John Key is claiming that the party with the most seats after the next election has a "moral mandate" to govern. Well, you would expect him to think that, wouldn't you?

It seems like I haven't been the only one to take the by-election result in Ikaroa-Rāwhiti as an open invite to speculate wildly on the possible outcome of a general election to be held in some 18 months. Especially after this result precipitated Pita Sharples' decision to give up the Maori Party leadership, there's been quite a bit of crystal ball gazing as to what it all means for who'll get to run the country at the end of next year.

Now, in response to some media prompting, John Key has set out his view (via Vernon Small's column) on potential post-2014 arrangements:

Key said the largest party had the "moral mandate" to govern.

"If National was to go out there and poll 46 per cent or 47 per cent - very similar to the result in 2011 - and not form the Government I think there would be outrage in NZ," he said.

Not surprisingly, that view happens to be one that serves John Key's future interests very well. I don't think you'd find many takers on ipredict for a contract that only pays out if National is not the largest party in Parliament after the next election. So I can see why he's so keen to have his reading of the situation become a truth universally acknowledged.

However, it is a position that is based on flatly wrong predicates. And seeing as it is a point of view that probably has quite wide appeal, as well as one that will be parroted on a regular basis next year (look out also for repeated references to a "coalition of the losers"), it is worth spelling out in some detail just why it is so wrong.

When it comes to our Constitution, there is one rule, and one rule only, that decides who has "the right" to govern in New Zealand. That rule - to be found in the Westminster-derived constitutional convention upon which our governing arrangements sit - is that the individual MP who enjoys the support and confidence of a majority of the House of Representatives gets to be Prime Minister, hence chief advisor to the Governor General. That status then enables him or her to advise the Governor General on the appointment of other MPs as Ministers of the Crown, who collectively form the Government.

Sure, sometimes that rule may be a bit unclear in its operation; there are potential situations where it is not certain which MP (if any) enjoys majority support in the House. And there also are "transition points" between governments, where a PM (and Government) that has lost support of the majority of MPs stays on in a caretaker role until a new PM (and Government) is sworn in.

But for all that, the basic rule itself is clear. And note all that this rule demands: majority support in the House of Representatives. It doesn't matter how that support is gained, or where it comes from, or to whom it is given ... if you got it, you get to govern; but if you don't, you don't. End of story.

Now, the reality of MMP is that 46 or 47 per cent of the party vote is not enough to give a party a majority of the seats in the House (at least, not without a bunch of other parties sucking up a relatively large chunk of the party vote without making the representation threshold). So a party like National that has cannibalised its support partners and so is able to command such a large share of the party vote certainly enjoys an advantage in the race to a majority; it may be within only a couple of seats of achieving that goal, so is well placed to negotiate the last little bit of support needed to get it over the line. But it does not, purely by virtue of having more seats than anyone else, automatically win the race ... because until you have majority support, then you don't have anything.

Simply put, in terms of how our Constitution works, a party with 47 per cent of the vote has no more "right" to govern the country than does a party with 5 per cent. By themselves, both are minorities within the House of Representatives - and a majority is needed to govern.

"Ah!", you might say at this point. "But John Key wasn't talking about a Constitutional right to govern. He was talking about a moral right to do so - in that because the New Zealand public doesn't actually understand how our Constitution works, they simply expect that the biggest party ought to be in charge, and will be angry if this doesn't happen. So while it is true that even a party with 47 per cent of the vote still needs extra support to rule, the onus is on other parties in Parliament to grant it the support that lets it do so."

Well, we'll get to the question of whether it is the case that New Zealanders really expect that the biggest party will get to be in charge - in that "there would be outrage in NZ" if it didn't - in a moment. But let's accept it for the moment ... why would New Zealanders think it?

First, it is true that the various Governments that have formed under MMP have been led by the biggest party in Parliament. But they didn't need to be. In 1996, National only formed a coalition Government on the back of a pretty cynical switch in attitude by Winston Peters. Had he stayed true to his campaign rhetoric (and the evident desires of those who voted for him), our first MMP Government would not have included the largest party in the House.

