Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Fixed election dates

The unseemly game-playing over the date of the election seems to be having an effect, with the Herald this morning calling for the date to be fixed by law. As I've said before, I think this is a good idea. The current system invites abuse by the government of the day, with elections being timed in an effort to maximise government support. This is not something we should tolerate in a democracy.

The one problem with this idea is that it makes it difficult to resolve a mid-term breakdown of government. But as the Herald points out, this can be resolved; Germany requires a "constructive vote of no confidence", meaning that in order for a government to fall, a replacement must be available. Alternatively, in the event that no alternative government is available, Germany allows an early election to be called only with the support of the upper house; in New Zealand, with our single-chamber system, we could simply require a supermajority.

The Herald suggests a referendum on the subject, and I agree. This is not a change Parliament will make for itself - our major parties will not give up their privilege - and therefore we must make it for them.

Correction: I was wrong about Germany and the upper house above; see Wikipedia for the proper details. Governments can vote themselves out of office and thereby force an election, but ther's effectively a waiting period in which other parties have a good chance to form a government. Such a system would be easy to adopt here, provided we ensure that the government puts confidence motions to the House on a regular schedule.


So what would happen if:
- we have (say) a National / NZF government with a 5 seat majority

- two years into a term, Don gets fed up with Winnie and sacks him from the Cabinet

- NZF withdraw confidence & supply

- Labour fail to agree with NZF on forming a government, so no "constructive vote of no confidence is available"

- Labour (who are trailing slightly in the polls) abstain on the confidence vote, denying a supermajority.

Until agreement is reached or their term runs out, National is left trying to run the country without being able to pass anything through Parliament.

Posted by Rich : 7/19/2005 12:45:00 PM

Rich: the same as would happen now if every party decided that they didn't agree with Labour's proposed legislation: the public would start flinging shit at politicians until they decided to be sensible.

I've since read more about the German system, and I was wrong about the Upper House (this is what happens when I get my info from BBC reports on the engineering of Germany's election, rather than from Wikipedia). Instead, the provision is asymmetrical. No confidence motions proposed from Parliament must be constructive (i.e. have an alternative). Those from the government need not be. if the government loses a vote of confidence it has put, then there's a 21-day waiting period before Parliament is dissolved, during which an alternative government can form. So, the government can still manipulate the date of the election, but only by voting itself out of office, and only if no other government can form in the meantime. That seems to work.

As an aside, I think this sort of system will also further shift our political culture towards cooperation, and provide a strong incentive for political parties to "play well with others". We're already seeing steps in this direction, and I'd like to see them continue.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/19/2005 01:24:00 PM

The German scenario is interesting. If I remember correctly the Weimar Republic failed because the Nazis kept abstaining on confidence issues or formation of government leading to more elections in a delibearte policy of destabilisation of that democratic system. (Not that NZF would do this esp. after being punished last time - but it is possible). Any alternative system we come up with must ensure that this cannot happen easily.

I like the idea of a mandatory "time out" so the opposition get a fair chance to form a replacement government. Elections should be a lst option, not the first.

Posted by Bomber : 7/19/2005 02:45:00 PM

I agree with Idiot/Savant on this... will be posting at my blog soon...

Posted by Lewis Holden : 7/19/2005 03:37:00 PM

There is (or was) a constitutional convention that elections should not be called early unless the government could not continue. I know National did it in 1951 but there was general agreement that they shouldn't have.

Much of our political system relies on adherence to constitutional conventions. When you get a government that is so obsessed with power that it will just ignore them, there are much bigger worries than the election date.

Posted by Nigel Kearney : 7/19/2005 09:32:00 PM

Nigel: well, in this case the government doesn't seem to be contemplating calling the election significantly early, it's more the uncertainty in the last couple of months which is so unseemly. I'd much rather have a fixed date so that everybody knew when to plan the party.

And it would of course discourage a reccurance of the 1984 or 2002 snap elections.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/19/2005 11:50:00 PM

In the picture you've painted of the German system (which is now pretty accurate) you've omitted one thing: the approval of the President is required and that is no mere formality. In the present case here in Germany, we won't know till Friday of this week whether or not Horst Köhler is going to sanction early elections, and even then there have been numerous threats from smaller parties (outside of parliament) that they're planning to take the matter to the constitutional court in Karlsruhe because they feel they've been disadvantaged because an early election will mean that they don't have time to get their party lists together. So, while all the major parties and much of the electorate are working on the assumption that there will be early elections, it's not actually yet cut and dried and either Köhler or the constitutional court could yet put a spanner in the work. It's certainly interesting stuff.

In general I agree that fixed election dates would be a boon and would level the political playing field. There are lots of details which need to be carefully worked out, especially since in NZ we neither have an upper house nor a written constitution, but in principle I think it's something worth working towards.

Finally, as a good source in English for info about the current electoral situation, I can recommend Deutsche Welle's English site:

Posted by Anonymous : 7/20/2005 07:30:00 AM

I'm not sure it would be a good thing to give the G-G any extra powers of political adjudication - look at Whitlam/Kerr.

Really, constitutional change should be looked at holisticaly rather than in bits and pieces like this.

Also, if there was a constitutional impasse, would the public blame those actually responsible? In my example, the Nats might get the blame (for failing to deliver a stable 3 term government) rather than Labour (for refusing to allow the government to resign).

Posted by Rich : 7/20/2005 12:21:00 PM

So President Köhler has snuck in a day early and dissolved parliament today. So now there will be early elections, unless the two Green MPs who are taking it to the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe get their way.
This article has the lowdown.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/22/2005 08:19:00 AM

It turns out it's not two Green MPs who are challenging the decision. It's one Green MP (Schulz) and one SPD MP (Hoffmann) who are off to Karlsruhe to fight it. The Berliner Zeitung is reporting today that all of the following minor parties have announced they intend to challenge the decision too:
Family Party; ÖDP (Whoever they are?!); the Republicans (think Nazi) and the Centre Party.

Source: Berliner Zeitung (German link).

Posted by Anonymous : 7/22/2005 08:44:00 PM

> I'm not sure it would be a good thing to give the G-G any extra powers of political adjudication - look at Whitlam/Kerr.

I dont know if that was a bad thing. I propose it is VERY likely that the public would (if they had had a vote) disolved his government too. Hence the continuation of his government represented in this case a divergance from democracy.
If he had won the following election he would have been vindicated - he didn't.

Posted by Anonymous : 7/23/2005 01:08:00 AM