Officer and new Electoral Commissioners for the 2011 election. This is wrong. These officials must all be completely independent, they must not be or be seen to be political appointees.
Strangely the Bill also provided for the possibility of an MP to be appointed as an electoral commissioner. So potentially Simon Power could appoint a retiree from National’s front or back benches, to oversee the next election! They would have to resign from Parliament, but again, this is quite wrong.
Simon Power has cultivated a reputation for being consultative, but these features have the appearance of – forgive the pun – a Power grab. As they say, in politics perception is everything. Why put them in the Bill if they are not going to be used?
It is a small Bill and there were a select few submitters. The merger does make sense – dealing with two separate agencies in the last election was hair-pulling – not that I have much left to pull after three elections as a Party Secretary.
But it was a strange Bill in a number of respects. The Bill is intended for for enactment this year, to oversee the 2011 election. Simon Power must “consult” on the appointments, but in the end he – and the National party cabinet – would decide who to appoint. In simple terms, this would make the Commissioners perceived as political appointees. This is totally unsatisfactory – they must both be and be seen to be utterly independent from the slightest political influence. Our democracy demands it.
Secondly, the provision that envisages a former Member of Parliament being appointed as an electoral Commissioner has come out of the blue.
It opens up the scenario that if a party wanted to move someone on from Parliament, the Minister could appoint a Member of his or her party to a reasonably well-paid and in the case of the Commissioners not a particularly time-consuming job. This again would destroy any perception of their independence.
This also is completely unsatisfactory. As I said to the Select Committee, “If it can be done, it will be done.” One wonders why it was there at all.
My concern is about 2011, hence the puns, but none of the submitters supported the Ministerial appointment process, including David Farrar who identified his National Party colours, so opposition to it is not partisan.
At least one other submitter raised the question of the unsuitability of appointment of former Members of Parliament; however the major discussion focussed around whether the persons so constituted should be independent Officers of Parliament, similar to the Auditor-General, the Commissioner for the Environment, and the Ombudsmen.
Most submitters favoured Officer of Parliament status, as do I. Former Clerk of the House and now Officer of Parliament as Ombudsman David McGee was of the contrary view, but made one very interesting point. While Officers of Parliament are appointed by parliamentary consensus, he pointed out that this is only by convention. I think consensus should be a requirement in the law.
The consultation process used by Simon Power has been limited to parliamentary parties – MPs – only. It’s a bit of a closed shop. The extra-parliamentary parties, members and officials, have not been included, even though they carry the can when things go wrong. Nor have those parties who contest elections but are currently not represented in Parliament been given a say.
I must say the way this Bill has been drafted did not give me great confidence for the wider reform of the Electoral Act still to come. I will comment more on some aspects of that in subsequent posts.