Breaking the 20th Century FPP Connection

Keith Rankin, 12 August 1998


Government in New Zealand this century has always worked by contrived majorities. Policies under the prevailing First-Past-the-Post (FPP)electoral culture would be decided by the Inner Cabinet. (When Sir Robert Muldoon was Prime Minister, there was an effective Inner Cabinet of one!) Inner Cabinet would impose its view on the full Cabinet. Outer Cabinet Ministers knew that the route to future political power was by being loyal to the Inner Cabinet.

"Collective Cabinet responsibility" - one of the key phrases of New Zealand's twentieth century political culture - means that Cabinet imposes itself on the Government caucus (or caucus of the senior governing party), just as the Inner Cabinet imposed itself on the full Cabinet. Under MMP so far, the next step (which was never necessary before 1995), requires the senior government caucus and cabinet together to create a contrived unanimity across the whole of the governing coalition.

The final step was the "whipping" requirement of the government to block vote in Parliament, thereby rendering Parliament into a rubber stamp for, in effect, the Cabinet insiders. While it is quite possible that the only people who actually support the policy are the Inner Cabinet (ie 1-5 people), the policy, through this sequence of contrived majorities, gets passed by Parliament.

Christine Fletcher found that she could only have a democratic impact by resigning as a Minister, thereby making it easier to break ranks from the sequence of contrived majorities. It is easier to break ranks at caucus level than at Cabinet level.

Today, however, Winston Peters and his party broke ranks at the Cabinet level. Otherwise, their actions are no different from those of Christine Fletcher late in 1997.

I'm yet to be convinced that the coalition is over. But, even if it survives, then the FPP connection must have been broken. The only way that the sequence of contrived majorities can be used by a minority government to impose its will on Parliament is to make every vote in Parliament a vote of confidence. And that's not likely. As we say in New Zealand, "turkeys don't vote for an early Christmas".

New Zealand First will have much more leverage on preventing New Right policies "outside the tent". The advantages of being on the inside were the greater opportunities to propose policy. But, in practice, the compromises of collective Cabinet responsibility, limited those opportunities.

In 1999, if New Zealand First abstains on votes of confidence, and votes against National on every policy that it disagrees with, then we can have good government. Interestingly, where there are votes on economic policy, Labour may be forced to reveal its hand, either voting with National, or committing itself to a New Left rather than a New Right economic policy agenda.

I look forward to watching the right-wing Cabinet Ministers being forced to yield to the forces of democracy, which for them means humble pie; National is not the natural party of government. The only rational strategy for National is, while staying on as Government until December 1999, to give up the agenda that it has been trying to impose without a mandate to do so.

Furthermore, knowing that it can no longer impose New Right legislation on Parliament, the government - minority or coalition - might like to use 1999 to clear the backlog of Private Member's legislation. The only way National can be re-elected in 1999 is to be seen to facilitate rather than frustrate Parliamentary democracy; by rebranding itself as a democratic party.

Under proportional representation, if you want to keep power, you have to be democratic, and be seen to be democratic. Are we grown up enough to commit ourselves to a democratic political culture in the 21st century? Or will policy continue to be imposed on high from the inner sanctum?


© 1998

Rankin File | 1998 titles