• No More One-Man Bands

    As we are, and should be, constantly reminded, democracy is about more than elections. An election is simply a means of deciding which of perhaps several contenders should assume the powers of government. But the important part of the democratic process is what then happens.

    The questions that then arise are as to the actual identity of the winners, what powers do they have, who shares in the exercise of those powers and what are the limits to them. In most democracies, the answers are not as clearcut as most people assume. Each democracy will have rules so that those exercising power are subject to checks and balances. Without such provisions, we are, as Lord Hailsham famously observed, in danger of falling victim to an “elective dictatorship.”

    We should never forget that Hitler was elected and then established a dictatorship by dismantling all of the constitutional provisions that limited his power. Many of Donald Trump’s critics fear that he is engaged in a similar process, with his attacks on a free press and an independent judiciary and his apparent belief that, as President, he can do anything he likes.

    Whatever the truth of that, we have – in New Zealand – put in place our own measures to make sure that a person or a party that wins an election does not exercise unbridled power. The whole point of MMP was to make sure that a party that gained a bare majority of votes and seats did not assume that it could ignore every other interest and simply impose its will on every one else.

    One of the most obvious consequences of the shift to MMP is that coalition government becomes much more likely. Many people have not yet adjusted to that reality and persist in believing that the party with the greatest number of votes and /or seats should, even if they and their allies fall short of a majority, form the government and exercise all the powers of a government.

    But the shift in perception that is required as a consequence of MMP dos not stop there. Many people who regard themselves as democrats secretly yearn for what they might describe as a “strong” leader, by which they mean a Prime Minister who calls all the shots, whips everyone into line, and “tells it like it is”.

    But, in a Wesminster-style democracy such as ours, that is not, and should not be, the role of a Prime Minister. As Edmund Burke had it, a Prime Minister, in our system, is primus inter pares – the first among equals. That means that he or she should give proper respect and responsibilities to fellow ministers and allow them to speak for themselves on their areas of particular responsibility. In a proper democracy, in other words, power is not to be exercised by a single person, but should be shared with others in a collective exercise.

    We may have become accustomed, as in the case of a Muldoon or a Key, to a “one-man band”, but in a modern-day coalition government we should expect and welcome a more collegial approach. We need not expect to see our Prime Minister speaking for the government every day or on every issue.

    Jacinda Ardern has, on occasion, paid a price for sharing power in this way, particularly when the minister concerned is inexperienced and perhaps not up to taking the required responsibility. But her approach will strengthen her government in the long term and helpfully reduce the pressure that she must otherwise bear alone.

    As John Roughan has recently pointed out, the feminisation of politics has become a familiar and welcome phenomenon, not least in New Zealand. We can therefore expect to see a much less macho approach to government in the future and to see less of a single dominating figure – and we will all be better off as a result.

    Bryan Gould
    29 December 2018

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