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 National has ruled out a deal with them?
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.