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Why a grand coalition was unthinkable

The idea of a grand coalition has always been anathema in New Zealand's democratic culture. The University of Auckland's Zbigniew Dumieński and the University of Canterbury's Nicholas Ross Smith ask why.

It took almost four weeks, but finally, New Zealand has a government. It was interesting that during this four-week period, only two coalition configurations were seriously talked about as plausible outcomes: a ‘National-New Zealand First’ coalition or a ‘Labour-New Zealand First-Greens’ coalition.

While a National-Greens coalition was a somewhat popular point of discussion as a potential third-way option, curiously, one logical partnership was largely absent from the discourse: a ‘National-Labour’ grand coalition.

Grand coalitions - a coalition of the two largest parties - have been a feature, for better and for worse, of a number of European countries that use electoral systems based on proportional representation. The most famous of these was the CDU-SDP grand coalition in Germany that comprised the first (2005-09) and third Merkel governments (2013-17).

However, in the New Zealand context, the idea of a grand coalition has been anathema in our democratic culture. Why is this?

Is it because National and Labour have such contrasting policies? While there might be a popular myth that National and Labour are the “right” and “left” parties, in reality both are fairly centrist and only slightly lean right or left on certain issues. Significant overlaps in broad policy aims are present, especially with regards a mutual core belief in social welfare, and neither party proposes a major shift from the norm (unlike the smaller, more radical parties).

Furthermore, National and Labour are arguably closer together on the political spectrum than National and New Zealand First - New Zealand First is economically to the left of and more socially conservative than National - or Labour and New Zealand First - Labour is more socially progressive than New Zealand First. Even Labour and the Greens, despite their MOU and seeming accordance, are arguably as far away from one another - the Greens are clearly to the left of, and more progressive than, Labour - as Labour and National.

The reason why a grand coalition between Labour and National appears so unthinkable is mostly due to the essence of our political system. At its very heart, our system of democracy is akin to a type of bloodless warfare.

Political parties, led by generals, devise “strategies”, launch “campaigns” and bombard us all with a flood of one-sided propaganda aimed at “defeating” their political enemies. People are forced into ideological “camps” and “positions”. Party “loyalty” becomes a virtue and is the main source of conflicts that divide not just the voters, but also friends and families.

Once the “electoral battle” dust settles, we search for “winners” who could then divide the spoils, appoint their supporters to important positions, and rule the country for the benefit of their backers. If nobody manages to secure even the narrowest majority of votes, the strongest factions search for “allies” from among lesser leaders who are only too keen to be bribed with “loot” in the form of prestigious or lucrative offices offered in exchange for their support.

A vision of democracy based on ancient values is not particularly popular these days, but it is certainly worth revisiting.

The outcome of this process is presented as the ultimate expression of democratic will; the organic proceedings of democracy in action. However, it can be argued that both the process and its outcome are not essentially democratic.

This is especially true if one accepts the ancient idea that democracy allows collective reason to trump power, as the government is expected to be subordinate to the interest of the demos (the entire people), not just narrow groups of interest and privilege.

A vision of democracy based on ancient values is not particularly popular these days, but it is certainly worth revisiting.

At its core, the model of effective democracy devised by the philosophers of Athens was built on the centrality of “political action pursuant to excellent deliberation.” In other words, effective democracy should be built on the careful deliberation of policy by free and politically equal citizens; a stark contrast with the zero-sum information warfare we citizens experience come election time.

Incidentally, the deliberative design underpinning ancient concepts of democracy holds true for our jury system, which, in the lack of deliberations, would amount to little more than mob justice. We would not tolerate mob justice, so why should we tolerate “ochlocracy” (mob politics)?

One of the recurring challenges to the promotion of deliberative systems of democracy is that they are often accused of being “good on paper but poor in practice”. However, there have been numerous examples of democracies with a more deliberative and participatory character, each providing inspiration and lessons for future systems.

Of course, there is the Classical Athenian example where public deliberations were central to the decision-making process. For instance, the executive branch (the “government” in the New Zealand context) of the Athenian system, the Boule, which was charged with the deliberation of potential laws or decrees (which would then be further deliberated and then voted on by the general assembly - the Ekklesia), was comprised of citizens randomly selected by lottery.

Beyond Classical Athens, other intriguing historical examples exist. Icelanders started using a deliberative assembly called the ‘althing’ in 930 AD to decide matters of policy and justice while by the early-15th century, the ‘Old Swiss Confederacy’ - the precursor to modern Switzerland - was essentially a decentralised network of highly autonomous Cantons where deliberative assemblies were important mechanisms of politics.

While each of the above-mentioned systems existed in a very particular context and had its own flaws, the idea of a political system based on the more active participation of ordinary citizens in the deliberative aspect of decision-making certainly remains worthy of more careful consideration.

Therefore, contrary to those using the somewhat farcical outcome of this election to call for returning to a First Past the Post system (or any other meddling with the voting procedures), debating what steps - we do not lack ideas - could be taken to ensure our country is not just democratic in form, but also in substance.

Therefore, contrary to those using the somewhat farcical outcome of this election to call for returning to a First Past the Post system (or any other meddling with the voting procedures), debating what steps - we do not lack ideas - could be taken to ensure our country is not just democratic in form, but also in substance.

In a hypothetical New Zealand where political action would be increasingly pursuant to popular deliberation, then perhaps the idea of a grand coalition wouldn’t be seen as outlandish but rather as a way of satisfying the most people, not just a slim majority, especially when the different camps aren’t that far away on policy aims.

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