Changing Expectations

MMP has reduced policy extremism, but more consensus politics are needed to solve our big economic questions

Listener: 21 October, 2006.

Keywords: Environment & Resources; Governance; 

The rise in personality politics is an unexpected consequence of MMP. Certainly there are other factors, including a change in the US political debate (recall the attacks on the Clintons) and the blog commentaries, which have made public the ignorant vituperation that can occur in private conversations. But it is MMP that has intensified the role of personality in Parliament.

As intended, MMP has reduced policy extremism. As long as no party has an unassailable parliamentary majority – as happened under the Winner-Takes-All (WTA) past that gave us Muldoonism, Rogernomics and Ruthanasia – policy mainly will be steadily developed and thoroughly worked through. Mild biases reflecting the constituencies of the governing party will arise, but in the end there will be little real policy disagreement between the centre parties. The government will praise itself, the Opposition will whinge, while asking for more spending and  more tax cuts.

So the Opposition retreats to arguing that its people can better implement the existing policies. It is only a small shift from complaining “how awful” our political opponents are as public administrators to “how awful” they are generally.

There are personal cases, including some current ones, that should involve the closest scrutiny. But what about policy? We have an MMP Parliament, but it still suffers from the WTA culture of unremitting conflict. The parties and the politicians are only slowly learning how to work together.

A positive illustration is the proposed joint Tasman Therapeutics Products Agency agreed between the Australian and New Zealand governments. In WTA days the required legislation would have been rammed through with Parliament’s meek acquiescence. But the health select committee unanimously favoured mutual recognition (where each country accepts the other country’s registrations of products) ahead of a joint agency. Without a government majority, the bill has not been not passed. The point here is not whether the proposal is good or bad, but that the international negotiations were made without parliamentary consultation. We are seeing the executive and the legislature wrestling, which is what MMP intended.

But this instance is unusual. Parliament has still much to learn about consensus politics. That involves getting outside the WTA mindset and seeing that MMP involves a different approach to governance. As my political studies mentor, Professor Keith Jackson, said, “You can change institutions, but attitudes and expectations, whether of the public or MPs, are much more intransigent.”

Guy Salmon of Ecologic has been studying Nordic parliaments, which have such a commitment to consensus that only very occasionally is there failure. Because it was such a rare exception, he cites the Finnish Greens rejecting the otherwise parliamentary consensus on nuclear power strategy. But when it came to disposal of nuclear waste, the joint report was again unanimous. The Nordic countries have a longer history of proportional representation than we have, and their parliamentary culture reflects it. Ours doesn’t – not yet.

Can we speed up that evolution? Not by a cross-party committee on family violence, following the terrible deaths of the Kahui twins. It is too easy to descend into political point-scoring where there is a strong public outcry. Predictably, it occurred.

Instead, look for issues where consensus is needed, but the gains are long-term. Although the ageing of the population is not an immediate concern, the proportion of the elderly is going to start rising within a decade. Almost certainly there will be some policy changes (perhaps raising the age of eligibility for New Zealand Superannuation). Those expecting to retire need guidance now, so they can plan for retirement. They don’t want to wake up one morning in their retirement to find the government has changed the rules WTA-style. Why not get a select committee to work through the issue now?

Or consider “peak oil”, when world oil production reaches a maximum and starts tailing off. Though nobody knows when, we know that today we are building houses and transport infrastructure that will be there well after oil begins to decline. We should be planning for the post-peak now. Could Parliament take the initiative?

Such select committee inquiries require a different approach to policy-making, where the government does not propose to Parliament but listens while facilitating the inquiry. It involves a different attitude by MPs. One where their main interaction is co-operating, not slagging one another.