Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Dissolution in the Cooks

The Cook Islands will be going to the polls sometime in the next three months after the government called a snap-election. But what's interesting is the dubious circumstances in which this happened, and what it suggests about constitutional structures. Last week, the Cook Islands government lost a by-election to the opposition Cook Islands Party - and with it, its majority. The Cook Islands Parliament was supposed to meet today for a vote of no confidence in the government, to be followed by a confidence vote for a new one. But rather than take its electoral medicine, the government had the Queen's Representative dissolve Parliament and call new elections. As a result, it was not just able to sidestep the confidence motion and cling to power for a further 90 days as a caretaker regime; it was also able to effectively nullify the results of the by-election it had just held by immediately ordering another one. Clearly, if the voters get it "wrong", they'll have to vote again until they get it "right"!

This is a ridiculous situation, which clearly illustrates the defects in the Cooks' constitutional structure - and also in ours. Like the Cook Islands, we have an appointed head of state with the power to dissolve Parliament and call elections, who is bound to exercise that power on the advice of the Prime Minister (in fact, according to the Cabinet Manual, it is the PMs sole prerogative to do so). The problem is that this power can clearly be abused, as it is being in the Cooks. Where a government loses confidence mid-term, the Opposition should at least have a chance to form a replacement - but instead the country is rushing to the polls.

The difference between the Cooks and New Zealand is that here, our Governor-General has signalled that, when confidence is lost, the power to call elections is covered by the "caretaker convention", and requires the support of the majority of the House. The problem is that this has only been signalled in a Viceregal speech - we have no hard and fast law on it, and a future Governor-General could easily change their mind.

The solution to this is codification - to pass a law stipulating exactly what happens when confidence is lost (or at least covering the obvious bases). Otherwise, we might one day find ourselves in the situation the Cooks is in now - heading to the polls in an unnecessary election because those in power have decided the voters got it wrong.


What the situation does show is that the Governor-General is really beholden to the Prime Minister's advice; and as you say, the use of that power in this situation (it's not the first, and won't be the last) is dubious.

Which is why we need my Constitution (Executive Powers) Bill...

Posted by Lewis Holden : 7/26/2006 09:49:00 AM

Thank god we can change the rules WITH OUT becoming a Republic...

Posted by Anonymous : 7/27/2006 07:39:00 PM

Anon: sure - and regardless of what we decide about a head of state, I'm all for codifying a bit more of our constitution, to make it clear that it is parliament, not the PM or HoS, which makes or breaks governments...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 7/27/2006 08:57:00 PM