A New Style of Government in 1999?

Keith Rankin, 6 December 1998


Last week Independent MP Deborah Morris resigned from Parliament. The net result is that the minority National Government has the support of 61 MPs on matters of confidence, with 59 MPs implacably against the survival of the Government. Only 44 of the 61 government supporting MPs are National Party MPs.

There remains a culture in New Zealand - or at least a media-led culture - that governments are there to govern (ie to rule; to impose their programmes), and that therefore a government that cannot govern should resign. From the viewpoint of this culture, New Zealand is suffering from terminal policy paralysis.

There is another culture - not a media culture - that suggests New Zealanders want to have elections every three years; not more, and not less.

We don't really want 1999 to be a rerun of 1984; government majority of one vote, contentious deregulatory legislation in the first half of the year, an early election for no good reason, and a perfect opportunity for the process of government to be taken over by a small group of (neoliberal) opportunists pretending to be a Labour government.

So how should we govern ourselves?

1999 represents a perfect opportunity to see how government can work in a true Parliamentary democracy. The 1999 Parliament has a look of parliaments in, say, the 1870s; the decade in which Julius Vogel was able to persuade Parliament to support New Zealand's most far-sighted development programme ever.

The Government can take many initiatives regardless of its margin of support in Parliament.

As an executive, it is as able as any government to respond to an unanticipated contingency facing New Zealand. That's the first and most important requirement of executive government.

The public service - the providers of public goods - continue regardless of the government's command over Parliament. The provision of public goods is the most important role of government. In most years, it may be better government to not change the way public services are provided. To not change something that is working is not policy paralysis.

The government remains as free as ever to introduce legislation. The good thing is that it won't waste Parliament's time introducing any new ideological right-wing legislation. Instead, it will look to making laws that can be shown to be necessary, and that must be argued through. That's new for post World War 2 politics in New Zealand.

We have a backlog of private members bills. 1999 is a perfect year to let the legislation process be driven by Parliament; to get through this backlog. If the National Party wants to govern in 2000, they must by now be aware that they have to let Parliament take the initiative in 1999.

1999 is a great opportunity for the New Zealand public to see what can be achieved under the new MMP (mixed member proportional) electoral system. It's not exact proportionality between parties that matters. What matters is that the present crop of MPs are a very diverse group, and that they all should play some role in negotiating good quality robust laws that we can accept, not because they represent the views of any party, but because they represent the views of something approaching a consensus of New Zealanders.

This situation is by no means unique. It is like the United States since 1994. In particular, in 1995 and 1996, the American legislature was led by Newt Gingrich, a strong political foe of President Clinton. In those years, there was no Government failure. Rather, the President had to let Congress take the initiative. As a result of being seen to be Presidential and slightly above party politics, he became more popular than ever. He was not regarded by the American electors as a lame duck leader in 1996. Likewise, if Mrs Shipley learns that lesson, she need not be a lame duck Prime Minister.

The other analogy is France. There, they have parliamentary elections every 5 years, and presidential elections every 7 years. Thus, the normal pattern is for the president to be from the party that is in opposition during the last two years of his (so far all men) term of office. President Mitterand, was re-elected in 1988, because he also mastered the art of being presidential at a time (1987-88) when he could not initiate policy.

One of the concerns aired about MMP in 1993 was that it is a party-driven electoral system. That is true in a way, although it was true of "first-past-the-post" (FPP) parliaments as well. Parties like Labour, the Alliance, and New Zealand First want to have increased party discipline. National did too, but it may be further ahead in the realisation that MPs are not simply the pawns of party leaders.

The present parliament, however, whether despite MMP or because of MMP, is a parliament of people, not parties. Let's relish that fact; the fact that the party bosses are not in control of the political processes, as they are used to being. The present Parliament is just like us, the people of New Zealand. That's just the way it should be.

New Zealand has a wonderful opportunity to run the process of government in a way that few living New Zealanders have any experience of. Let's not ruin it through constant cynicism about the inability of the government to govern in the traditional super-macho way. And let's just wait for an election when its due, in October or November. There's nothing more boring than the endless column inches of speculation about how soon the next election will be.


Epilogue: This article was cited in Parliament (Question Time) on 8 December, by Prime Minister Jenny Shipley. It was misrepresented slightly, though, as an argument for the survival of the present Government, when really it is an argument for the survival of the present Parliament. In practice, the two arguments are probably the same, this time, because the opposition parties have made it very clear that they will not attempt to form an alternative government if Mrs Shipley's government loses the confidence of Parliament.


© 1998

Rankin File | 1998 titles