Politics

‘It’s about quantity and clarity’: an ex-governor-general on making MMP governments

Is it OK for the second biggest party to take the reins of power? Former governor-general Sir Jerry Mateparae answers this and other questions about post-election government-making.

In New Zealand it falls to the governor-general, as the Queen’s representative, to formally swear in a new government. Given the ballyhoo around the sight of Jacinda Ardern preparing to become prime minister despite leading a party that came second to Bill English’s National Party, is there cause for Dame Patsy Reddy to hesitate?

Certainly, it is the first time we’ve seen such a thing under the relatively new MMP system, which first came into effect in 1996. Helpfully, Dame Patsy’s predecessor as governor-general – you can call him Lt Gen The Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae, GNZM, QS – addressed these issues in a speech to the Press Gallery three years ago, an extended excerpt of which is printed below.

Former Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae, pictured in 2016. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Government formation is an inherently political enterprise – and that is how it should be. The governor-general’s role is to appoint a government based on decisions arrived at by elected politicians. I don’t and won’t speculate or comment on the merits of election outcomes, or on the considerations that motivate parties as they legitimately position themselves in the pre- and post-election periods.

The question is, what do our constitutional arrangements require of political parties before a prospective government can be sworn in by the governor-general? In a nutshell, it’s about quantity and clarity. Let me explain what I mean by this.

In New Zealand’s system of parliamentary democracy, the government is formed out of the elected members of parliament. The formation of a government depends on one or more parties being able to show they will have a majority in the House of Representatives – that they have “the confidence of the House”. This is where governments in parliamentary systems like ours get their legitimacy from: by having the support of a majority of members in a democratically-elected parliament. This is the “quantity” part of the equation. The prospective government needs to be able to show it will have the numbers.

Being able to demonstrate the confidence of the House was the key to government formation under First Past the Post, and it remains the case under Mixed Member Proportional. However, whereas FPP Parliaments tended to be dominated by two large parties, which could almost always form single party majority governments, under MMP the increased number of parties in parliament has resulted in parties needing to enter into coalition or support arrangements to get a majority.

It is worth remembering that a party or grouping of parties may be able to secure a majority even if it does not hold more than half of the seats in the House. This is because a confidence vote, like all questions put to the House, is decided by a simple majority of votes cast. To illustrate the point: a party may state publicly and unambiguously that it will not provide support on matters of confidence to any other party or grouping of parties, and that it will instead abstain on confidence votes and vote on legislation case by case. Whatever that party’s motives, its abstention is constitutionally significant, because it reduces the number of votes another party or grouping of parties will need to win confidence votes and command the confidence of the House.

Another possible outcome of the government formation process is that the person appointed prime minister is not the leader of the party that secured the single-largest share of seats. So far under MMP, the leader of the party with the largest number of seats in parliament has always been able to form a government. While some voters think that will always be the case, it may not. Again, the fundamental question is where the confidence of the House lies. If two or more other parties are able to cooperate, whether in a coalition, or on the basis of commitments of support, they may be able to muster more votes between them than the party with the most seats, and be able to form a government.

I’d now like to turn to the “clarity” side of the equation. Under MMP it is not enough for a party or grouping of parties simply to have the numbers in the House. They must also communicate the result of their negotiations so the public knows what sort of government has been formed, and so as governor-general, I can appoint the leader of that party or grouping as prime minister.

What is required are clear and public statements by the party leaders concerned, showing that the prospective government will have the confidence of the House. By clear and public statements I mean that the parties forming or supporting the government must make unambiguous explanations of their intentions on matters of confidence, so it is obvious to everyone where party allegiances in the House will lie.

To date, coalition and support arrangements under MMP have always been captured in formal written documents, often announced at media conferences. Written documents have clear advantages in terms of certainty and transparency, and I would expect that practice to continue.

Quantity and clarity: the confidence of the House, expressed in clear and public statements. These are the things that parties need to be able to show before a governor-general can appoint a government.

Since MMP was introduced, it has been the practice of the parties forming the government to commit to working together for the duration of the parliamentary term. This is not a formal requirement, and there can never be a guarantee that any agreement reached will hold in practice. My experience of New Zealanders, though, is that they place a high value on stable government, and will expect parties to make best endeavours to agree on commitments for the full term of parliament.

In conclusion, ours is a young, vibrant country with a strong democratic record. We, in New Zealand, have much to celebrate with pride – universal suffrage, including a 120-year commitment to women’s suffrage, stable governments and an active and responsible fourth estate. As you may perceive, I am confident that our constitutional arrangements are well-equipped to translate the will of voters at the next election into the “peace, order and good government” that we all value and deserve. The rules of engagement alone are no guarantee of that, however. Making our parliamentary democracy work requires all players to exercise their roles responsibly and in good faith.

Hat tip: Catriona MacLennan

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