Wednesday, April 09, 2008

MMP and Cabinet collective responsibility

Over on Kiwiblog, DPF channels National's authoritarian, born-to-rule roots and demands that Winston Peters be sacked for disagreeing with the government's FTA with China. I'd politely suggest he reads the relevant parts of the Cabinet Manual. The realities of multiparty government under MMP have forced changes to the convention of Cabinet collective responsibility, and it can no longer be used to effectively silence critics by appointing them to Cabinet, outvoting them, then threatening to sack them if they disagree (neither can it be used to bully the votes of smaller parties by the same process, as National did to NZ First in their ill-fated coalition in the 90's). Instead, Ministers in coalition governments are now free to "agree to disagree":

Coalition governments may decide to establish "agree to disagree" processes, which may allow Ministers to maintain, in public, different party positions on particular issues or policies. Once the final outcome of any "agree to disagree" issue or policy has been determined (either at the Cabinet level or through some other agreed process), Ministers must implement the resulting decision or legislation, regardless of their position throughout the decision making process.
So, provided Winston implements Cabinet's decisions, he can say what he likes. This almost certainly rules out publicly criticising the FTA when acting as Foreign Minister overseas, as he has threatened to do, but he hasn't done that yet, and I don't really think its an issue. Over the past two years, Winston has demonstrated his ability to represent the government and say whatever MFAT puts into his mouth, and I don't really think this will change. But as for criticising the deal domestically, taking out ads against it, and voting against it, he's perfectly entitled to do so (the latter also because he's a Minister Outside Cabinet).

National can rail against this all it likes, and it can threaten that if it becomes government, it will rewrite the Cabinet manual again to restore the principle of total subordination. But at the end of the day, it has to recognise the realities of MMP: the support of other parties is likely to be necessary in order to form a government, and multi-party government must allow parties to disagree and distinguish themselves. And if they refuse to recognise this, and cling to their belief that support must equal total surrender, then their chances of forming governments in future are very slim indeed.