The case for minority government

January 21st, 2014 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

I blogged last Friday my view that John Key and National should rule out a coalition or confidence and supply agreement in 2014 with Winston Peters, as they did in 2008 and 2011.

It goes without saying that I hope NZ First won’t make it back in 2014 (even though some of their MPs are good MPs, their leader is the problem), or if they do they will not hold the balance of power.

But what if they do make it back, and they do hold the balance of power. Does that automatically mean they must support a Labour/Green (and maybe Mana) Government if has ruled out a deal with them?

No.

They can do so of course. In fact nothing at all can stop them from putting Labour and the Greens into Government, should they wish to. They have the constitutional right to do as they wish.

But there is an alternative. That is National as the largest party forms a minority government, and it continues to govern while it can pass confidence and supply votes in the House. This would mean NZ First abstaining (or possibly voting in favour).

You see one does not need to have a formal deal, where you swap policies or ministerial portfolios in exchange for confidence and supply. In countries such as Canada, minority governments form most of the time without a formal agreement on the basis the largest party should get a chance to govern.  You don’t need a formal agreement. You just need to be able to pass confidence votes in the House and get supply for the Government.

Now a minority government would need to of course negotiate with NZ First and/or other parties in Parliament in order to pass laws, but that happens already. For every law National at present only has 59 votes and has to get one or more parties to vote with them in order to pass a law. When they can’t, the law fails or is amended to be acceptable.

National would also need the House to vote for the Government’s Budget, or we would have an election. I would expect that a minority National Government would negotiate with parties on what they would like in the Budget, in order to get support. The Government may not agree to everything asked for, and that party would have to decide whether to force an early election or not. Doing so could risk an electoral backlash.

The advantage to National of minority government is that you would not need to have National and NZ First pretending they agree with each other on most issues, and that any criticisms between the parties would not be fighting within the Government, but just what you normally expect in Parliament.

And what are the advantages to NZ First? Also considerable. They get to be the deciding vote on most legislation, have a real chance of getting significant policy gains, but don’t run the risk of being in a third term government. They also retain the ability to differentiate from National. And as they have the ability to bring the Government down at any time, or put Labour into power, everyone would be very nice to them!

Now it is arguable that a minority government with no signed confidence and supply agreements could be unstable, and not last full term. That is true. But even having a formal agreement is no guarantee – as we found out in 1998 when the coalition split apart and dissolved between National and NZ First.

So as I said on Friday, I think Key should rule Peters out again. If we get an election result where say National again has 59 seats and Labour can’t govern without the Greens, then Key should offer to form a minority government. Peters may decide to go with Labour in return for some baubles but I am unsure he could stomach putting the Greens into power. Instead he may allow National to form a minority government, but he’ll be in a position to be the deciding vote on almost every law that comes before Parliament.

So what Key could announce (I have no idea what he will) is that National could work in Government with ACT, United Future, Maori Party and/or the Conservatives. After that, he would not entertain a formal confidence and supply agreement, but would be willing to to run a minority Government if any other party in Parliament were willing to abstain to allow that to happen.

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25 Responses to “The case for minority government”

  1. Nick R (443 comments) says:

    Dancing on the head of a pin here. I agree that there is a difference between giving Winston a ministerial portfolio and getting his support on confidence and supply. But either way, National wouldn’t be able to govern without a commitment from Winston. And that would have to be paid for.

    [DPF: what commitment did the first term Harper Government get from the NDP to govern in Canada?]

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  2. Longknives (4,039 comments) says:

    National were prepared to pay a terrible price to the Maori Party for their support,
    Why can they not do the same for Winston?
    As I said the other day- Keeping Russel Norman away from our healthy economy must be the priority for any sane New Zealander..

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  3. thePeoplesFlag (101 comments) says:

    Sounds like Steven Joyce is shortening someones chain.

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  4. queenstfarmer (696 comments) says:

    What bauble might Winston seek? Arise, Sir Winston.

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  5. iMP (2,143 comments) says:

    Winston will want a portfolio, preferably F.Affairs again. He’s interested only in baubbles at his age, and doesn’t really care about the politics anymore. If Greens offer him that, he’ll take it and spend most of his time away from NZ in foreign places.

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  6. Scott Chris (5,672 comments) says:

    Peters may decide to go with Labour in return for some baubles

    Enough said. Winston First.

