19 Feb 2020

Who chooses the government?

From The House , 4:32 pm on 19 February 2020

In September you will (hopefully) wander along to your local school, church, sports club, or even supermarket; take a ballot and tick two boxes. 

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You might think that in doing so you’re choosing the next government. You’d almost be correct, but not quite. 

One reader this week responding to this piece from The House was adamant that voters choose governments. This sounds right but isn’t, so it is worth more explanation.

In parliamentary democracies voters don’t directly choose governments. Your vote in September will choose MPs; Members of Parliament. 

You get two choices: for a single local MP (electorate vote), and also for a group of MPs from a single party (party vote). But even if your vote agrees with an overwhelming majority of other kiwis it doesn’t guarantee a particular government outcome. 

Who are the government anyway?

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters at the signing of their coalition agreement Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The Government is not a party, or even a group of parties. The Government is a group of MPs (often from several parties) who are given special powers and responsibility by the Governor General. 

The confusing part is that the current government is often described as Labour, NZ First and the Greens, but in reality fewer than half of the MPs from those parties are in the Government. 

The rest are just normal MPs (like the opposition). They belong to parties that tend to support the Government in Parliament but they are not themselves in the Government. 

The MPs in a government can come from any party. Twice in New Zealand the Government has included MPs from the usually opposed parties in Parliament. A grand coalition like this potentially leaves no formal opposition party, but regardless of their party the non-government MPs have a responsibility  to keep an eye on the government). 

The combination of MPs who form a government is agreed among themselves, affirmed by the Governor General. The only contribution voters make to this part is deciding which MPs are part of this process. 

Parliamentary supremacy

National Party Leader Simon Bridges during the debate on the Prime Minister's Statement

National Party Leader Simon Bridges during the debate on the Prime Minister's Statement which is essentially about whether the House has confidence in the Government Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

There are several opportunities for Parliament to oust a government - including the budget (known as ‘supply’) or an annual plan of action (known as ‘confidence’).

At other times MPs from support parties can (and sometimes do) vote against government ideas without ending the Government (e.g. Abortion and End of life Choice legislations). Equally opposition MPs can (and often do) vote to support government bills (again on Abortion and End of Life Choice legislation).

If a government loses the support of Parliament a new government must be formed. That might require a new election but might not as Parliament can agree to a different assortment of the current MPs. 

Blue v Red: where do parties fit?

We humans are tribal animals. Clubs, mobs, tribes, gangs and parties is what we do. 

Oddly, parliamentary democracy wasn’t designed with parties in mind.  

Since MMP Parliament’s rules and processes take parties into account but in many ways our Parliamentary system still runs like parties don’t exist. They are inevitably involved, but don’t have to be.

In early Parliaments (including in New Zealand) there were no political parties. There were just independent MPs voted in by the various electorates. When they arrived at Parliament those MPs would form loose alliances and do deals to form ministries and pass bills useful to their local constituents. But without any underlying organisational discipline or loyalty those governments seldom lasted. 

If you look at the list of early Prime Ministers (back when they were called Colonial Secretaries and then Premiers) the first 23 of them had no political affiliation. Their reigns were short, sometimes alternating back and forward between them as alliances shifted.

The short and long of it

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Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The shortest ‘reign’ of them all was before parties developed. Auckland tailor ‘nearly-premier’ Thomas Forsaith lasted just three days in 1854, failing to get Parliament’s support before he was even sworn in. He has a consolation portrait with all the other Prime Ministers in the Speaker’s Corridor at Parliament. 

By contrast, the first leader to have a party (Richard Seddon) was the longest serving leader New Zealand has had (13 years, 41 days). Having a somewhat organised party of MPs behind you provides a lot more certainty and stability. After Seddon’s premiership parties became the norm. That’s unlikely to change.

When we vote at elections we provide the moving parts of the governmental machine, those MPs; but after that they get to decide who is in government.