Friday, January 27, 2006

The joys of minority government

With Parliament resuming after Waitangi Day, we may be about to see what real minority government looks like. While the past five governments have all been minority ones (the 1993 government due to pre-MMP party splits; the 1996 one following the breakup of NZ First, and the others intentionally), all have been fairly strong minorities. The 1999 Labour-Alliance minority coalition was able to dominate the select committees and rely on the Greens for legislative support; the 2002 Labour-Progressive minority government could usually find friends on the committees and could pick from three possible partners when trying to pass legislation. The present government isn't so lucky. The resurgence of the opposition, relatively small size of the minor parties, and looseness of support arrangements means that the government does not have a majority on any of the select committees, and this is already causing them problems. So far those problems have been limited to beginning embarrassing inquiries into TVNZ and the Department of Corrections, but it could extend to disrupting the government's legislative program. While a select committee recommendation to drop a bill could be overturned, given that such a recommendation would require the backing of at least one of the minor parties, there may not be a majority for the government to do so. The government will have to work very carefully indeed to build coalitions for every piece of legislation, and almost certainly make major concessions to the minor parties to get anything passed.

But that's not the half of it. While the government will still be able to dominate the Parliamentary agenda, the other parties have an avenue for pursuing agendas of their own, in the form of private member's bills. And given that the government does not have a legislative majority, it is entirely possible that bills introduced by National, ACT or NZFirst could end up passing. While the government is able to exercise a financial veto on anything which would have more than a "minor impact" on the crown's overall fiscal position or on the composition of a vote (ruling out tax-cuts and gutting or disestablishing ministries - at least if they're willing to lump the political cost), this still leaves the opposition and minor parties vast room to enact legislation. Criminal, employment and constitutional law are all entirely up for grabs, as are "moral issues", drug laws, and commercial law.

This makes the private member's bill ballot far more important then it was previously. Unfortunately, it's one of the few areas of Parliamentary business about which there is relatively little information. A list of bills in the ballot is published in the Parliamentary Bulletin - but only in hardcopy, and only after the draw has been held. Meaning that the public has no way of knowing in advance what might be in there, and no way of holding our representatives to account for it. This has to change, and I've written to the Clerk to try and get more information put online. In the meantime, I'll try and get information out of MPs on their bills (those of them I know about) and try and inform people of what they're trying to do.

I should also note that, statistically, National has good odds of getting a bill drawn. The last ballot had 28 bills in it, and 11 of them were from National (perversely, two of the three bills drawn were from ACT). If they used their full allocation of 48 bills (one per MP), then the odds would be massively in their favour. This suggests that Labour backbenchers should be submitting private member's bills, if only to reduce the odds of an opposition bill being drawn. Though ideally, I'd prefer it if they used such bills to try and advance progressive causes as well. Currently only Darien Fenton and Maryan Street are doing this at the moment, with bills to adjust the minimum wage and alter residential tenancy laws, but I'd certainly like to see more of them make a go of it. And if anyone is in need of a bill to submit, how about repealing the archaic crime of sedition?


I should note that I think that the opposition's inquiries are a Good Thing. The purpose of Parliament is to hold government to account. In Westminster systems, where the executive is drawn from and traditionally dominates the legislature, that tends not to happen very effectively. But with MMP's "permanant minority government", it looks like we will have more and better accountability. DPF is right to say that this is MMP in action, and its something I hope we'll see more of.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 1/27/2006 04:14:00 PM

I wonder how the media (and the public) will respond the first time an "opposition" bill passes, or the first time a "government" bill fails? The reality of MMP is that these things are going to happen and really it's quite a maturing of our system that we are finally at the point where they are actually possible.

Posted by Span : 1/28/2006 11:09:00 AM


The government tends to shelve bills they think won't succeed. The Gender Identity bill was one such case. Defeats in the house are extremely embarrassing.

Of course, opposition bills aren't subject to such management. Nandors clean slate bill was picked from the ballot and withdrawn, but that was only after the Government co-opted it.

The most likely way an opposition private members bill would pass would be if it were a conscience issue. Labour still controls signficant numbers (both formally, over over NZF/UF).

I am suprised about the number of MPs who don't have a bill in the ballot. Really, it is one of the few ways for the opposition or backbench MPs to kick-start a debate or introduce meaningful change.


Posted by Matt : 1/29/2006 11:04:00 AM