Friday, August 29, 2008

What happens if Winston pulls the plug?

Assume the worst: tomorrow, Helen Clark will bow to the inevitable and suspend her Minister of Foreign Affairs. In retaliation, he repeats his grand toy-throwing exercise of 1998 and withdraws his support for the government. What happens? National's answer is "an election". That was Clark's answer too in 1998. But the reality is somewhat more complex.

The fundamental rule of our system of government is

The Queen reigns, but the government rules, so long as it has the support of the House of Representatives.
Obviously, NZ First withdrawing its support would call the confidence of the government into question. But it would not mean that it has clearly lost it (that would require actually losing a confidence vote in the House). However, confidence would be unclear. In these circumstances, the Cabinet Manual has the answer:
In some cases, the confidence of the House may be unclear, for example, in the case of a change in coalition arrangements. The incumbent government will need to clarify where the confidence of the House lies, within a short time frame (allowing a reasonable period for negotiation and reorganisation).
The government would not even need to go into caretaker mode (though they should be already this close to an election).

How does this work in practice? On 14 August 1998, Winston Peters led his NZ First colleagues out of a Cabinet meeting over the proposed sale of Auckland Wellington Airport. A week later, he formally terminated his coalition agreement with National. Parliament continued to meet, and it rapidly became clear that National had confidence and supply from ACT and a few former NZ First members, but it was not until the next month, on 9 September 1998, that Jenny Shipley formally confirmed her new governing arrangements by winning a vote of confidence in the House.

Since 1998, the acceptable timeframe for negotiation has probably shortened (OTOH, Shipley arguably had confidence for most of that period, though she had not formally put it to the test). And it is worth remembering that Parliament expires in just over a month anyway. Under these circumstances, with an election pending, the window for negotiation is likely even tighter. Clark would have quite a short period in which to negotiate and demonstrate confidence, or else we would simply have the election a bit earlier than planned (though ironically, exactly when some parties are expecting it, in early October).

Of course, Clark would also have the option of advising the Governor-general to dissolve Parliament and call an early election. That's her sole prerogative as Prime Minister (but see below). But the point of the above is to argue that she would not have to, if she could quickly negotiate alternative confidence arrangements and demonstrate them by winning a confidence vote in the House. Whether that is possible, and whether it would be worth it, of course, are other questions entirely.

Correction: It was Wellington, not Auckland airport. D'oh! Also, the power to call elections is not entirely absolute - two years ago the Governor-General made it clear that in the event of a mid-term collapse, it was (like everything else) subject to the caretaker convention and requires the support of the House. Realisiticly, I don't think that's an issue here - an election this close to the expiry of Parliament doesn't thwart the expressed will of the people (as it would mid-term when there are clear alternative arrangements available), and I expect any move by Clark to call one will meet with National's enthusiastic support.