Team Spirit: Has MMP Ended the Dominance Of Cabinet?

Listener: 31 May, 1997.

Keywords: Governance;

The view which blames all our current political and government difficulties on MMP cannot be correct. MMP is a method for electing members of parliament. How they behave is a result of the arrangements within Parliament House, not who gets elected. We may not even be able to blame MMP for coalition government. National won only 30 of the 65 electorate seats. Even increasing that by 2 to allow for the Wellington seats from which it tactically retreated, National would still have won less that half the electorate seats. So probably under a FPP election National would still have formed a coalition government with New Zealand First which won 6 electorate seats.

No doubt the current political regime suffers from an overhang of FPP politicians who have not really come to terms with the new circumstances and by seniority have excessive influence. But NZF also made a strategic decision which has, temporarily I think, distorted the MMP outcome. It was not its decision to form a coalition with National, but the announcement that it would be a strategic alliance which would last past the next election.

The model seems to have been the Australian political right, where the Liberal and the Country Parties have such an alliance. It works there partly because they have a different (Single Transferable) voting system but also because each party has a well defined electoral base (the Liberals are the urban right). It is not obvious that can happen here. It has been suggested that NZF will become the Maori party – a brown National. But while there are some Maori who are strong National supporters (under MMP they can vote for National anyway), will the mass of Maoridom will want to be locked into that role? Moreover the handful of Maori seats may be useful to National, but it needs another more substantial partner.

In any case should not the two partners of such an alliance simply amalgamate? Or, to put the point the other way around, how does NZF distinguish itself from the National, so that voters – brown or white – will support it, rather than directly voting National?

One answer, the MMP answer I would think, is that NZF (or whoever is the minor partner in a coalition government) can behave differently in parliamentary deliberations, being seen by the public to moderate the extremism of the dominant party. I did not form a view on the legislation to change the employment conditions of kindergarten teachers, because it was rammed through parliament without consultation. There may have been a reason for this urgency, except we were not told that either. The impression was that a cabinet decision was forced on parliament with the two government caucuses as lobby fodder, just as happened in FPP parliaments. (Given the procedure, the public must suspect there were dishonourable reasons for the change.)

Consider NZF’s strategy over the proposed liberalization of the postal market. I have an open mind on the issue, especially as it involves the difficult area of network economics. However it is clear the change is a form of privatization, insofar as some services provided by the publicly owned Post Office will in future be provided by the private sector. And we know that this policy change is (and is intended to be) a step on the way to the sale of the Post Office to the private sector.

Under the old FPP approach, the legislation would go to a select committee, where it would be forced through as the cabinet required, irrespective of the evidence presented by the public, together with a denial that the legislation breaks the intent and spirit of the coalition agreement that the Post Office would not be privatized. Even the public who supported the change would be contemptuous of the politicians’ dishonesty, and reluctant to vote for them next time round.

Where NZF could make a difference is if it insists that the select committee judge the issue on its merits, and accepts, amends, or rejects the legislation on that basis alone. If it was decided to proceed, NZF would explain that while the proposal contradicted the coalition agreement (which is, after all, open to amendment as events progress), the party concluded it was in the nation’s interest to proceed with the partial privatization.

Repeating this approach on controversial legislation, would enable the minority party in the coalition – in this case NZF – to present itself as moderating the power of the executive in favour of parliament and the people, thus distinguishing itself from parties who are strongly committed to a radical policy program (such as ACT).

As it seems likely that non-policy issues will determine the future of NZF, this strategy may seem irrelevant. Yet there will be another coalition whose minority party will face exactly the same dilemma. Do we continue with the dominance and arrogance which characterized FPP governments or, as intended by those who supported MMP, do we get a little more democracy back into government in between elections?