New Zealand Law Society - Law lecturer clears up coalition confusion from a constitutional perspective

Law lecturer clears up coalition confusion from a constitutional perspective

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A senior lecturer at Victoria University’s Faculty of Law has given his insight into the new Labour led Government’s coalition arrangement from a constitutional perspective.

Dean Knight says last Thursday’s announcement by Winston Peters heralded a new government; a formal coalition between Labour and New Zealand First, supported on confidence-and-supply by the Green Party.

“With the change of government came a change in multi-party governance arrangements, or at least a slightly different template than we’ve seen recently,” he says.

Government – inside and outside

Dr Knight says there is quite a bit of confusion about which parties form part of government, and especially whether the Green Party is in or not.

He says some critics claim they are not and brand the new administration as a minority government, wrongly in his view.

“Government is not a constitutional term of art. It’s not defined in our skeletal constitution and, in some respects, has a hazy meaning. But, in this context, we usually take it to mean the political portion of the executive.

The old-fashioned Westminster view was a party was part of the government if some of its members were part of the Cabinet. Cabinet, although an informal creation was the key site of power within executive government. And all the key players were at the Cabinet table,” he says.

But he says the multi-party politics that came with the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system brought local innovations.

“Confidence-and-supply agreements, with circumscribed support for the government programme. Ministers outside Cabinet. And so forth. Thus, fixation on Cabinet membership misses the point.

Instead, we might ask whether a party contributes members to the executive branch of government. On this view, then parties whose members hold executive roles – ministers, whether inside or outside Cabinet, or parliamentary undersecretaries are part of the government,” he says.

Verdict – a majority government

In other words, Dr Knight says, we have a government made up of Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens.

“And, by definition, that government is also a majority government. It’s daft to describe it as a minority government when its contributing parties represent 63 of the 120 MPs in the House,” he says.

Dr Knight says our parliamentary rules, updated for MMP politics, recognise the important role of parties in that members of parties are generally treated as a bloc.

“Hence, it’s unhelpful to suggest, as some people do, that some Green MPs (ministers) are inside government and others (backbenchers) are outside. We don’t treat the lead party in government that way. And it ignores the fact the Green Party has committed all its members to sustain the government on important votes of confidence-and-supply and the caucus system will deliver that necessary support,” he says.