    What bauble might Winston seek? Arise, Sir Winston.

    Hmm maybe. It would be a death knell for that particular institution which Labour may be happy to sound.

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  7. Psycho Milt (1,972 comments) says:

    So, minority government is fine? I agree – it’s just a matter of who can get the votes for confidence and supply. The question is, will you be so keen to make a case for it if the minority in question is a Labour/Green one?

    [DPF: Peters would have every right to put in a Labour/Greens minority Government if he so wishes]

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  8. redqueen (342 comments) says:

    The problem here is that it increases NZF’s changes of getting back in. If Key states ‘Not under any conditions’, then voters will have to decide, basically, whether they want a National or Labour-Green led government in power. If the Conservatives are given an olive branch, particularly with a winnable seat, this might be sufficient to push ‘conservative’ voters away from NZF and towards the Conservative Party (not that I would advocate playing with the Conservatives, but as DPF has stated before, the same voter base is attracted). By comparison, if the ‘door is left open’, then NZF may continue to attract votes, as people will not necessarily see this as a pure change of government.

    It’s an interesting idea, but I think it’s in Peters’ best interest that Key does this, rather than in National’s (or New Zealand’s, for that matter). ACT and UF are more reliable coalition partners (in parliamentary terms), albeit ones which are no longer particularly relevant (politically). Even a minor door being left open could be disasterous for the election.

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  9. Dave Mann (1,125 comments) says:

    Hey I’ve had a radical idea…. to avoid all this bullshit, we could go back to FPP and rid parliament of all these fringe dwellers, crazies, racists and attention-seekers. If we had the constitutional courage to do this and admit that MMP is a failed experiment, wouldn’t that be a great idea? What happened in the famous ‘review’ that they were going to do?

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  10. grumpyoldhori (2,410 comments) says:

    Canada is a trifle different David, for one thing they have FPP voting.
    And the Canadian Governor General did not do her job when Harper lost the confidence of the house.
    She should have asked the Liberals,NDP,Bloc ? do you have the confidence of the house, can you govern.
    It was amusing watching posts from Canadian Conservatives who all argue that the largest party should govern, even without the confidence of the house.

    A minority NZ government under MMP, I have a few doubts about that.

    I wonder how many Nat types would argue that National should govern as the largest party, many I would suggest.

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  11. tvb (3,937 comments) says:

    National would need to demonstrate they have the confidence of the house to form a Government and if there is no alternative then there will be another election if a confidence motion is lost.

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  12. bhudson (4,720 comments) says:

    A minority NZ government under MMP, I have a few doubts about that.

    It’s been done before – Labour with Jim Anderton and Peter Dunne.

    If my memory serves me correctly, Jenny Shipley might actually have done this first under MMP with Kopu’s support on confidence & supply.

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  13. Than (368 comments) says:

    This is pointlessly splitting hairs and effectively backtracks on your Friday post. National would still need to negotiate an arrangement with NZF, and would form a government only as stable as Winston’s whim. Whether NZF abstain or vote in favour and whether it’s a formal or informal arrangement are differences that make no difference.

    Far better to let Labour+Greens deal with Winston. Let them have half a term of government hobbled by the need to get Winston’s support (or National’s) for each piece of legislation they want to pass.

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  14. Graeme Edgeler (3,216 comments) says:

    So, minority government is fine? I agree – it’s just a matter of who can get the votes for confidence and supply. The question is, will you be so keen to make a case for it if the minority in question is a Labour/Green one?

    I can’t see why DPF would take issue with this if the Labour/Green/Mana bloc was larger than the National/ACT/UF/Conservative bloc.

    Of course, if Winston repeats the claim he has made before that the party with the most votes should get the first opportunity to govern, then DPF may attack him if he goes back on that and offers some deal to a Labour/Green minority government, but that would be a different matter – any complaint about that would not be a complaint about the governing arranging but about trust etc.

    Can you confirm, DPF?

    [DPF: Criticising Winston for not keeping his word is like criticising a dog for licking his balls!]

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  15. Graeme Edgeler (3,216 comments) says:

    It’s been done before – Labour with Jim Anderton and Peter Dunne.

    In 2002, United Future and Labour signed a confidence and supply agreement promising support for the term of Parliament. DPF is talking about NZF announcing after the election that they intend to abstain to allow a government to be formed, with no promise beyond that (let alone for the entire term), and no promise to support the budget etc.

