This coming week, I am part of a New Zealand delegation attending the 130th meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Europe. The delegation is composed of one National, one Labour and one Green MP. It is an annual visit by a NZ delegation, where issues of interest to 163 national parliaments are discussed. It is, in a sense, the UN of the world’s parliaments. The meeting is for a ‘parliamentary purpose’.
The same cannot be said of the trip to Myanmar and China the following week organized by the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. That can only be described as a visit for NZ Inc. It is not for a ‘parliamentary purpose’ and is not seen as a parliamentary visit.
The visit is the idea of the Foreign Affairs chairman. MPs on the committee – National, Labour, Green – were invited to go. I initially expressed interest, but as it became increasingly obvious that such a visit by MPs was going to be at the expense of, and at the behest of, the executive branch of government, I withdrew.
The visit was discussed by the Foreign Affairs Committee as part of its agenda yesterday, but the briefing was held in private and I am thus unable to provide more information about the visit. I wish I could. Had I been present when the Committee decided to make that private (I was attending another meeting), I would have withheld consent.
As vice-chairman of the Committee, I could not, in all conscience, participate in a visit to China and Myanmar, funded by the NZ Executive that did not have any official engagement by the NZ Legislature.
If MPs, across all political parties including the opposition, are funded by the Executive , in this case the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade (MFAT), it can have a chilling effect on their freedom to speak independently of government.
It is a convention that MPs outside New Zealand generally represent their country in a broad united manner. But that rests on the same convention that allows alternative views to be democratically expressed, including about New Zealand’s national interest in the wider world.
With an executive-funded visit, especially one in which MFAT might issue written briefs, there is a danger that all MPs are expected to speak with one voice in a more narrow and circumscribed manner – one that would not, for example, cut across what the Prime Minister of the day might be promoting.
That is the antithesis of free speech, and of the rights and responsibilities of the ‘loyal opposition’.
No visit should ever be undertaken outside New Zealand by members of the Foreign Affairs Committee that are exclusively funded by the Government.
There is a need for a broad review of the parliamentary rules governing such travel.