And in 2005, it took several weeks for Don Brash to give up on his hopes for a four-way governing arrangement that would have kept Labour - the largest party in the House - from a third term in office. So it is hardly the case that following each election, all the parties have simply looked to see which one has won the most votes and then shruggingly said "oh well, I guess they'll get to be in charge." That may be the way things worked out in practice ... but there was hardly a cast-iron assumption that they had to do so.

Second, it also is true that various minor parties have over time appeared to accede to the largest party's "moral right" to govern. So, in past electoral campaigns both NZ First and UnitedFuture have publicly stated that they will give either National or Labour precedence in post-election negotiations, depending on which of these two parties wins the greater share of the party vote. 

But again, let's recognise these statements for what they are. They aren't pre-election commitments to support the largest party into government, no matter what. Rather, they simply are statements about who they'll talk to first about lending their support (and thus votes in the House). And furthermore, they are statements designed to solve a particular problem that those smaller parties faced. Because if either were to express a solid pre-election preference for governing with one major party over the other, then they risked alienating a substantial portion of their support base.

So a default position of "we'll give precedence to talking to the larger party after the election" allows those parties to stave off media demands about who they will support post election, while avoiding scaring off any voters who prefer National over Labour (or vice versa). It is more a position of pragmatic issue avoidance than a principled recognition that "the biggest ought to be allowed to rule".

Finally, it may very well be that the New Zealand voting public carry some residual pre-MMP belief that having "the most" seats somehow equates to having the right to run the country. For most of New Zealand's political history, this actually was true. The First-Past-the-Post voting system meant that whichever party had "the most" seats thereby inevitably also had a majority in the House, allowing it to govern by itself. 

(Although, it is worth reminding ourselves that under FPP, having a majority of seats in the House did not mean having majority support in the country as a whole. That hasn't happened since 1951 - and also recall both 1978 and 1981, when the National Party won a majority in the House with less votes than Labour received.)

However, in a MMP environment, conflating "the most" with "the majority" is inexcusable. The whole point of changing our voting system was to make coalition governments a virtual necessity. And the whole point of coalition government is that it brings together various parties that are sympatico enough to govern together, without being so alike that there is no point to their separate existence.

Therefore, coalition government rewards those parties that are able to reach beyond their own support base and make common cause with parties that appeal to different ideological viewpoints. Which is why John Key was so very wise to seek to include the Maori Party in his governing arrangements back in 2008 and 2011. Because, ultimately, under MMP it is your success in being able to make just these sorts of connections that win you a place in government, and not your success in winning votes for your party per se.

Nor, I should add, is any ongoing public misunderstanding that "the most" somehow equates to "the majority" helped by media coverage that continues to fixate on the relative poll standings of National and Labour, as if this will be the major determining factor in the next election. Sure, it's not unimportant how well each of these parties are doing - but it simply does not matter as much as the respective standings of the party "blocs" that each is a part of.

And here I return to my central point. A National Party that gets 47 percent in the polls but is unable to negotiate support from another 2 or 3 MPs will lose the 2014 election! Whereas a Labour Party that gets 33 per cent in the polls, joined by a Green Party that gets 11 per cent and a NZ First Party that gets 5 per cent will win the 2014 election! That isn't just a consequence of mathematics - it is how MMP always was supposed to operate.

Which is where John Key's claimed "moral mandate" claim comes in. It is an attempt to avoid becoming a victim of his own party's success, in that National has so effectively absorbed the support its previous governing partners enjoyed that their electoral future now looks distinctly uncertain. So, given that the correlative of a party having a "moral mandate" to govern is that other parties are under a "moral obligation" to let it do so, he is seeking to create pressure on whatever alternative support options may exist (and by this, I mean NZ First) to shift into his camp. By proclaiming this "moral mandate", and asserting there will be "real anger" if it is ignored, John Key is thus attempting to will it into being.

Now, given that John Key undoubtedly thinks that the best thing for New Zealand is that he remain in office after 2014. So I can see why he thinks other parties really have a "moral obligation" to let him do so. But there equally is no reason for anyone who votes for any party other than National to think it. The only obligation that a party has is to negotiate the best governing arrangement it can to deliver outcomes that are beneficial to those who cast a vote for them.

That arrangement may well include the largest party in the House (as it has after each of our MMP elections). But it equally may not. And that is perfectly OK, too.