    [DPF: exactly. You allow a Government to form, and it stays in power while it has the confidence of the House]

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  16. bhudson (4,720 comments) says:

    @Graeme,

    That may well be the case, but grumpyoldhori expressed his doubts that a minority govt could work in nZ under MMP and I was simply pointing out that it is a case of “been there, done that.”

    (It may be that that the minority govt was only Labour and Jim’s Progessives (later Progressive as he couldn’t coat tail anyone else – still it appears it was ok while he was doing it, right @nzlabour?) but it was a minority govt nonetheless.

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  17. peterwn (2,932 comments) says:

    tvb “National would need to demonstrate they have the confidence of the house to form a Government and if there is no alternative then there will be another election if a confidence motion is lost.”

    I doubt this is the overarching factor. Issues that come into play would be:
    1. Is the GG obliged to appoint as PM the first leader who puts his hand up and says ‘I can govern’ without an inquiry into the possibility. Or should the GG allow other leaders a reasonable time (say a week or two) to get their beans in a row.
    2. Whether the loss of a confidence vote automatically results in an election. Could the GG instead invite another leader to form a government. Similarly if the PM tries to force a very early election (or one almost straight after an election) could the GG invite another leader to form a government.
    3. The possibility of a political backlash against the leader/ party perceived as being responsible for forcing an early election.
    4. At what point does a leader lose mandate? A leader decides what matters would be a ‘cofidence vote’. Is a leader obliged to resign if a ‘no confidence’ vote (eg as an amendment to the address in reply motion) is passed, or can a leader hang in until he or she fails to obtain ‘supply’ (ie Parliament voting money for the government to continue to function). This was at issue with Goff Whitlam’s dismissal, and recently at issue in USA.
    5. Can an incumbent leader (eg John Key) sit tight in the face of an uncertain election outcome with the hope of negotiating ‘supply’ – ie a minority leader? If this is possible, the art here is to ‘smell the coffee’ and decide whether this would succeed and if not how much damage it would do to the party. A narrowly defeated party which quickly reorganises into a fierce opposition is a real menace to a new Government.

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  18. Sir Cullen's Sidekick (514 comments) says:

    As I have posted many times, nobody can stop a Labour-Green-NZ First-Mana-FatCon government in 2014. All your speculations about National forming another government – minority or otherwise – is waste of time. Get on with accepting David Cunliffe as your PM and Norman as your Finance Minister and Deputy PM. Heavens are not going to fall.

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  19. Graeme Edgeler (3,216 comments) says:

    1. Is the GG obliged to appoint as PM the first leader who puts his hand up and says ‘I can govern’ without an inquiry into the possibility. Or should the GG allow other leaders a reasonable time (say a week or two) to get their beans in a row.

    The GG expects public statements from Party Leaders that make things clear. In short, it should be obvious to anyone who reads the papers. Given the two and a bit weeks between election day and the formal announcement of the result, there should be enough time for anyone to have some opportunity to get their beans in a row. If the Greens are on 4.8%, or New Zealand First is on 5.2%, that might delay things, of course.

    Whether the loss of a confidence vote automatically results in an election. Could the GG instead invite another leader to form a government. Similarly if the PM tries to force a very early election (or one almost straight after an election) could the GG invite another leader to form a government.

    The GG waits until matters are clear. The current government continues, on a caretaker basis.

    At what point does a leader lose mandate? A leader decides what matters would be a ‘cofidence vote’. Is a leader obliged to resign if a ‘no confidence’ vote … is passed?

    There is the possibility for a time to seek renewed support in the House (although they may see the writing on the wall).

    If a confidence vote fails, or a supply vote fails, the government continues in the interim on a caretaker basis.

    Can an incumbent leader (eg John Key) sit tight in the face of an uncertain election outcome with the hope of negotiating ‘supply’ – ie a minority leader?

    After Parliament has dissolved for the election, government continues, but on a caretaker basis. This continues until any post-election confusion is resolved. However, the new Parliament is required to sit within 6 weeks of the return of the election writ, so it can’t go on forever.

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  20. Alan (906 comments) says:

    The loss of a confidence motion doesn’t automatically result in an election. If another leader claimed to have a majority, the GG would be compelled to let him put it to the test on the floor.

