Sunday, August 08, 2004

Coalitions and MMP

I watched Jeanette Fitzsimmons being interviewed on Agenda yesterday morning, and one thing I was struck by was how much of the conversation around relations with other parties was based on the idea of a formal coalition between the Greens and Labour. Frankly, I'm not sure that this is the MMP paradigm anymore. At the moment, we have a minority government supported by another party on confidence and supply, but without an automatic majority on legislation. Looking at the polls, either major party would need the support of at least three others to gain a majority, which means that the current situation is likely to continue and become more pronounced. Which is a good thing, because it means that legislation will require a far broader consensus to pass, and therefore be moderated somewhat. At the moment Labour can pick and choose, meaning they can effectively pass whatever they want (they just have to go to the right party). But if they need the agreement of multiple parties across a broad range of the political spectrum, the result is likely to be acceptable to far more of the electorate.

In this situation, minor parties don't just have to work with the larger parties, but also with each other. The result is likely to be loose agreements aimed at influencing the government's broad policy direction and gaining consultation rights in exchange for confidence and supply. The real power will come from the consultation process over legislation, and the ability to threaten a veto. While formal coalition is still possible, it has to be acceptable to other minor parties, who may be wary of one of their number gaining increased influence. At the same time, it will also be less meaningful - when other people have a veto on legislation, who has control of the policy development process matters a lot less. One thing that is certain is that a formal coalition agreement of the sort seen in 1996 simply will not be possible. Labour and the Greens could agree to work towards certain goals, but unless those goals are acceptable to the other minor parties, they won't make any real progress.

I'm not sure whether this will be a long-term trend or not. But it certainly looks like being the reality for the next Parliament, and both our parties and political reporters should adapt to it.