Jeremy Vargo

By Jeremy Vargo - 18/08/2014

Jeremy Vargo

By Jeremy Vargo -

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MMP refresher – the paths to power

Last week, my friends got into a heated discussion regarding David Cunliffe’s statements about Internet Mana. Mr Cunliffe said he wouldn’t have their MPs in a government he led, but he would work with them. “Isn’t that the same thing?” they asked. The answer is no, but to make the distinction there’s a few key things about the way we do politics in this country that we have to wrap our head around.

The basics 

First, candidates and parties don’t just want to get into parliament, they really want to be in government. A party only gets to be in government if they can show that they can win votes in parliament on confidence (whether parliament has confidence in the government) or “supply” (basically, a vote to supply money for the government’s policies, like the Budget). If a party doesn’t have enough votes to do this on their own, they will look to form some kind of support deal with other parties they reckon they can work with to get over the line. If they can get over the line—either by themselves, or with others—then some of their MPs will be appointed as ministers to carry out government.

Cabinet or bust

The real power to set the agenda for what’s going to happen in New Zealand government rests in Cabinet. This is the name for the core group of the top 20 government ministers that meet together most weeks on the top floor of the Beehive in Wellington. They are the most powerful group within parliament, as the discussions in Cabinet set the political agenda for most of what goes before the rest of Parliament to be voted on. The 20 ministers in Cabinet are each responsible for specific government departments and initiatives, like education, housing, trade and the Christchurch rebuild.

Yes minister 

So not every MP who belongs to the governing party is actually in government, because it is the ministers who govern. But other MPs from their party, called backbench MPs, support the government by voting with their ministers. Given that at last count there were over 63 different areas of ministerial responsibility to be divided up amongst the ministers of government, there are also ministers that are not part of Cabinet,

For example, Pita Sharples is a Māori Party MP, and the Minister for Māori Affairs. Dr Sharples is currently one of the eight ministers “outside of Cabinet.” These eight ministers visit Cabinet meetings to help set the agenda for their areas of responsibility, but they are not part of the group discussion about every area of government in the same way that Cabinet ministers are.

Getting a government together

Having a minister outside of Cabinet has become a usual reward in an MMP landscape for Labour or National to offer smaller parties that are willing to support them in a support deal like a “confidence and supply agreement.” But what are confidence and supply agreements, and what are the other ways that parties can form a government?

  1. Governing alone 

    Obviously the first, and arguably most stable way to form a government is to govern alone. This is possible when one party occupies more than half of the seats—and therefore commands more than half of the votes—in parliament. This hasn’t happened since MMP was introduced in 1996, and is quite unlikely to occur under this electoral system.

  2. Coalition, or governing together 

    The second way to form a government is through an official coalition between two or more parties. Coalitions involve parties officially agreeing to share power, and allocating places in Cabinet for each coalition party to reflect the fact that they are governing together. This usually means that the parties collaborate on all aspects of government policy, although past coalition governments have been famously fractious, as smaller parties can feel they aren’t being taken seriously in Cabinet, and the larger party can start to feel their partner is demanding more influence than is warranted by their size.An example of a coalition is the 1999 post-election agreement between Labour—who held 49 seats in parliament—and the Alliance Party who had 10 seats. In this arrangement, Labour MPs filled 16 of the seats in Cabinet, including Prime Minister, whereas the Alliance were allocated four ministerial posts within Cabinet, including Alliance leader Jim Anderton as Deputy Prime Minister.

  3. Confidence and supply 

    A third method of creating a government is through what’s called a “confidence and supply” deal. This is where parties agree to support the government in confidence and supply votes, usually in exchange for having a minister outside of Cabinet and an agreement from the government to support some of their policies. For the last six years, National has relied upon confidence and supply agreements with ACT, United Future and the Māori Party, for which those parties have received some quite significant ministerial positions and policy concessions like Whānau Ora and Partnership Schools.Under this kind of deal, it’s become quite normal to have a government that’s technically a minority in parliament, because they can’t win confidence and supply votes on their own. But the confidence and supply agreement gives them the ability to win those votes in parliament, and so they have the authority to govern. In 2005 we even had Labour and the Progressive Party in a coalition minority government, supported by confidence and supply agreements with United Future and New Zealand First. Under this arrangement, Labour and the Progressives had ministers in Cabinet, and United Future and New Zealand First each held a ministerial position outside of Cabinet.

  4. Votes for policy 

    Interestingly, although the Greens have previously agreed to support Labour governments on confidence and supply matters, they have never managed to negotiate a confidence and supply deal that would give them a ministerial position in or out of Cabinet, meaning they have never been a part of government, a fact that can be surprising to many New Zealanders. They instead have engaged in a ‘votes for policy’ deal, where they agree to support the government on certain votes, in exchange for the government agreeing to adopt certain policies that the Greens are passionate about.

So while David Cunliffe rules out having Internet Mana as a coalition partner with one of their MPs in Cabinet, or doing a confidence and supply agreement with them—which historically justifies a place as a minister outside of cabinet—he is leaving the door open to a “votes for policy” deal.

If this is anything like previous agreements between Labour and the Greens, it would involve Labour adopting one or two key policies that Internet Mana are passionate about, in return for their promise to vote for a Labour-led government. And that is how a politician can rule a party out of government without necessarily losing their votes or making them irrelevant.

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Jeremy Vargo

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