• Coalition Government Working As It Should

    It is increasingly clear that some supposedly expert commentators on the political scene have a poor understanding of how a parliamentary democracy actually works.

    The cardinal principle of such a system of government is that it is parliament – not the government – that makes the laws. If it were otherwise – so that government need pay little or no attention to parliament – we would have a quite different system – one that Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham, characterised as an “elective dictatorship.”

    Under our system, the government must, in other words, be able to command a majority in parliament; otherwise it would not be able to pass new legislation. And it is here that things get a little tricky for countries like New Zealand.

    Like many other countries, New Zealand has a proportional representation voting system (in our case it is one called MMP). It is inherently unlikely that any single party will be able to secure a parliamentary majority under such a voting system all by itself.

    This is not an accident or a disaster; it is how the system is meant to work. The whole point of MMP was to ensure that parliament could not be steam-rollered by a single party and that parliament and government would represent a wider range of interests and views than those of just one party.

    That means that governments must usually be formed on the basis of a coalition agreement between two or more parties – and if the party with the most seats or votes does not itself have a majority, they need not be included.

    The parties which make up the coalition do not lose their identity and their separate view points and interests. They merely agree to work with each other and – by supporting each other on most, if not all, issues – to ensure the the government has some stability.

    But, consistently with the need for a majority if any particular law is to be passed, any one or more of the parties in the coalition can withhold their agreement to a particular measure and thereby prevent it from being passed if they do not support it.

    There is nothing remarkable about this. It is how the system is meant to work and it is entirely consistent with – indeed required by – the principles of parliamentary government. So, in the present coalition government, any one of the two parties to the coalition agreement, Labour and New Zealand First – or perhaps three if the Greens were to be included on the basis of their general stance of supporting the government on most issues were to be included – could withhold their support and prevent the passage of a particular measure, on the basis that without their support there would be no parliamentary majority.

    When the coalition partners occasionally do not agree on a particular issue, here is no reason, in other words, no reason to froth at the mouth, or bemoan the fact that National, with the largest number of seats but not a majority, is not in government, or to ask, who is running the government. A coalition government that has to muster a parliamentary majority to get its measures passed is what both our constitutional principles and the will of the people as represented by the outcome of the election both dictate; it is called democracy at work.

    So, when New Zealand First declines to support a particular proposal put forward by Labour, or if the roles are reversed so that Labour fails support something New Zealand First wants, we should celebrate, not fulminate. We have the best of all worlds – a more representative parliament, a government that has to take account of a wider range of opinion than just its own, and a coalition government that provides stability and a consistent strategic direction.

    Perhaps some of our commentators should pause to reflect for a moment before going into print.

    Bryan Gould
    13 September 2018