Graeme Edgeler: Mandates are not mandatory, but they are also not meaningless

Graeme Edgeler: Mandates are not mandatory, but they are also not meaningless

There’s a lot of talk about what the Labour Government’s new mandate is. For a discussion of exactly what that might mean, Graeme Edgeler explores the murky logic of what they can and can’t do, pointing out that ultimately voters decide if this mandate was properly used in three years. 


Governments don’t really get mandates, other than vicariously. We don’t vote for governments, we vote for candidates and parties, and the successful ones become members of Parliament.

The Labour Party has a mandate to govern for all New Zealanders, but it gets that mandate from its voters, not anyone else’s.

How it chooses to interpret that mandate is a matter for it. And that is something that its voters (and other voters), will judge it on in three years’ time. It is not bound to govern for the centre and right voters who put it over the top, but nor is it bound to govern taking account of the 8% of voters who supported the Green Party, any more than the other 8% who supported ACT.

I do not doubt that some former National voters switched to Labour, in the hope that it could govern alone, without needing to rely on Green Party votes. I am confident that this is not close to a majority of those who switched, although there may have been enough that it made the difference between Labour’s outright parliamentary majority, and it having 60 seats. I suspect this isn’t true either, but am open to it. I suspect the reason for most of the switch is more anodyne, some combination of the former National voters: consider that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is competent; consider that the Government handled COVID well; trust Ardern in general, and/or specifically when she assured voters of some of the changes her government would not enact; and they were not confident in National’s ability to govern, perhaps especially at this time.

I like democracy, and because I like democracy, I like the mandate theory of government. MPs go to Parliament with a mandate from the people who elected them. Historically right of centre voters who switched to Labour do not give Labour its mandate, other than in concert with all of the other people who also voted for Labour.

What mandate, then do Labour MPs have? The same mandate every party elected to government has: govern competently, spend prudently, implement their manifesto, and to react to events as they arise consistently with their values.

Labour MPs do not gain their mandate from former National voters alone (much less a subset of them), any more than they gain it from people who voted for the Green Party.

Green MPs have a mandate too, of course, which they get from their voters, not being in a position to command a majority of the House, their mandate manifests differently, but for a start, they have a mandate to push their policies (through proposing amendments to government legislation and advancing members bills), to seek to be part of and to influence to the Government, to support the government when it acts consistently with Green Party policy and values, and to oppose things the government seeks to do when those are inconsistent.

Everyone in Parliament has a mandate. For National and ACT MPs, this extends to acting as the loyal opposition, to seek to constructively engage with the government to advance points of interest, and to blunt issues on which there is room for compromise, but also opposing when necessary, and even on occasion (when warranted by circumstances, and their values and policies) disrupting or delaying. If the government is going to do something that National MPs consider will be wrong for New Zealand, they wouldn’t be doing the job they have been mandated to do by their voters by responding meekly. This is not opposition for opposition’s sake, but there will be occasions that demand it. For ACT MPs, any further attempt to push changes to restrict access to guns, especially through the use of urgency, would be an obvious candidate; for National MPs, any attempt to reform the tax system beyond the changes Labour campaigned on.

Despite the name however, mandates are not mandatory. Parties can react to circumstances. John Key’s National Party reacted to the global financial crisis by adopting a “tax switch”, contrary to a pre-election policy not to increase GST.

Voters know this, but the further a party frays from its policies, the more careful it needs to be. With a majority in the House, Labour can enact almost any legislation it wants, but if it wants to claim its mandate justifies this, it will need to consider what it ran on, and more importantly, what it ran against.


Graeme Edgeler is a Wellington barrister, with a professional interest in constitutional and electoral law

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.