Opinion: I’ve voted – now remind me what happens next?

Are there enough rules around how we form a government in the days after an election?

by Professor Richard Shaw

After an inauspicious beginning, this year’s election campaign has transformed into the most gripping in living memory. However, amidst all the talk of imaginary fiscal holes, stardust and generational change it is easy to lose sight of the fact that, in some respects, the really important day this year is not September 23rd but the day after. 

For that is the day on which at least two and possibly more parties will begin discussing the shape and political complexion of the next government, barring the unlikely but not impossible event that either Labour or National are able to govern alone. Even if they were, chances are that, with an eye on 2020, they’d strike an arrangement with another party or parties anyway.

After seven MMP elections (Saturday will be our eighth) New Zealanders are pretty familiar with the general principle that while we directly elect our Parliaments we do not directly choose our governments. The French and the Americans may get to vote for their President, but we don’t get to do the same thing for our Prime Minister. Instead, the identity of the next Prime Minister will be determined through a process of government formation that will begin after Saturday’s election. And while we are generally pretty good these days on the relationship between the party vote and the shape of the next Parliament, my sense is that we are far less familiar with the critical business of how governments are formed. 

Our citizens’ role in this process is limited to casting our votes and thereby determining the distribution of seats amongst successful parties. What happens next is in the hands of those we have elected to Parliament. Curiously, but in keeping with the pretty loose way in which we run our constitution here in Aotearoa New Zealand, it transpires that there aren’t terribly many formal rules governing how the politicians we elect on Saturday will go about cobbling together the next government.

As Victoria University’s Professor Jonathan Boston explained some years ago in an excellent publication on governing under proportional representation, virtually all other countries have a framework of rules that wraps around government formation. These range from the requirement to have a ‘formateur’ (a person who oversees the government formation process), rules governing the sequence in which inter-party negotiations must take place, and the requirement that a putative government must win a vote of confirmation in the House before it can take office.

Here? Not so much – in fact, none of the above apply. In the absence of formal procedures, about the only thing we can be sure of is that the requirement that Parliament must meet roughly two months after the election will provide a strong political incentive for parties to have completed discussions by the time they all reconvene in the new Parliament. Beyond that, it’s over to them – which leads Boston to characterise as ‘free-style’ the process through which we go about forming governments here.

This isn’t to suggest that it’s all madness and mayhem. Not at all. In fact, since 1996 – which those of us old enough to remember will recall as a very steep learning curve for all concerned! – the political and bureaucratic classes have become very good at putting governments together.

In 1996 and 2005 it took nine and four weeks respectively, but in all other elections things have been counted in days rather than weeks. And we’ve become comfortable with minority governments (we haven’t had a majority government since the late 1990s), and very good at knitting them together using confidence and supply agreements. There has been a great deal of change in the shape and operations of our governments since we adopted MMP, but there have been few political and no constitutional crises emerging from the ‘free-style’ manner in which we go about cobbling governments together.

And yet. Doing things free-style is fine if you’re skiing on Cardrona or Whakapapa, but there is something a little disconcerting about the relative absence of formality in the way we build governments here.

Rules are important: they provide a measure of certainty and predictability, and they help the wider public to understand what’s going on in their democracy. Faced with a genuine conundrum on Saturday 24th – such as (implausible though it might sound) a dead heat between the centre-left and centre-right blocs – it is not clear how well we would respond. Should such a situation begin to emerge late Saturday, let’s hope the Governor-General, who would be the ultimate arbiter in such a situation, gets a good night’s sleep. 

Professor Richard Shaw is a senior lecturer in politics at Massey University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

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