The Supreme Court’s first case – Act versus MP Donna Awatere Huata – started chaotically yesterday with a shortage of seats leading to some reporters being barred from the opening stages of the historic first sitting.
Oddly for a courtroom, the venue for the first real sitting of New Zealand’s replacement for Britain’s Privy Council contained no press bench and only limited public seating. All the seats at the Wellington court were rapidly filled, leaving some irate journalists sitting outside.
Even Mrs Awatere Huata – defending herself against expulsion from Parliament under the party hopping law – had to wait outside briefly before a seat was available.
The five-strong panel of the country’s top judges heard legal arguments from Act’s lawyer, Jack Hodder, followed by Awatere Huata’s lawyer, Peter Spring.
At issue was Act’s wish to expel its former MP under the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Act 2001. The party says she is no longer a member of the caucus and that its proportionality as determined at the last election has been affected.
Act tried invoking the law last November after the Serious Fraud Office charged Mrs Awatere Huata and husband Wi with fraud and attempting to pervert the course of justice.
The charges follow a series of Dominion Post articles starting in December 2002 alleging the couple misused money earmarked for education programmes through the Pipi Foundation.
After her expulsion from Act, Parliament’s Speaker Jonathan Hunt declared her an independent MP. She started legal action, but the High Court ruled in Act’s favour. She appealed, and the Court of Appeal overturned that decision in July.
Act, in turn, took the case to the new Supreme Court. Before yesterday’s hearing former Act leader Richard Prebble said it was an “honour” to be the first case for the new court – even though the party had opposed the court’s creation. “Act voters voted for nine Act MPs,” he said. “We now have eight … I think we’re entitled to our ninth.”
He indicated his determination to see her go, saying Mrs Awatere Huata would retain lifetime benefits like free air travel if she stayed until the next election “but not if I can help it”.
“The argument we have is a very important one. Somebody who’s been elected as a list member of Parliament I believe doesn’t have the right to sit there as an independent.”
During yesterday’s hearing Mr Spring was grilled by the judges more than Mr Hodder.
Justice Andrew Tipping, in particular, wanted to know how proportionality of Parliament had not been affected considering Act had nine MPs after the last election and now had only eight.
Mr Spring argued proportionality only meant votes cast in Parliament and did not relate to other activity.