New Zealand: learning how to govern in coalition or minority.

Author:Hicks, Bruce M.

New Zealand switched electoral systems from single member plurality to mixed member proportionality for the 1996 election. The country's leadership was well aware that this change would mean that no one political party would have a majority of seats in the legislature, so extensive study was undertaken in advance with respect to coalition and minority governments. While this advance work held the public service in good stead, the political parties failed to respond adequately to the new governing dynamics. Even with the leadership of a former senior jurist as governor general it would take until Y2K for the political elites to learn how to operate within the new paradigm. The procedural improvements made by New Zealand in this period have most recently informed improvements to parliamentary government in the United Kingdom and Australia. This paper examines these and other lessons that New Zealand may offer Canada.


Canada, along with the United Kingdom (1), Australia. and New Zealand share the Westminster-model', so named because this design has been inherited from that used for the British at the Palace of Westminster. Also called 'responsible parliamentary government', a label that emerged here in Canada, it is a parliamentary system whereby the people elect representatives to a legislature and it, in turn, chooses a government. The process is guided by a set of unwritten constitutional conventions. And while these conventions offer specific guidance as to by whom and how decisions should be made, when it comes to the 'reserve powers' of the monarch or her governor general--dissolving parliament, proroguing a session and choosing or dismissing a prime minister--they have begun to operationalize differently in each of these countries.

The reason for the deviation it two-fold: First, the electoral landscape has changed in each of these countries from what had previously been a majoritarian norm. This norm was created by single member plurality voting which in most countries delivers a majority of seats in the legislature to a single political party. (3) Even Australia, which had moved away from the SMP electoral system in 1919, was able to maintain majoritarian politics for the longest time through a semi-permanent coalition of two political parties on the right. But recently, beginning with New Zealand, each of these countries has seen its legislatures divided by multiple political parties.

Second, there has been a shift in political culture. Notions such as the need for government to implement policies that are supported by the majority of the legislature (and by extension the majority of the population), for fairness to minority political parties, for greater openness and accountability in government decision making and to increase civility in public life have created pressures in a number of Anglo countries to revisit the electoral system and to clarify the constitutional conventions that govern the Westminster-model.

In response to public demands for fairness to minority political parties and the voters who support them, New Zealand appointed a Royal Commission on the Electoral System which recommended a shift to 'mixed member proportionality' in 1986. Over the next few elections, the idea of holding a referendum on a change to the electoral system became a key election issue and, in 1992, the government was forced to follow through on its campaign promise, though it announced that the referendum would be non-binding. When 84 percent of the voters expressed the desire to change the system and 71 percent indicated that MMP was the preferred alternative, the government tried to backpedal by holding a second referendum. This one would be binding and held during the general election the following year, pitting SMP directly against MMP. In spite of a heavily funded campaign for SMP endorsed by many high profile political and business elites, MMP was chosen 54 to 46. Parliament then adopted MMP beginning with the 1996 general election.

What is particularly important is that the New Zealand legislature adopted this change with the flail understanding that it would mean the end of any one political party having majority control of the country's parliament. This would mean either coalition governments, which is the norm in most parliamentary democracies that have electoral systems where no political party wins a majority, or minority governments where negotiations for support on financial matters (supply) and confidence questions are undertaken following the election to ensure that the government has the support of parliament before being sworn into office (the norm in most minority government situations outside of Canada).

The first thing New Zealand's elites did was to undertake comparative research to prepare for the transition. This began in the academy as would be expected. But it was quickly taken over by the different branches of government, including the governor general, parliament and the public service. This included trips overseas and commissioned papers on questions like government formation and constitutional conventions.

Obviously the first lesson to be taken from New Zealand is the importance of comparative research to prepare for all eventualities. But it also raises the important question of, even with foresight and all this research and planning, what did New Zealand do well and what did it do poorly?

What New Zealand did poorly was at the political level where in spite of planning it took time for politicians to master the art of government formation and government administration. The four things that it did well were to:

(i) choose governors general who would be able to interpret the constitutional conventions and apply them fairly and, in the case of the first GG, was confident enough to break with tradition mid impartially help the media and the public understand the constitution and the process,

(ii) make plans at the bureaucratic level for the challenges of uncertainty in a system of government that had previously been efficiently dichotomous in terms of political leadership,

(iii) release publically a cabinet manual so that all political actors could inform themselves about these conventions and improve upon this document in response to the unforeseen challenges that the first divided parliament presented for coalition governance, and

(iv) make clear from the start the rules surrounding 'caretaker governments' to instill confidence in financial markets that there was still a government in place that could deal with a crisis while at the same time instilling confidence in the political leadership that they would not be hamstrung by any decision of this former government while they explored alternative government configurations.

These five items will be examined in this order in the following five sections.

Government Formation

Even though the political parties went into the 1996 general election knowing no party would win a majority of seats and had acknowledged that a coalition government was a likely and legitimate outcome, the learned behaviour of the politicians had been acquired in majoritarian politics and they were inexperienced on how to negotiate and how to build and maintain trust which is essential for stability in a government.

The decision in New Zealand was to let MMP occur under the existing Westminster-model constitutional conventions. This was a conscious choice. Responsible parliamentary government was predicated on the executive branch's accountability to parliament and this historically had led to inter-party negotiation in New Zealand when no party had a majority of seats. But these experiences had occurred in the context of an expected majoritarian government next time around.

Under section 19 of the Constitution Act 1986, the New Zealand Parliament must meet within six weeks of the return of the writs for a general election; and section 17 says the term of Parliament ends three years after the return of the writs unless Parliament is dissolved earlier by the governor general. The short parliamentary term means that 'snap' elections and prorogation are not issues in New Zealand.

In the first election under MPP in 1996 election, the National Party won 44 seats, Labour 37, New Zealand First 17, Alliance 13, ACT 7 and United New Zealand

  1. New Zealand First began negotiations with the two largest parties. The majoritarian habits and the lack of experience with ordered bargaining resulted in a drawn out and uncertain bargaining process. (4) Boston and Church have characterized these negotiations as NZ First "holding the country to ransom". (5) It took two months to negotiate a coalition government.

The immediate reaction to this long and messy government formation was academics and politicians revisited their earlier conclusion about honouring the existing constitutional conventions of the Westminster-model. Among the many recommendations was that the governor general appoint the leader of one political party following the election who is most likely to be able to form a government or, in the alternative (so as to keep the GG above the political fray), have the speaker of parliament choose the party leader to take the first kick at the can. (6) In the end, no changes were made to the constitutional conventions and the reason for this can be attributed to the governor general who repeatedly reassured New Zealanders of the soundness of the rules.

Forming a coalition government is one thing. Governing in coalition is another, and it requires building trust, understanding the rules and effective dispute resolution mechanisms. The biggest trust challenge is with the minority governing partner. So, not surprisingly, the first public problem in the coalition emerged, when the Associate Minister of Health (an MP from NZ First) had to be fired by the PM after his continued fighting with the Minister of Health (an MP from National) and his public...

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