    NZ First to allow a minority national administration as opposed to putting the greens into power? Well it depends on a couple of things, firstly how big the green vote was. If the Greens fall to around 6% as I expect then their influence is low and I think he’d go for it. He may not want to do it, but going out with a $300k salary and a crown limo must be mighty tempting. He know the party dies with his retirement.

    I’m not convinced the greens would be in that strong a position to extract wins from Labour in post election negotiations. They have no where else to go, and Labour know it. All they have is the nuclear option of another election, which they can’t afford to fight and run the serious risk of being knocked out or the public returning a right wing administration.

    Cunners will beat them down brutally and offer them some crumbs from his table. With anything less than 15% of the vote Norman can forget about a serious portfolio.

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  21. Colville (1,765 comments) says:

    Alan @ 12.03.
    If Greens did deploy the nuke option and forced a new election (the Left govt failed) the Gweens would be destroyed in the new election, so Wussel really is fucked.

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  22. s.russell (1,486 comments) says:

    My thoughts:
    In the event that NZ First comes out of the election holding the balance between Left and Right blocs, this is what I expect would happen:
    1) The GG would seek statements from party leaders which showed how a confidence vote in Parliament would go. He would appoint as PM whichever leader has the numbers. If Peters declines to make this clear, then the GG would wait for Parliament to meet and vote (in which case the present Govt remains as caretaker until then).
    2) Peters could back a Labour-led Govt on any basis he wants, ranging from a coalition deal to no deal at all.
    3) Peters could vote no confidence against both blocs, in which case a new election would be required. But Peters would gain nothing from this and potentially be crucified.
    4) Peters could allow a National-led bloc to win a confidence vote (either by voting for it or maybe abstaining) on any basis he wants, ranging from a coalition deal to no deal at all.
    5) In that later case, the Govt lives on on Peters’ whim, vote by vote. It cannot call a new election because Peters can change his mind and back Labour.
    6) I suspect that the public would NOT like this situation. If National tried to operate like this it would damage itself.
    7) If Key refuses to govern under these circumstances then Cunliffe becomes PM, under the same circumstances. He might not like it but I doubt Cunliffe would refuse.
    8) This situation would be both orgasmic for Peters and extremely dangerous, as voters have little tolerance for instability or uncertainty and a new election could seriously punish him (as per 1999). He might try it though, on the basis of getting three years as kingmaker before the house comes crashing down. He might also calculate he can control the timing of a Govt collapse and hinge it on some issue that favours him.
    9) Attempting to hold a minority National Govt to ransom is fraught with peril for both, and would probably be fatal for NZ First.
    10) Therefore, the sensible thing for Peters to do is extract from Labour the highest possible price in baubles for his support, and then back them.

    Given all that, I think Key should make it quite clear that he would NOT run a minority Govt at the whim of Peters, that such a situation would be unstable, unsustainable and bad for New Zealand.

    That will make the choice for voters very clear: a vote for Peters is a vote for Labour/Greens with NO loopholes, equivocations or let-outs. If New Zealand REALLY wants to vote for THAT (Labour/Greens/NZ First) rather than Key and National then the whole country is in the poo anyway no matter how you work the election numbers in 2014.

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  23. MH (558 comments) says:

    and then Dotcom,Dunne and the GSCB leak all the phone calls….

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  24. MH (558 comments) says:

    and then Dotcom,Dunne and the GSCB leak all the phone calls….and then Lt Gen Mateparae confers with Cdre Bainimarama.
    Flags are raised signal “Winstone’s back-watch yours”

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  25. CharlieBrown (784 comments) says:

    This just makes me trully belive that john key is a gutless, spineless glory whore whose only goal is the glory of PM. This guy is smart, he will know that the shorter period a left wing green/labour government stays in power the better it is for NZ And he will know that if Winston goes into coalition with the pile of turd we call the greens, labour, united future, maori and mana parties then the length that those tin pot fools govern NZ isn’t likely to be long. A national party that gets 48% of the vote and goes into opposition is likely to be very effective and get elected in 2017, whereas a national government that goes into power by brown nosing winston peters is going to get slaughtered in 2017 and ensure 9 years of economic sabotage.

    This just points to John Key being in it for himself. I am confident he is going to go down as one of the most ineffectual leaders NZ has ever had. The only reason NZ hasn’t done so poor isn’t because of good economic leadership, it is by not doin a thing and just letting every country around you stuff up.

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