Democracy and Stability in New Zealand Politics

Keith Rankin, 25 August 1998


New Zealanders are very confused about what they want from their system of governance. We say we want democracy, but we seem more concerned about stability, which appears to be defined as "a minimisation of the differences of opinion of our politicians"; ie the exact opposite of representative democracy which requires the full spectrum of opinion and cultures to be represented.

I am now inclined to believe that the biggest problem with our current proportional electoral system is that Parliaments are elected for a maximum rather than for a fixed term. Norway is an example of stable democratic governance, under proportional representation, in which early elections are constitutionally forbidden. The result is a culture of participation, whereas we have a culture of imposition and opposition. Our opposition politicians (and especially Labour's front bench), unlike Norway's, try to "collapse the scrum" rather than play to the "fulltime whistle".

New Zealand has inherited an adversarial political culture; a culture in which political purity is maintained by doing deals with no-one, and by parties "nobly" stepping aside from government if they haven't got the numbers to "implement their manifesto". Stability, New Zealand style, is understood to mean having the ability to "run the country" without spoilers within government. Yet in fact we like our spoilers: Mike Minogue, Marilyn Waring, Jim Anderton and Winston Peters became more popular on account of their spoiling role. We simultaneously like them for spoiling and hate them for creating division; for creating disunity which is taken to be a synonym for "instability". And we always blame the little guy (the "tail" rather than the "dog") for the division that discomforts us.

We loved New Zealand First in Opposition, and we hated them in Government, without any idea why we hated them. They did their honest best to form a government which would incorporate a fair share of their policies. We cannot really ask for more. OK, Winston Peters and Tau Henare said some things in the campaign about not doing deals with "Bolger, Birch or Shipley". But at least they climbed the proportional representation learning curve; something which many Labour and National MPs have yet to do.

In the last two weeks, we have faced a political "crisis" which has seen the coalition split. It is manifest that the cause of the crisis is the refusal of the National Party to recognise that it gained just 36% of the vote in 1996, and that it cannot simply implement its manifesto, as they did from 1993 to 1995 with just 33% of the vote. Yet we blame the party that we put into Parliament expressly to defuse the power of whichever of National or Labour ended up becoming the "dog".

Any democratic government is a coalition of interests and ideals. Contest, within government as well as within parliament, is central to democracy. With increasing pluralism, coalitions become Coalitions. And Opposition parties become participants, a critical check to the power of any Coalition, and a source of balance whereby the party(ies) in the Coalition that are philosophically closest to the parties outside the Coalition have disproportionate influence within the coalition. NZ First should have had a disproportionate influence, because it came close to representing the median New Zealand voter.

Proportional representation works best when a party like Labour supports (and is seen to support) good Government legislation, and is seen as always being willing to form a government in the "second half" of the parliamentary term. That empowers those in Government with ideas closest to those of opposition parties.

Tau Henare and the other MPs who left New Zealand First for the purpose of making a Government from this Parliament, and for the purpose of completing their own half-finished programmes, should be praised for taking responsibility where the major Opposition party will not. It would have been better, this month, if Labour had offered Tau Henare and the other New Zealand First "defectors" the same opportunity that National offered them to complete their work.

Democracy is about accepting the result of an election; about full-term governance on the part of the 120 or so representatives that we chose to work full-time on our behalf. When they experience conflict, it is our conflict. When they cannot agree, it is because we cannot agree. If we want those who are inside Parliament to behave more responsibly, then we on the outside of Parliament must also behave more responsibly. If we want to be free to disagree, then so must they. We know that our lives cannot be negotiated without compromise. We must allow them to compromise, too. Early elections do not provide a way of avoiding our responsibility to seek rather than to impose solutions.

The politicians who leave their parties in order to facilitate governance are the ones who are promoting stability. It is Labour now which promotes instability by refusing to support anything except the early election that they believe will make them "dog". Ultimately, it is the dog mentality of New Zealand politics which created both the instability and the triennial dictatorships that led us to change our electoral system. And it's the dog mentality that continues to create a sense of instability and "perpetual crisis" (as former New Zealand First MP Deborah Morris put it).

Our present situation is not unlike a return to the Parliaments of the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s. That's no bad thing. Allegiances changed, politics was never dull, and New Zealand was at least as well governed as any other nation. It was as a result of our pre-1890 political culture that New Zealand women got the vote in 1893. (Seddon, the Liberal Prime Minister, opposed female suffrage, and its strongest promoter was the conservative elder statesman, Sir John Hall.)

In a large society we need a formal party system. We cannot fully return to the Parliaments of independent MHRs that prevailed last century. We no longer expect to be able to know our representatives personally. If the parties did not exist, we would end up voting mainly media personalities into Parliament, because their names are familiar. (Indeed to a large extent that is what we did do last century.) Nevertheless, political parties are vehicles for getting capable but not necessarily famous people into Parliament. They are not the employers or owners of the MPs that ride into Parliament in the vehicles the sponsor. In a democratic parliament, MPs - all MPs - are individually accountable to the electorate, not to the party.

Nevertheless MPs do, on the whole, act along corporate party lines. And it is important for political stability that they should. Indeed, they must if they wish to be re-elected with the support of the party whose vehicle they used last time. While parties provide stability and democracy, excessively tight party discipline can diminish both, leading to contrived caucus majorities, and to severe fractures when the pressure of trying to maintain such contrived unity finally gives way.

It is impossible for a single political party to represent the opinions of more than 50% of voters. At least two parties and in all probability three parties must cooperate with each other to form a government. The alternative is no deals made, no confidence and no government. Parties need to be placed in a situation where they have no choice but to participate and to compromise. That means, early elections should be verboten. The possibility of an early election gives parties an incentive to grandstand in Opposition. And the early election option gives parties in Government an ongoing incentive to manipulate voters and to try to time elections to their advantage.

The Governor General is the referee of Parliament. But even he should not have the power to call "fulltime" before the scheduled end of the parliamentary term. Perhaps, though, he could have the power to "sin-bin" MPs who commit "professional fouls". In August this year, the New Zealand First MPs all played by the rules. They deserve a better press than they have had. Many other MPs have contributed far less. Interestingly, the individual contributions of Alliance, Act and New Zealand First MPs (former and present) have, on average, outweighed the contributions of National and Labour MPs.


© 1998

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