Comments (13)

by Tim Watkin on July 03, 2013
Tim Watkin

Well, you might have guessed I'd be the first to jump in on this one, given I wrote a post last year with the inverse headline but making a similar point:

http://pundit.co.nz/content/on-the-matter-of-coming-2nd-and-yet-winning

So I utterly agree and think the earlier this gets recognised the better. Key, to be fair, has been consistent in arguing this for years. He's just wrong. A majority of parliament is what wins elections, not the biggest party.

But here's a question – if the Nats are marooned on 48% with no partners, say, and the rest can form a coalition of 52%... or even if the Nats get 44% and the Conservatives 4% including an electorate... who gets to go to the G-G first? Does Key get to go to ask for time to form a coalition and require minor parties to talk to National alone in the first instance? Could the G-G give the largest party longer to try to change Winston's mind, for example, while Labour is knocking at the door claiming a coalition? What's the precise order of events? And what role could the G-G play?

by Andrew Geddis on July 03, 2013
Andrew Geddis

Tim,

That's a post in itself! I'll do one closer to Election Day.

But, short answer ... there is no set protocol here. The parties talk, and when there's a deal that creates a majority, then they let the GG know. So no-one has a "right" to do the deal first/talk to the GG first ... the GG's role is to sit tight and wait for the party leaders to come to him with the outcome of their talks (or, at most, make enquiries of all involved as to the status of their negotiations).

by stuart munro on July 03, 2013
stuart munro

Let us hope the smaller parties have a better protocol than they did the last time the situation arose. Peters' somewhat legitimate desire to get the best deal cost him plenty of credibility as the not so legitimate post election delays grew.

Better if possible for coalitions to form pre-election, so as to receive public assent, than to be put together on the fly after the fact, and without that assent.

by Ross on July 03, 2013
Ross

It's hard not to disagree with you. Key is thinking First Past The Post in an MMP world.

But I'm not sure I agree with your comment that "a Labour Party that gets 33 per cent in the polls, joined by a Green Party that gets 11 per cent and a NZ First Party that gets 5 per cent will win the 2014 election!" Winston could align himself with National, or not align himself with any party.

by Chris de Lisle on July 03, 2013
Chris de Lisle
If National came first but lost in 2014, I don't know whether it would be very difficult for them to whip up public outrage as Stephen Harper did in 2008 when the Canadian opposition parties attempted to form a coalition. The more often John Key mentions this moral mandate and the more MMP elections in which has mandate is not breached, the more people will come to accept it as the rule. Once it feels like a rule, then what could have happened in 1996 and the exact words of Winston Peters' pre-election commitments won't be persuasive counter arguments to the feeling that an unwritten rule has been broken. The negative response to the Five-headed Hydra suggests that we might be getting to that point. Unless, that is, coming first and losing continues to be raised as a possible outcome, as you have done in this post.
by Andrew Geddis on July 03, 2013
Andrew Geddis

@Ross,

Yes - I was using the example to illustrate the maths, not as a necessary prediction. As Tim says in his own post, Winston could do anything!

by Graeme Edgeler on July 04, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

I too have written on this (noting Chris Trotter's concern with my piece).

My simple point is that just because you and I and Tim and Chris all think this doesn't mean we get to force others to agree with us. It seems to be accepted as a political convention (if not a constitutional one) in Canada, that the largest party governs.

But there equally is no reason for anyone who votes for any party other than National to think it.

There may be no reason for supporters of another party to think that, but I suspect a great many do. This is something odd that has changed since the first MMP election - people were, I think, very accepting of the possibility of a coalition of runners up at that point, but I expect are less so today.

The only obligation that a party has is to negotiate the best governing arrangement it can to deliver outcomes that are beneficial to those who cast a vote for them.

I think they also have an obligation to signal this before the election. If  Labour, the Greens, and New Zealand First want to be able to claim a mandate to govern as a group, they should let people know that's on the cards before the election. Just as a party that doesn't campaign on a particular policy can't claim a mandate to implement it (but can claim authority to implement it), a party that wants to claim not only the power, but also a mandate to a particular governing arrangement should signal it before people vote.

