The Spark recently spoke to Workers Party Christchurch East candidate Paul Hopkinson, the first school teacher to be suspended under the undemocratic provisions of the 1993 Electoral Act.
Under the current law most public servants (including teachers) must take unpaid leave for the three weeks between nomination and polling day. Paul Hopkinson refused to take unpaid leave when requested, and as a result has been told by his employer that he is being suspended without pay.
Paul Hopkinson: I think that it’s outrageous that just because I’m employed by the state I’m not allowed to participate in the democratic process and stand for parliament without being subjected to severe financial penalties. This power of an employer to penalise an employee for standing in elections is completely undemocratic.
The Spark: You’ve stood in elections before and you were never asked to take leave. Why was it any different this time?
PH: I’ve run in national and local body elections before and this has never happened. To be honest, we didn’t even know that this discriminatory law existed. This time it was different because it happens that my boss, the school principal, is active in the Labour Party and had a better knowledge of the law. As soon as I mentioned my candidacy, she said, “I suppose you’ll be taking leave then.” When I said I didn’t intend to, she said I didn’t have a choice.
It’s ridiculous because I’ve done this before and it hasn’t had any effect on my work. Even when I was doing my teacher registration and working sixty-hour weeks, I was able to campaign without it affecting my job. I take my job and my students very seriously.
The Spark: You’ve described this law as being undemocratic. Can you explain that further?
PH: It’s undemocratic in two main ways. Firstly, standing in elections should be the right of anyone. The boss should have no power to decide who can stand in elections. Having the power to suspend employees without pay is blatantly anti-democratic. Workers can’t suspend the boss if he or she decides to stand, can they?
The other thing is that it works against parties that have less resources, and against people on low incomes. Effectively what this law means is that unless you are standing for one of the corporate-backed and state-backed parties like Labour or National - or are independently wealthy - you are either excluded or made to suffer economic hardship. It doesn’t affect all workers but it does affect public servants, including all the teachers working in the state school system. Tens of thousands of public sector workers have their democratic rights curtailed as a result of this law.
Like most workers I live from payday to payday. I can’t suddenly find money to replace my lost pay, and I can’t just decide not to pay my ongoing commitments.
The Spark: What do you think should be done?
PH: My party - the Workers Party - stands for the repeal of all laws that place restrictions on workers’ freedom of speech and activity. That means this law should be opposed. The Workers Party also opposes Labour’s ban on the right to political and solidarity strikes, as well as the bureaucratic provisions of the Electoral Finance Act.
Click here if you would like to help in our urgent financial appeal for Paul and his family