Last week I voted for two Labour Members’ Bills and against one Government Bill. Both the Labour Bills and the Government Bill proceeded, and the sun still rose the following morning. But to hear some people, you would have thought the end of the world was nigh. What right had I to vote that way, and how were my actions helping the cause of the National Government, they thundered. All that showed to me was there are a number of commentators out there who now, after nearly 20 years, still fail to understand how a proportional representation system works, and whose reputations far outweigh their abilities.
While it may be a forlorn hope to expect them to acquire the capacity to understand what is going on and change their prejudices accordingly, let me direct my comments to those whose interest is genuine, and not governed by the pursuit of a fee or the sound of their own voice.
Through its confidence and supply agreements with their partners (ACT, the Maori Party and UnitedFuture) the current Government is assured of a healthy majority on matters of confidence and supply, the Budget and all Budget-related matters. Because of its decision not to seek wider agreements with its partners, National has been left having to deal with every other piece of legislation, including Opposition Bills, on a case by case basis, without an inbuilt guarantee of a majority. Rarely, does it get the support of all three of its partners in these instances, but never in the life of the last two Parliaments has it failed to secure sufficient votes to pass its own legislation. So, to paraphrase Mark Twain on hearing reports of his death, claims my votes last week posed any risk to the Government’s stability were “grossly exaggerated.”
I follow a very clear decision hierarchy when deciding my vote on Bills not covered by the confidence and supply agreement. The first consideration is whether the measure has been covered by previous confidence and supply agreements. In 2011, National agreed with UnitedFuture not to sell Kiwibank, so it should have hardly been a surprise that I voted for the Labour Bill prohibiting the sale of Kiwibank without a 75% majority in Parliament. Indeed, the surprise would have been had I not voted for the Bill.
The second level is if a Bill is not covered by any agreements, current or former, how does it accord with UnitedFuture policy? The Government’s Bill to defer restoration of a fully elected regional council in Canterbury till 2019 runs contrary to UnitedFuture’s strong belief in the primacy of local decision-making, so again my opposition was entirely as should have been expected.
If neither of the first two conditions apply, it becomes a matter of whether the proposal males good sense. Labour’s Bill bringing Under-Secretaries under the Official Information Act is just such a case. Ministers and Under-Secretaries are part of the Executive butit makes no sense for Ministers to be subject to the OIA, while Under-Secretaries are not, so I voted for the Labour Bill to resolve this anomaly.
There is another important element in all this. At UnitedFuture’s insistence, all our confidence and supply agreements (2 with Labour and 4 with National) have included a no-surprises clause to ensure stable government. So when I vote against the Government, my intention is made clear to them well in advance, so there can be no subsequent misunderstanding.
This situation will likely occur from time to time during the Parliament, but the Government will continue to govern, and life will carry on pretty much as usual. And no-one should have any reason to be surprised at that.