My earlier post looks at other factors I think will be important in the public acceptance of a coalition of runners up.

by Andrew Geddis on July 04, 2013
Andrew Geddis

My simple point is that just because you and I and Tim and Chris all think this doesn't mean we get to force others to agree with us.

I'm not sure how we can "force" anyone to do anything, much less why blog posts pointing out that people's reasons for thinking something quite possibly are wrong constitutes a use of "force". And I'd also argue that it's John Key, with the use of phrases like "moral mandate", that is trying to "force" an outcome into existence.

It seems to be accepted as a political convention (if not a constitutional one) in Canada, that the largest party governs.

Perhaps because in Canada, wedded as they are to FPP and all that that brings, there is an expectation that: (1) Government will consist of only one party, and (2) that party will be the biggest one (which usually will have a majority, thanks to FPP). No reason at all to think a similar political convention ought to apply here, given that (1) no longer applies. Furthermore, Canada's "the largest party governs" convention also appears to dictate that it does so only until the opinion polls appear to give it an opportunity to get a majority - at which point there is a snap election.

There may be no reason for supporters of another party to think that, but I suspect a great many do.

Which partly is why I wrote this post. Just as if a great many supporters of a given party happen to think that some individual from another party has a "moral mandate" to govern because his hair happens to be styled in a beautiful silver wave, I'd point out that their belief sits on a pretty weak foundation. No-one may listen to me, of course ... but that's pretty much what happens in my day job, anyway.

If  Labour, the Greens, and New Zealand First want to be able to claim a mandate to govern as a group, they should let people know that's on the cards before the election.

Just as if National and NZ First want to be able to claim a mandate to govern as a group, they should let people know that's on the cards before the election? Or, indeed, if any parties intend to make a post-election arrangement, it is incumbent on them to say so before it is held?

Which is fine - except until the numbers shake out, it's pretty hard to say who will go with whom ... meaning that perhaps the most we can hope for are general promises like those given prior to previous elections (i.e. to give preference to the party with the most votes, or similar).

by Alan Johnstone on July 04, 2013
Alan Johnstone

I think the "moral mandate" stuff is a reflection of the recognition within the National party that they have made strategic blunders that will make governing very difficult in 2014.

Their support now appears capped at 46% and they have no friends.  Act must surely be dead, Peter Dunne a political corpse and the Maori party heading leftwards quickly under new leadership to try and survive. Who ever in National decided to leave MMP untouched last year wants shooting. Colin Craig brings huge risks, the media will drag up every whacky statement from the past 5 years and there must be a huge danger he'd snap and say something profoundly honest (but politically toxic) in a campagin situation.

I think that every one voting for the Green Party and the Mana Party next year knows that they are voting for an administration in which the Labour leader (who ever that is) is PM.

In the end however it might just come to Winston, anything could happen, but I can't see him serving with Key, the relationship is surely too toxic.

 

by BeShakey on July 04, 2013
BeShakey

The whole idea of a moral mandate seems perverse to me. If we somehow ended up with a three party parliament it would be bizarre to suggest that the Greens were morally obliged to prop up National, rather than Labour, irrespective of their policies (this argument is actually being run by the Australian opposition). Of course, its up to the NZ opposition to clearly communicate to the public that they may form a government from parties that are smaller than National. From a distance, they seem to be doing an OK job of this, which might explain why Key feels the need to start undermining them.

by Graeme Edgeler on July 04, 2013
Graeme Edgeler

If we somehow ended up with a three party parliament it would be bizarre to suggest that the Greens were morally obliged to prop up National, rather than Labour, irrespective of their policies

I don't think many people think that. The Greens are clear about their preference, and make it known before the election. The concern arises much more in respect centre parties that hold themselves out as being able to work with either side.

by Andrew Geddis on July 04, 2013
Andrew Geddis

The concern arises much more in respect centre parties that hold themselves out as being able to work with either side.

So let's call it what it is - New Zealand First. Key effectively is saying that if this party is capable of doing so, it is "morally obligated" to give him a third term in office.

Actually, I wish he would come out and put it in those stark terms. Winston's response would be ... interesting.

by Ross on July 05, 2013
Ross

The concern arises much more in respect centre parties that hold themselves out as being able to work with either side.

Aren't National and Labour centre parties? Could they work together?

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