Multiparty governments are always a tussle between the parties involved for recognition at various levels.

Clearly, the individual parties want recognition of their particular policy wins within the governing arrangement, so they can demonstrate to their supporters that the compromises they have had to make in other areas to make the multiparty government work were worth it after all. At the same time, they also want to protect their own distinct brand within the government, which can be a tricky exercise, especially if there is no immediate ideological synergy between the parties.

Usually, the challenge has been for the smaller parties in a governing arrangement to avoid becoming subsumed by it. However, there have been times when the major party has found itself being dragged down by the conduct of its partners.

National clearly felt that way about New Zealand First in the 1996-98 coalition, and Labour had a similar feeling about its link to the Alliance during its 2002 meltdown.

But, generally, the struggle has been for the smaller parties to come out from the shadow of their larger partner.

It is often a thankless task. If a government has good news to announce as a result of its smaller partners’ initiatives, it is invariably the larger party that makes the announcement and basks in the consequent warm glow of success. Yet if the announcement is less positive or reflects a compromise or moderation of what the larger party wants, the smaller parties have usually been held out as the reason why.

The implied blame National pointed UnitedFuture’s and the Maori Party’s way in the last Parliament for frustrating its attempts to gut the Resource Management Act is a classic, but by no means sole, case in point.
However, in the current coalition Government, the pendulum looks to have swung too far the opposite way, certainly as far as New Zealand First is concerned.

It exerts, quite shamelessly, an influence far beyond the 7 percent popular support it actually received at the last election. To make matters worse, most of its interventions are erratic and inconsistent, unlike the Greens who, on the whole have made a far more balanced and substantial contribution to the Government’s business, consequently their recognition has been somewhat less.

Even more bizarrely, Labour seems to have been quite happy to surrender its leadership position to its junior partner on a number of key issues.

The most obvious has been the capital gains tax debacle where Labour and the Greens so clearly wanted to proceed, but where the staunch opposition of New Zealand First eventually prevailed, leaving the Prime Minister to meekly rule out the idea (which she insists she is still personally committed to) for as long as she in office.

That was extraordinary enough, but what was even more extraordinary was Labour’s total silence during the period the capital gains tax was under discussion.

While New Zealand First was making its clear opposition known from day one, Labour did not engage at any stage in the debate – over one of its leader’s self-stated key priorities – in deference to New Zealand First. Even the Greens could not remain silent, with co-leader James Shaw making the telling comment that the government would not deserve re-election if it failed the capital gains tax test, but still Labour refused to make its case. Against that backdrop, the eventual backdown and dropping of the tax plan was hardly a surprise.

A similar situation is arising about the future of the Port of Auckland.

It all begs the question of whether this situation occurs because of extraordinary weakness within the Labour leadership … or whether the reason is more systemic.  

New Zealand First has long been vocal in promoting shifting the port to Northland for what still seem to be largely parochial reasons. Two former Prime Ministers – one National, one Labour – have supported their call. A former Finance Minister has opposed it, and the Mayor of Auckland appears remaining to be convinced.

Until the Prime Minister’s latest comment that shifting the port somewhere is inevitable at some stage, Labour has been resolutely silent, once again handing the leadership of a major issue that will shape the record of this government over to New Zealand First to run as it wishes.

It all begs the question of whether this situation occurs because of extraordinary weakness within the Labour leadership, which seems too timid to challenge New Zealand First on just about anything from its policy demands to the conduct of its Ministers, or whether the reason is more systemic.  

When MMP was introduced, critics warned that small parties in governing arrangements would become the tail wagging the dog, and that the wishes of the largest groups of voters would consequently become secondary to pandering to the more sectional interests small parties were likely to represent, to keep them on side.

In reality, over the years, most government support parties have been acutely aware of that risked perception – which would be to their detriment – and have sought to use their influence only in proportion to their position within the government to be a responsible partner, and never the tail wagging the dog.

Only New Zealand First, from the time it crashed spectacularly in the 1996-98 coalition through to now has been the consistent outlier.

The normal practice when governments are being formed after elections is for the leader of the  party which will lead the government to announce they have concluded agreements with sufficient other parties to provide a majority in the House, and that they have been able to advise the Governor-General accordingly.

Only New Zealand First insists on doing it the other way round, where its leader gets to announce, after a prolonged period of parallel negotiation with both major parties – something other parties have not normally done – to the Governor-General, the other parties and the world simultaneously, whom he has decided the government will be.

Maybe it is time to modify the process of government formation to prevent this in the future, and in so doing allow the lead party of government to assert its leadership from the outset, and not play constant second fiddle to a smaller partner, the way Labour has been forced to do with New Zealand First since 2017.

… it would ensure no future incoming Prime Minister would have the authority and mana of their office so compromised from the outset, the way the current Prime Minister did.

At the time of the first MMP election, the Governor-General at the time, Sir Michael Hardie Boys, an eminent jurist and constitutional lawyer in his own right, set the standard of leaving government formation to the parties themselves to resolve, and to advise him when a likely government had emerged. It is doubtful he envisaged the type of situation that occurred in 1996 or 2017 though.

In Britain, after an election, the Queen “sends for” the leader of the largest party and “invites” them to form a government. Perhaps New Zealand should now establish its own version of that practice.

While the Governor-General would not be involved in the negotiation process, they could commission (“invite”) the leader of the largest party after an election to attempt to form a government within a specified period – say 14 days – and to report back accordingly. If successful, well and good; if not, the mandate would be transferred to the leader of the next largest party. Such a procedure would certainly stop the parallel negotiation circus New Zealand First is so fond of creating.

Far more importantly, it would ensure no future incoming Prime Minister would have the authority and mana of their office so compromised from the outset, the way the current Prime Minister did.   

Get it early – This article was first published on Newsroom Pro and/or included in Bernard Hickey’s ‘8 Things’ morning email of the latest in-depth business and political analysis. Get it early by subscribing now or starting a 28-day free trial.

Leave a comment