The future of the left since 1884

Strong minority governments can deal with other parties

New Zealand has successfully transitioned to multi-party politics with the introduction of proportional representation in the mid-1990s. Since 1996 the country has been led by one coalition majority, three coalition minorities, and four minority governments. The lesson from the South...



New Zealand has successfully transitioned to multi-party politics with the introduction of proportional representation in the mid-1990s. Since 1996 the country has been led by one coalition majority, three coalition minorities, and four minority governments. The lesson from the South Pacific nation is that power-sharing works – and can work very well indeed.

In a country with an unwritten constitution there are many more opportunities to put together a set of arrangements that can command a majority of support in the House of Commons. As the old order falls away before our very eyes, it’s time to allow innovation and fresh thinking to take its course on how governments are constructed. There are no rules for this, it’s just having the confidence to do what works.

The Helen Clark Labour-led government operated successfully – although without a majority on a single day – for three terms. It had relationships with a range of parties, selecting different types of arrangements depending on the party concerned. It had coalition partners, confidence and supply partners and parties that signed up to a co-operation agreement with the government.

To demonstrate how this worked, the final term of the Clark government provides possibly the best example of how politics has had to develop in order to support minority government.

Lessons from New Zealand

After the 2005 general election, Labour once again formed a minority government with the Progressives. There was then a choice to be made about whether to work with four other parties, who broadly could be described at that time as falling into two categories: one to the left of Labour and the other in the centre, to Labour’s right. It was from this point that some of the more innovative practices around New Zealand’s unwritten constitution were developed.

Neither party in the centre (New Zealand First and United Future) wanted to formally join the government as coalition partners. However both parties were interested in supporting a minority government in exchange for policy concessions. These were duly negotiated and produced as publicly available written contracts.

So far, so standard. The real innovation in this term of office (subsequently used for the three terms of the National-led government which followed) was the appointment of ministers from support parties who did not become members of the government but were bound by Cabinet collective responsibility for the portfolios they held. This effectively allowed for the leaders of the support parties to become ministers and oversee an aspect of government while at the same time leaving their party free to maintain their independent identity. Other than confidence and supply votes and the measures specified in their written contract with the government, the MPs in that party (including the leader serving as a minister) were free to criticise any aspect of government policy other than the portfolio/department that they had taken responsibility for. As Helen Clark observed: “This is an arrangement which might not work in theory, but certainly works in practice.”

The other two parties were then in discussions about what relationship would exist during the Parliament between them and the government. In the end a formal relationship with the Maori Party was not developed, although they undertook to abstain on confidence and supply votes. The Greens also decided to pursue a relationship with the government that went beyond merely abstaining on key budget and confidence votes. The result of this was a Co-Operation Agreement which set out the areas they would support the government on. In exchange a degree of consultation on policy areas important to them was agreed, as was a decision that on two policy areas (energy efficiency and a buy local products and services campaign) the Greens would provide an MP who would be the official spokesperson for the government on each area. Another innovation, but one that worked to build a strong presence for the government in Parliament.

Changing culture

Power-sharing really reflects voter reality rather than party fantasy. The challenge is to change political culture and learn to see it as an opportunity for different style of government. Such change requires altering aspects of the machinery of government, but more importantly bringing about cultural change to make it work.

Some principles for this are: written contracts between parties that are well understood by both sides; good faith provisions and no surprises clauses to underpin the trust neeeded; co-operation and consultation mechanisms for working together; and “agree to disagree” provisions for when issues can’t be resolved. These principles have seen all minority governments (four National-led, three Labour-led) go the full distance.

The presence of strong leadership is critical to the success of minority government. Voters, the media, and fellow politicians need to know that there is a purpose to the government, that it understands the direction it is heading in and that it is able to bring forward proposals which will stand scrutiny.

This requires leaders who can consult, listen, decide and then lead. And it requires a team around the leader in the larger party that instinctively understands that they cannot have all the say on every topic. Also important are the House managers and whips, who are required to operationalise agreements. While it is not the end of the world to lose a vote on the floor of the House, it is often through good communication and trusting relationships that such events can be managed effectively.

In all of this, personalities are important. Having people with the right temperament in the right positions who understand the political reality in which they are operating makes all the difference.

The power of leadership

For those who may doubt whether leaders can be effective in a minority government setting, consider the case of Helen Clark and her successor as Prime Minister, John Key. If longevity and popularity are measures of success in retail politics then the pair’s consistently high approval ratings and status as longest PM of her party (Clark) and second longest of his (Key, by the end of this term), then minority government has produced the two most successful leaders of the last 40 years.

Consider the achievements of Labour-led governments between 1999 and 2008: lowest unemployment in the world and the re-introduction of apprenticeships; Working for Families tax credits; interest-free student loans; net public debt of zero for the first time in history; established a new local Supreme Court; introduced civil unions for same-sex couples; set up a retail bank and pensions savings scheme (Kiwibank and KiwiSaver); nationalised an airline carrier and the railways; legislated for smoke-free bars and restaurants; introduced measures and laws for climate change response; oversaw record rises to the minimum wage and reduced rents for social housing.

This is by no means an exhaustive list but regardless of political persuasion it is hard to argue that the above policy mix represents ‘nothing happening’. The minority government that replaced our one could supply a list of their own public policy achievements. Both sides of politics have been able to pursue a policy agenda every bit as credible as a single-party majority government.

Perhaps it may seem a surprise, but the two main parties of New Zealand politics have been winners under minority government. They have learnt to adapt very effectively to power-sharing and coalition-building. The last six governments (led three apiece by both sides of politics) have produced a more consultative and realistic approach to dealing with public policy challenges. While politics and disagreements naturally continue, governments can be confident of getting the majority of their agenda through but must show an ability to work with others.

The small party problem

For the smaller parties the picture is far less clear. To date we have not seen a ballot dividend for smaller parties who choose to participate in government. In fact in every example a minor party involved with government has received fewer votes at the subsequent election. While the minority government model undoubtedly maintains a smaller party’s identity far more than a full coalition does, it seems to be that very little credit is given by voters to the contribution of the smaller party.

The biggest winners have been the voters. By adopting a voting system where every vote counts, New Zealanders no longer see governments elected on a minority of the vote (sometimes even coming second) rewarded with huge majorities and left powerless to challenge their decisions.

Good for politics

There are many ways to conduct the business of government. The New Zealand example shows how it is possible to build inclusive working arrangements with parties representing a broad coalition of voters to pursue a strong policy agenda, to manage the economy effectively and to maintain the country’s positive international reputation. The political actors seeking to lead the UK could look to New Zealand’s example as a sign that power-sharing can come from a position of strength rather than weakness.

Darren Hughes is Deputy Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society and was an MP in the New Zealand House of Representatives from 2002 until 2011. During this time he was responsible for parliamentary business as a Whip and Deputy Leader of the House. This article first appeared in ‘Working together: lessons in how to share power’, published by the Electoral Reform Society



Darren Hughes

Darren Hughes is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society.


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