Governing in an Mmp Era

Leadership New Zealand Programme Retreat, May 5-6.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

The speakers were asked to respond to ‘Today without assured parliamentary majority, the government has to consult over its policies rather than impose them’ The Whimpering of the State: Policy after MMP

The introduction of MMP by 1993 referendum was the single most important step in the development of the New Zealand constitution in the twentieth century. It’s ramifications will echo throughout much of the twenty-first century.

Big-step constitutional changes are unusual in New Zealand, since incrementalism has been the way it typically progresses here. The revolution occurred out of the electorate’s frustration that it could not get the government to do what it wanted. In 1978 and 1981 the Labour Party had won more votes than National, but the peculiarities of the Winner-Takes-All electoral system gave more seats to National. When Labour became government in 1984 it ignored its election promises, as it did again after the 1987 re-election. Turning to National in 1990, the electorate found a government which intensified, rather than reversed, the policies the electorate hated. So in desperation, it voted for a constitutional revolution in 1993.

I am not sure the electorate knew exactly what it was doing. Many people told me they voted for MMP because the majority of politicians and the business sector were against it. They were tired of the dictatorship that the existing system generated, and lashed out.

The electoral dictatorship, as Quintin Hogg – later a British Lord Chancellor – called it, based on an electoral system of Winner-Takes-All worked where the government operated in a spirit of consensus. By Rob Muldoon’s time we had run out of such enlightened dictators. The unenlightened dictators said they knew what was right, although the economic records of Muldoon, Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson gave the rest of us little confidence they were.

I called the old system ‘Winner-Takes-All’, because First-Past-the-Post is misleading. There is no post to past. There may once have been in a two party race, but post-war New Zealand society was becoming more complex, and there evolved many parties reflecting different interests. In 1993 the National government was formed with 35 percent of the vote, less than it got in 1984 when it was thoroughly defeated. But it was still a WTA system, and because they won more seats, despite almost two-thirds of the electorate rejecting them, National remained the government.

One of the oddities of the old system was there was hardly any formal recognition of political parties before the 1990s, although they had been an informal part of the constitution for a century. We pretended that each MP was an independent spirit who judged issues on their merits, in the tradition articulated by Edmund Burke that ‘your representative owes you, not his industry only, but judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’ The reality was that party considerations dominated MPs’ choices. Unenlightened dictators used the leverage of party loyalty to pursue policies for which they had no electoral mandate and for which they would not have had a majority in the house on a free vote. Too frequently it was a take no prisoners approach.

The point about MMP then, is not how we chose the MPs, but how they vote in Parliament. In particular it is now unlikely that any party will win a simple majority of seats in the house again. That means that every statutory policy measure requires the support of at least two independent party caucuses.

Exactly how the system works depends upon whether there is a coalition of parties (as happened from 1999 to 2002) or whether there is a minority government which depends on one or more parties for supply and confidence, but which do not guarantee to support any particular policy (the current arrangement). In either case the executive has less power, although of course they, the prime minister and cabinet, remain the greatest power in the country, although the blind, deaf and dumb market may be even more powerful.

So unlike when there were unenlightened dictators, the government has to be more consultative. It needs to persuade other caucuses, who will try to consult the public. Policies submitted to parliament have to be better prepared. If they are not, parliament will amend them, in a way it did not in the past. The highly-ideological imperfectly-worked-through policies which were common from the unenlightened dictators, are much rarer today. You may disagree with the policy and the desired outcome – a good portion of the public usually will – but assessed in terms of policy quality we are doing much better than a a couple of decades ago.

The parliamentary process is changed. Helen Clark, and Jim Bolger before her, are political managers making sure they have a coalition to enable them to govern. They still have policies they want to implement – Clarke has taken to heart Bolger’s regret that his government did not spend more on the arts. But, like John Ballance who was perhaps the most radical prime minister New Zealand ever had (he governed from 1891 to 1893, when he died in office), they will counsel their caucus that while they support certain policies, the public is not ready for them. Jenny Shipley famously said that every morning when she was prime minister she counted heads. What she was doing was seeing whether she had the support of over half of the New Zealand people as indicated by their representatives.

However, the current system of government based on MMP is not perfect. Fundamental constitutional change takes a long time to bed in. Many journalists, public servants, academics and even politicians seem to assume we are still in a WTA world. As my Whimpering of the State pointed out, we are not.

My second caution is that while policy development is better quality today it was a decade ago, it can still be improved. CP Scott, the long time editor of The Manchester Guardian, famously said that facts were sacred but comment was free. Our policies are still over-dependent upon opinion, lacking good analysis. Quality social science has always been fragile in this country, but it was unenlightened dictators brutally repressed social scientists when it pointed out – rightly, we know with hindsight – that they were mistaken. New Zealand social science has yet to recover. If MMP is a system for generating quality decision making, it needs quality analysis to underpin it.

The third caution arises from the possibility that MMP government generates policy stasis. I discuss this in the book. The argument is that the policy process is limited to incrementalism and are blocked by interest groups. Dictators claim they can see past interest groups to the interest of the public. But that does not mean they get it right? Between them Douglas and Richardson caused a seven year stagnation of the New Zealand economy, the longest we ever have had.

Better quality policy making would alleviate but not eradicate the possibility of stasis. What is needed is the ‘vision thing’. Interestingly, Helen Clark has a vision. It is set out in Growing an Innovative New Zealand. But she does not often present it, and I would bet that the average government adviser does not know of its existence.

Leaders with a vison acceptable to the public have been rare in New Zealand, even under WTA – John Balance, Peter Fraser and Norman Kirk. We are probably going through a time when the vision thing is not on the public agenda. It may be what New Zealanders currently want is solid incremental policy development dealing with problems as they arise, buttressed by good political management. In the longer run such a demand could lead to stasis – whether we have a MMP or a WTA parliament.

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