Bryce Edwards: The legitimacy of the Labour-led government

Bryce Edwards: The legitimacy of the Labour-led government

Many New Zealanders are disgruntled that the new government does not include the largest party in parliament – i.e. National, which won 44.4% of the vote. Some are even questioning the legitimacy of the Labour-led government.

It’s worth checking out a basic but ingenious explanation of MMP coalition government from the following Facebook post from Eva Allan: “Allow me to explain MMP: There’s one mince and cheese pie left in the shop it costs $5. Bill has $4.50. Jacinda has $3.70. Winston has 70c. James has 60c and David has 5c. No one has enough money to buy the pie by themselves but Jacinda, Winston and James put their money together and buy the pie. Bill gets no pie because he needed 50c but didn’t have any friends to help him pay for the pie. I hope this helps explain things.”

Legitimacy challenged

This Facebook post has been a hit, and the reason it has resonated so strongly is there are still plenty of loud challenges being made to the legitimacy of the new government. The fact that the three parties that came second, third, and fourth in the election have been able to combine together to get a majority in Parliament is, of course, a new phenomenon. New Zealand hasn’t seen this under MMP yet, although we were always going to eventually.

In fact, having the biggest party get 44 per cent of the vote and not be in government is incredibly rare, even in other countries with proportional representation. Jane Clifton has been searching around and found that “the only other time it has happened was in Sweden in the 1970s” – see her latest column, Minority Rules: Who will be the first voted off Coalition Island.

For the most colourful and interesting challenge to the legitimacy of the new government, see Richard Prebble’s column, Jacinda Ardern will regret this coalition of losers. Prebble makes the astonishing allegation: “There has been a coup. The political scientists can tell us it’s legal but the fact remains – it is undemocratic. For the first time in our history who governs us is not the result of an election but the decision of one man. Jacinda Ardern is Prime Minister in name only. The only real power that the Prime Minister has is to allocate portfolios.”

Prebble goes further with the hyperbole, saying that “New Zealand is now a Shogunate. In Japan the Emperor had the title and the Shogun had all the power.”

This column has received an exasperated reply from Chris Trotter, who says “there is not a word of truth in any of this”, and he suggests that Prebble knows this and is simply trying to lay the ground for a counter-coup in which the new government is brought down – see: Dark transactions: Winston Peters decision to “Go Left” has already set his enemies in motion.

Prebble’s eccentric arguments aren’t entirely marginal – in fact they’re broadly in line with a media that has given considerable weight to the idea that National has a “moral authority” or mandate to govern due to enjoying greater popularity than Labour.

This is actually best conveyed on the front page of The Australian newspaper, which had a large headline declaring “NZ Shock: Losers take power”. You can see this front page and others in my blog post: Newspaper frontpages on the New Zealand election and new government.

Although the Australian newspaper might simply be ignorant of the local constitutional reality in New Zealand, much of the New Zealand media also pushed a similar line about National’s position.

Newspaper front pages in this country were very one-sided after the election, suggesting National had “won”, and that it was almost a formality that New Zealand First would put National back into office.

In fact, the Sunday Star Times editorial after the election said: “Let us be clear: Peters has no choice. The voting public cannot, and will not, tolerate him abusing his kingmaker position by swinging his support behind Ardern, when she is trailing 13 seats behind National. Some will be happy with this outcome; some disappointed. But the result is clear and unequivocal. A record 2.5 million New Zealanders voted. An unprecedented 1.2 million voted for National” – see Jonathan Milne’s Voters cannot, and will not, tolerate Winston abusing his kingmaker position.

Arguments against the “moral authority” line

As Eva Allan’s Facebook post conveys, the simple answer to those who dispute the legitimacy of the new government is to point out that the National Party doesn’t have the necessary majority of seats in Parliament, whereas the combined three parties of government do. Bryan Gould points out “The only thing that matters – as it always does under any voting system in a Westminster-style parliament – is that it must be able to win crucial votes in parliament – that is, it must have a parliamentary majority.  How that majority is made up, and whether or not it includes the largest party, is completely irrelevant.  A coalition of (let us say) the five smallest parties in parliament would be perfectly legitimate, as long as it commanded a majority” – see: How MMP is meant to work.

Similarly, MMP campaigner Hans Grueber says, “It does not matter if the majority is reached by one, two, three or any number of parties as long as they together represent the majority of the voters. That is why a proportional system is regarded as the most democratic. Majority rules. There is nothing undemocratic about the fact that the voters have decided not to give one party an absolute majority but spread their votes among four parties in the clear expectation that these parties would have to compromise and work together to form a coalition to reach a majority in Parliament” – see: Nothing says the largest party has moral right to govern.

However, the best refutation of the “moral authority” argument has been made in a stream of tweets by Michael Appleton‏ (@michelappleton). Not only does he make logical arguments about the legitimacy of the new government, but Appleton also calculates how much popular support this government has compared to previous ones. He finds that the Ardern Administration “represent a higher proportion of Kiwi voters” than two-thirds of governments since 1936. For ease of reading, I have compiled all of Appleton’s tweets in one blog post: Has the new NZ government been installed by an undemocratic coup? A Twitter reply.

So why has the media given so much weight to the idea that the party with the most seats should govern? Public law expert Edward Willis has blogged on “Why the media got it wrong” (as well as why they are wrong) – see: Why being the largest party matters (and why it doesn’t).

Willis has two possible answers – one is that the media deemed accuracy less important than the need for copy and controversy, and the second is “the issue is a subtle one, and the news media isn’t adept at drawing distinctions between political and constitutional questions.”

Finally, for a further dose of the “moral authority” argument – including from National’s Northland MP Matt King – see Laura Macdonald’s MMP attacked online after coalition formed.