Ideasroom

Jack Vowles: So much commentary on so little

The past two weeks of coalition negotiations have been notable for so much commentary based on so little on which to comment. There have been criticisms of secret meetings that if they were really secret no one would know about. Although there have certainly been some of those too.

Coalition negotiations cannot be conducted in public. What we should expect is simple: a coalition or government agreement that lists what has been agreed, and what we can expect from that government over the next three years. And we cannot expect that level of detail after 7pm on the evening after an announcement has been made, when, as seems apparent, New Zealand First’s decision was announced to the parties concerned at the same time as to the public.

Despite statements from the parties concerned, the process has not been optimal. Elite behaviour within the framework of a proportional electoral system could and should be better than this. Government formation in New Zealand is notable for its absence of rules or a framework, as Victoria University’s Professor Jonathan Boston pointed out years ago. Early on, the Governor-General’s office opted out of any guidance role. As a result, New Zealand has not established a convention that the Governor-General should invite the leader of the largest party to have the first opportunity to negotiate with the pivotal party or parties to seek to form a government. In the absence of such a convention, an amendment to the Constitution Act would be required to establish such a process. This is very unlikely to happen.

Concurrent negotiations put much pressure on the pivotal party, while also giving it more leverage. Four Cabinet positions for New Zealand First is the result, with a ratio of New Zealand First to Labour seats of 46 to nine. The quality of agreements made under such conditions is likely to be less than ideal. An alternative process by which the largest party was first in the queue would probably take longer, not necessarily to everyone’s liking. But initial recognition of the party with the most votes might help to reduce perceptions of illegitimacy. There would be no guarantee the largest party could form a government: after a failure to reach an agreement, negotiations could begin with other parties. With a tradition of responsible caretaker government, taking longer to form a government might not be a bad thing. After 20 years of proportional representation, our political elites should be handling these matters better.

It is deeply ironic that certain television journalists should have been aggressively demanding further detail of the arrangements and yet television and even RNZ coverage ceased before the Green Party had finished its deliberations, and before National leader Bill English’s concession speech.

Because of New Zealand First’s leverage, no one involved has been keen to criticise Winston Peters’ handling of the situation. New Zealand First’s failure to directly engage with the Green Party in its negotiations in any apparent way throws doubt on how well a three-party arrangement will work in practice. It puts much pressure on the Labour leadership to keep the parties together. The significance of the Greens’ agreement to take three ministerial positions outside of Cabinet is dependent on the nature of the portfolios, and how much support for Green initiatives under those umbrellas will be conceded in the government agreement and in later Cabinet decisions.

Peters’ announcement of his party’s decision at a press conference run by his party alone also reduces confidence in the outcome. A joint announcement by the leaders of the parties to be in government would have provided a much better signal of the strength of the relationships established. But this would not have given Peters as much of the attention in which he seeks to bask on such occasions.

It is deeply ironic that certain television journalists should have been aggressively demanding further detail of the arrangements and yet television and even RNZ coverage ceased before the Green Party had finished its deliberations, and before National leader Bill English’s concession speech.

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