Whither Coalition Government?

Coalition governments are a consequence of MMP. They may better reflect us and our democratic aspirations than the Winner-Takes-All ones of the past.

The public understanding of election outcomes remains dominated by a misunderstood account of the old electoral system which was not based on proportional representation. One commentator said confidently that the party with the most votes should form the government. That certainly did not happen in 1911, 1928, 1978 or 1981 when the party with most votes ended up in opposition.

Then there were concerns of how long the negotiations took. In this case it was 13 days. On the same day as the Labour-NZF coalition announcement. the Dutch said they had got a coalition agreement after 7 months and the Germans, who voted a day after New Zealand, said that three parties would come together to see if they could form a coalition government by December.

The process involves two separate activities. One is that voters elect a parliament which passes legislation and the like and which holds to account the executive (Prime Minster, the cabinet ministers and the officials who serve them). The second is that it chooses the executive. This need not be necessarily true; for instance, the United States elects its executive (the President) separately from its legislature (Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate).

New Zealand introduced MMP to better restrain the arrogance of the Executive. After the 1987 and 1990 elections the party which became the executive (Labour on one occasion and National on the other) ignored the manifesto it campaigned on and implemented policy which contradicted it and was an anathema to the electorate. Under MMP this is less likely to happen; the government typically has a smaller majority and that so far only by including another party or more. Were neoliberal policies to be again attempted, the coalition would break up and, in any case, MPs of honour can cross the floor to greater effect.

This is all routine to afficionados but most public commentators seem to have overlooked the actual situation. Some were not really around during the neoliberal era.

What I had not noticed until this round of negotiations was that it involved each party’s manifesto promises being put under scrutiny. In truth some components of each of them are nutty or unworkable. Because one has to vote for the whole package, one ends up swallowing some very dead rats – irrespective of whichever party you voted for. (In my experience, public servants, who are loyal advisers to a man and woman, look at some of the manifesto commitments and deeply despair.)

As a result of the negotiations the manifesto commitments of each party are subject to close scrutiny by all the negotiating parties and the most uncomfortable can be renegotiated or fudged. The superficial will point to the parties breaking some of their manifesto promises; were they as outraged in 1987 and 1990?

Moreover, every policy will be evaluated by the coalition parties independently. I am not saying there will be no dud policies implemented but that there will be fewer.

An earlier column pointed that, whichever coalition became government, its political beliefs would be rather different from the public’s. (That would be even truer for single-party government.) I finished with what may have seen as an aside or counsel of despair.


‘Perhaps the logic of an MMP parliament is a minority government. ... In principle when there is a minority government, parliament, which is more representative of what voters want, would be driving policy more. That is a bit like some governments we have had in the post-MMP recent past. They seemed to be anomalous, but they may only seem so from a Front-Runner perspective.’

Some people commented to me wondered how this interesting point might work out. I hinted, but had not fully realised, that we already have it. I illustrate with the current arrangement of Labour and New Zealand First as a minority government which is given supply and confidence by the Greens.

That means that policies will have to be tested in three independent (and somewhat eccentric) caucuses (plus sub-caucuses and, as I shall explain, sometimes the National Caucus). There will be considerable compromising but even if Labour and New Zealand First always obtain a unity (phew) that does not give the Greens a veto. Sometimes National will vote with the Government, as they did in the early 2000s over a trade deal which the Alliance was unwilling to agree to. Sometimes a statute could be passed by the National and Greens coalition. A possible example is the recent threat in regard to the Kermadec Sanctuary, although my expectation is that Labour and NZF will work their way through to a compromise – after consultation – which everyone can grumble about.

If you believe in Winner-Takes-All executive government you are going to be disappointed. (Such believers are more vehement when their party is the winner.) For the rest of us, we may take some comfort from the fact that policies will be more thoroughly scrutinised than in the past. Moreover, the scrutiny will be from a perspective closer to the population as a whole; the 2014 National government had an even less representative executive. (Some of the dreadful dead ends that the previous government had gone down will be backed out of.) My doubts about the current system are that it may not provide the forward-looking leadership that we need for the future.

What then is happening, aside from the exact outcome of the election, is that post-MMP government is evolving differently from the old ways. We should not use the habits of thinking from the past when we think about what is now happening.