Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins at last year's Newshub leaders' debate (Photo: Michael Bradley/Newshub)

Why election promises aren’t the be-all and end-all

National says the government is promoting an ‘ideological wish list’ it didn’t campaign on. But a mandate isn’t just about what’s said at election time, argues Nicole Geluk-Le Gros.

On Sunday, the National Party launched its “Demand the debate” campaign, based on the idea that New Zealanders are being left out of important decisions being made by the government. 

According to a press release from party leader Judith Collins, the Labour government is making important policy announcements that were not campaigned on. “The government’s parliamentary majority is not a mandate for Labour to promote their ideological wish list,” she says.

There’s ongoing debate as to whether election promises are the be-all and end-all of a government’s mandate, which is what Judith Collins appears to be implying here. This is what’s considered the “pure” or “manifesto” school of mandate – that the promises, manifestos and announcements made during the election comprise 100% of what the government is mandated to do by the voters (excluding emergencies like, say, a global pandemic). 

Andreas Schedler, one of the most cited academics writing about mandate, calls it the “democratic commandment: Thou Shalt Honour Thy Electoral Promises”. But 

mandate theories can be grouped into four “types”: 

  • manifesto mandate, where the government has a mandate to deliver the policies taken into the previous election – this seems to be the definition the National Party is using;
  • negative mandate, where voters are really more concerned about voting against something (or someone), rather than for the new government;
  • party mandate, where the mandate is given based on perceptions of the party as whole – the public expects decisions in line with the party’s ideological history; and
  • spatial mandate, where the government is expected to hold a space on the left-right spectrum relative to the other parties (so if everyone drifts left, they do too, and vice versa). 

I agree with Judith Collins: knowing what the government has mandate for is important – it’s how we measure its success, and one aspect of voter decision-making at the next election. But a solely manifesto definition of mandate ain’t it. Not every issue considered by governments can be planned out and responded to in an electoral programme – both due to the changing nature of public policy and developing issues of an elected term, and because it would be impractical to consider every facet of day-to-day governing during an election. There are more than 60,000 public servants – do we really want to know about and debate every aspect of their work programmes? Can we really expect under-funded opposition parties to compete with the government in laying out their decisions in every micro policy area, for every agency, department and Crown entity? 

So, what about this Labour government’s mandate? There are two broad ways to measure mandate: if a government has fulfilled its electoral promises, or if it’s making decisions and implementing policy outside of the mandate given to it by the electorate. As I outlined above, measuring mandate as solely fulfilling promises doesn’t cover the full scope of what we’re actually electing a government to do. However, it is a part of the equation, and only 20% of the way through the parliamentary term, there is one glaring example: the NZ Upgrade Programme’s slate of cancellations. Existing governments take not only their manifestos into an election, but also their existing programme of work, which they can be considered to have a mandate to continue with. Cancelling several large projects because they weren’t appropriately costed to begin with can certainly be seen as violating their mandate. For most other commitments, it’s too early to tell how successful their delivery will be. 

Taking a step outside of manifesto mandate, what about totally new policies or commitments that aren’t grounded in the previous term’s work (eg the EV feebate), the election manifesto (Māori Health Authority), or outside their control (vaccine funding). Three Waters Reform could be considered here – although Labour took “reform” into the election, the specifics for this billion-dollar infrastructure restructure were only announced in 2021. This is where the unusual situation of a majority government under MMP gives Labour some authority. No matter their school of thought, most theorists agree that the size of the ruling party’s majority directly correlates to the heft and breadth of their mandate. 

Now, that doesn’t always apply directly to the MMP environment, but it will give Labour some solid ground to stand on with policy it signalled but didn’t detail in the election campaign – it’s the first party in the history of MMP in Aotearoa to hold a parliamentary majority. In mandate terms, that really does mean something. Mandate is slippery, and sometimes isn’t black and white – it’s shades of grey and there’s a sliding scale of what the public will accept. It isn’t clear yet if Labour has full mandate to roll out its Three Waters Reform. One way we can measure this as it develops is the number of councils that choose to be part of the reforms voluntarily, based on the view of their ratepayers. 

What about the idea of consultation? Collins says “the government is making important decisions they never campaigned on without adequate consultation”. 

But what is adequate consultation? When we’re talking about the extent the public should be consulted on a decision, there are three key considerations: practicality, accessibility, and if there’s opportunity for meaningful change as a result. If this is the conversation the National Party wants to have, we should all welcome it. Let’s talk about how and when the government should engage the public in design questions and decision-making. How representative is our public service? Are we practising appropriate decision-making, where the people most effective have the most say? How do we talk to communities without putting the burden of engagement and proof on them, and without causing engagement fatigue? Answering these questions will help this and future governments, as well as ensure better outcomes for everyone. 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the National Party wants to have that conversation. Until we do have that consultation reckoning, we must rely on who we elect. When you vote for the Labour Party, National, the Greens, or anyone else, you are voting for their ideological history as well as their electoral manifesto. Instead of saying only this and no more, you’re saying yes: I want your candidates making decisions and your values underpinning them. 

We don’t really know exactly what kind of mandate the Aotearoa public is giving governments – although I’m trying to find out. But we do know that it’s not as simple as “you only get to do what you said you would during the election”.

Nicole Geluk-Le Gros is a masters of political science student studying mandate in Aotearoa

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