New Zealand: Learning How to Govern in Coalition or Minority

By Hicks, Bruce M. | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

New Zealand: Learning How to Govern in Coalition or Minority


Hicks, Bruce M., Canadian Parliamentary Review


New Zealand switched electoral systems from single member plurality to mixed member proportionality for the 1996 election. The country's leadership was well aware that this change would mean that no one political party would have a majority of seats in the legislature, so extensive study was undertaken in advance with respect to coalition and minority governments. While this advance work held the public service in good stead, the political parties failed to respond adequately to the new governing dynamics. Even with the leadership of a former senior jurist as governor general it would take until Y2K for the political elites to learn how to operate within the new paradigm. The procedural improvements made by New Zealand in this period have most recently informed improvements to parliamentary government in the United Kingdom and Australia. This paper examines these and other lessons that New Zealand may offer Canada.

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Canada, along with the United Kingdom (1), Australia. and New Zealand share the Westminster-model', so named because this design has been inherited from that used for the British at the Palace of Westminster. Also called 'responsible parliamentary government', a label that emerged here in Canada, it is a parliamentary system whereby the people elect representatives to a legislature and it, in turn, chooses a government. The process is guided by a set of unwritten constitutional conventions. And while these conventions offer specific guidance as to by whom and how decisions should be made, when it comes to the 'reserve powers' of the monarch or her governor general--dissolving parliament, proroguing a session and choosing or dismissing a prime minister--they have begun to operationalize differently in each of these countries.

The reason for the deviation it two-fold: First, the electoral landscape has changed in each of these countries from what had previously been a majoritarian norm. This norm was created by single member plurality voting which in most countries delivers a majority of seats in the legislature to a single political party. (3) Even Australia, which had moved away from the SMP electoral system in 1919, was able to maintain majoritarian politics for the longest time through a semi-permanent coalition of two political parties on the right. But recently, beginning with New Zealand, each of these countries has seen its legislatures divided by multiple political parties.

Second, there has been a shift in political culture. Notions such as the need for government to implement policies that are supported by the majority of the legislature (and by extension the majority of the population), for fairness to minority political parties, for greater openness and accountability in government decision making and to increase civility in public life have created pressures in a number of Anglo countries to revisit the electoral system and to clarify the constitutional conventions that govern the Westminster-model.

In response to public demands for fairness to minority political parties and the voters who support them, New Zealand appointed a Royal Commission on the Electoral System which recommended a shift to 'mixed member proportionality' in 1986. Over the next few elections, the idea of holding a referendum on a change to the electoral system became a key election issue and, in 1992, the government was forced to follow through on its campaign promise, though it announced that the referendum would be non-binding. When 84 percent of the voters expressed the desire to change the system and 71 percent indicated that MMP was the preferred alternative, the government tried to backpedal by holding a second referendum. This one would be binding and held during the general election the following year, pitting SMP directly against MMP. In spite of a heavily funded campaign for SMP endorsed by many high profile political and business elites, MMP was chosen 54 to 46. …

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