Tuesday, August 24, 2010

How do coalitions work?

(Originally posted on Larvatus Prodeo and aimed mainly at foreign readers)

With Australia staring down the barrel of the first federal coalition government in 70 years, lots of people are asking "how does a coalition work?" New Zealand has had coalition governments of one form or another since 1995, so we have some experience with this. Unfortunately, the answer is "it depends".

As I explained in my pre-2008 NZ election post, A beginner’s guide to coalitions, New Zealand has tried various coalition models through the years. First, we had the "ironclad coalition agreement" of Winston Peters, a document which sought to lay out exhaustively the policies of the 1996-98 National - NZ First coalition, and which bound both parties to agree on everything. This failed because a) the parties didn't agree on everything; and b) the shared caucus model allowed NZ First to simply be outvoted then forced to support policies they opposed - a model which turned them into the political equivalent of a doormat. So, since then, New Zealand governments have pursued successively looser arrangements, which now seem to have stabilised around the following features:

  • Support on "confidence and supply", the regular votes which make a government a government in the Westminster system (which Australia and New Zealand share).
  • A general agreement on direction and key policies, along with a few trophy policies for minor parties to wave at their supporters;
  • An agreement to consult on all matters of policy (a necessity if the government is to get the numbers to pass legislation); and
  • Ministerial positions outside cabinet for support party leaders.

Note what's missing here: an agreement to support every piece of government initiated legislation. This is because we have realised that trying to force parties to support policies they fundamentally disagree with results in them splintering under the pressure. So we have the somewhat odd - to outsiders - practice of parties which support the government, and whose leaders are Ministers, voting against government legislation (e.g. the Maori Party opposing National's employment law changes, the ACT Party opposing the Emissions Trading Scheme). This doesn't mean the government loses votes - under the current arrangement, a National / ACT / Maori Party ménage à trois, National can gain a majority with either one of its partners, so it simply alternates as necessary, using ACT to pass more right-leaning legislation and the Maori Party to pass other stuff. But the key point is that it does not put up legislation unless it is assured beforehand it has the numbers to pass it. And that's what the consultation process is all about - running ideas past the other parties, asking "will you support this? What would we have to change?" While the other parties could play hardarse and demand something in return for every vote, or threaten to pull the plug if they don't get their own way, they don't. The reason for this is that they all understand that a coalition is an ongoing relationship, and that they need to get along or else they'll be punished by the electorate. And in hindsight, that was Winston Peters' big problem: as an FPP politician, who had never known anything else, he saw coalition as a single-round game rather than an ongoing one. Though to his credit he eventually learned the ropes, and by 2002 was playing the game just like everybody else.

Will it turn out like this in Australia? I really don't know. We've learned over 15 years how to make coalitions work for both parties. Australia is being thrown in at the deep end, with politicians who are not used to it, and with numbers that leave no alternative partners and so make every vote crucial - a situation likely to encourage bad behaviour. OTOH, Australian politicians can look across the Tasman, and try and construct their coalition arrangements with the benefit of the New Zealand experience. They don't need to learn the lessons of coalition politics the hard way - we have already learned them for you.