• Game On

    In a properly functioning parliamentary democracy, voters can do much more than cast a vote from time to time. They should be able to hold their government to account and, if they decide they don’t like it, they can replace it with another – in effect, a government in waiting.

    If the system works well, that government in waiting will have been identified in advance, and the voters will have had the chance to compare what it offers in prospect with what has been delivered by its predecessor.

    It doesn’t always work like this, of course. In some systems, the voters find it difficult to get rid of the government, let alone identify a credible successor. In post-war Italy, for example, repeated elections were held but voters could never get rid of the Christian Democrats, not because they were so popular but because the opposition parties were so fragmented.

    It was often said – with some justice – that this was a particular weakness of proportional representation systems. But it has been the particular genius of New Zealand voters that we have managed to secure through MMP the advantages of a more representative parliament without losing the essential choice between right-of-centre and left-of-centre governments.

    There is a further advantage of a system which produces credible competing contenders for office. The effect of that competition is usually to compel the contenders to vie for the support of centre or uncommitted opinion. It is, in other words, a force for moderation in our politics.

    That, at least, is how it should operate. But, in the US at present, we see the opposite – an instance of one of the two major parties being taken over by an extreme minority and abandoning the battle for moderate opinion; the Republicans under pressure from the Tea Party element seem prepared to jeopardise the US economy and international credibility in order to express their hostility to a health-care regime that has been endorsed by the voters and championed by President Obama but is reviled by extremists as “socialist”.

    In New Zealand, however, we have no such concerns. Despite the occasional (and somewhat ridiculous) charge that the opposition to the present government has moved to the “far left”, we have succeeded in maintaining the battle for the centre as an essential element of that quintessential democratic power to vote one government out and move another one in.

    Yet those aspects of our democracy cannot be taken for granted. If our system is to produce its full benefits, it depends on there being a credible alternative to the party in power. An effective democracy depends, in other words, almost as much on the opposition coming up to scratch as it does on the governing party.

    With Labour and its potential allies languishing in the polls, there had been something of a phoney war about the political battle. The government could afford to take a fairly cavalier attitude towards other views and to public opinion in general. The Prime Minister and his government were able to convince themselves that the absence of a credible alternative meant that the next election was in the bag.

    That is why, while supporters of the present government may take a little convincing, the emergence of a credible Labour-led opposition – and, by definition, a credible government in waiting – is something to be celebrated by all democrats.

    Many commentators, whatever their political persuasion, have recognised the sea-change that has occurred over the last month or so. The revival in Labour’s fortunes means that the next election is no longer a foregone conclusion.

    We now have a real choice. It is no longer enough for John Key to smile sweetly while coasting and ignoring public opinion. Politics is no longer exclusively about photo ops, phone-ins on talkback radio, and media management. We now have a real clash of ideas.

    With Labour not only proving itself to be an effective opposition, but also offering an alternative agenda for the future of the country, there is now an opportunity for voters to think about real politics – and that is how it should be.

    The result is likely to be better and more responsive government in the run-up to the election. Ministers will need to think harder about the rationale for their policies and about the interests of those who may be disadvantaged by them. They will have to get used to taking into account not just the views of their own committed supporters but of a wider spectrum of opinion as well.

    The voters will have to work harder too. They will be challenged to go beyond the superficial and to make a proper evaluation of competing views as to where the country’s interests lie. Should the government’s belief that advancing business interests produces the best outcomes for the rest of us be supported, or should we pay more attention to the interests of ordinary people?

    So, hold on to your hats. The next twelve months will be fascinating. The phoney war is over. It’s now game on.

    Bryan Gould

    6 October 2013

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 11 October.

  • Don’t Be Frightened of a Hung Parliament

    The phrase “a hung Parliament” invariably suggests an incapacitating weakness in the political process and a government that will be constitutionally incapable of taking decisive action. This, it is thought, is the last thing that is needed at a time of national crisis when hard decisions will have to be taken.

    While, therefore, there will be many to welcome a strong general election showing from the Liberal Democrats, there will be many others who will worry that it would make it virtually certain that no one party will have a majority. How, it may be asked, can the necessarily tough action be taken by a government that cannot command the House?

    We do not need to look far for the answer. Not only have we had our own relatively recent experience of a government functioning without a majority, in the form of Jim Callaghan’s 1976-79 government (which admittedly was rejected by the voters, though not because it failed to take hard decisions), but there are many instances from abroad of governments that have performed well in those circumstances.

    One such instance is particularly instructive, since it comes from a country that operates a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy very much like our own. New Zealand consistently rates at or near the top in international assessments of the effectiveness of its democracy, yet no New Zealand government has enjoyed an overall parliamentary majority since 1996.

    That was the year of the first election held under a new proportional representation electoral system. Since that date, no party has won a majority. Governments have been formed by the leader of the party that has been handed by the voters the best chance of putting together the necessary support from other parties. The arrangements negotiated on occasion by each of the major parties have depended on the relative size and political stance of the minor parties whose support is needed. They have varied from formal coalition agreements, to support arrangements – short of coalition – that have provided governmental posts for minor parties, to simple assurances of support on “confidence and supply” issues, to unspecific understandings that broad support can be relied upon.

    But those immediate post-election negotiations about the formation of a government are only half the story. The real significance of non-majority government is the change that it brings to the process of government. The New Zealand experience has been that government Ministers are constantly engaged in a process of negotiation; each piece of legislation, each major policy decision, has to be preceded by discussions to ensure that a parliamentary majority exists to support that particular measure.

    Curiously, this does not seem to have meant that the government’s programme is hopelessly delayed or frustrated. It has meant, at times of course, that legislation cannot be introduced until the necessary deals have been done, but the corollary is that the passage of more thoroughly prepared and carefully drafted legislation – once introduced – is smoother and takes less time. An even bigger plus is that the legislation – appealing as it must to a wider constituency than that represented by just one party – is often more soundly based and widely supported, with more of its contentious rough edges rounded off, than it would otherwise be.

    The psychological change is also important. There is less of Quintin Hogg’s “elective dictatorship.” There is less obsession with doing down the opposition parties at every opportunity, since their support might be needed on the next item in the government’s programme. In other words, governments are not only freer to, but are required to, think more about broad-based positions than about the immediate party battle. There is a greater understanding of the value of broad public support and keeping in touch with public opinion. And Parliament itself is more widely representative of the range of opinion, and its members have a greater interest in and understanding of the processes of government.

    It is not necessary to idealise these outcomes. Government is still a messy, difficult, at times bad-tempered, partisan business. But we should not be frightened of ghosts and shadows. If the voters on 6 May deliver a hung Parliament, that will not mean that we must kiss goodbye to effective government. The pluses of less confrontational governmental politics might well outweigh the minuses. A government that represents nearer a majority of voters, rather than the 25% we have become accustomed to, might actually do quite well. We might even get a government that was able to use the broad support it was able to command to deliver not only immediately essential corrective measures but also necessary and long overdue reform.

    Bryan Gould

    18 April 2010.

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 19 April