John Henderson: An optimistic view

Politics in New Zealand
Richard Mulgan
Auckland University Press, 1994, $34.95

The mid‑1990s is proving to be an exciting time for students of New Zealand politics. The change to the mixed‑member proportional (MMP) electoral system has in effect turned New Zealand into a political laboratory which will enable political scientists to monitor the impact of electoral change on the wider political, economic and social system. Prediction is the ultimate test for all social scientists worthy of the name, and it will be fascinating to see which of the many forecasts on the positive and negative impact of MMP turn out to be correct.

In this book Richard Mulgan, who until recently was Professor of Political Studies at the University of Auckland, provides an optimistic view of what can be expected from the new era of MMP politics. Although written as an undergraduate text on New Zealand politics, this very readable and comprehensive analysis should appeal to a much wider audience. Mulgan, unlike the authors of many textbooks, includes his own at times controversial interpretations of recent events. While some readers will no doubt take issue with, for instance, his attack on the “new right” interpretation of political events, his willingness to take a stand makes for a lively read.

Although the book is a general introduction to the New Zealand political system, the treatment of MMP is of particular interest because Mulgan was a member of the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System which recommended MMP. He, therefore, is in the unusual position for a political scientist of being able to observe the practical applications of his research. As he acknowledges, the MMP recommendation initially attracted little interest and was ignored by the Labour Government which commissioned the report. The issue was put back on the political agenda by one of those strange quirks of history when, during the 1987 election campaign Prime Minister David Lange mis‑read his briefing notes and made a pledge on television to hold a referendum on proportional representation. While the rest was indeed history, it was, as Mulgan acknowledges, the growing public disillusionment with the economic restructuring carried out by both the Labour and National Governments in the period mainly after the Royal Commission had completed its work which led to the demand for change to the electoral system.

Mulgan shares this public concern and provocatively suggests that a further casualty of the way the radical economic reforms were carried out might well have been our democratic political system. He argues that MMP has provided a late reprieve, and confidently asserts: “No New Zealand government in the future will be able to ignore the views of voters to the same extent as did Labour and National Governments from 1984 to 1993.”

But while Mulgan is correct in his assumption that many of those who supported MMP were voting against a political system which seemed to ignore them rather than for what were seen to be positive aspects of a new electoral system, it does not necessarily follow that the change will produce the desired results. MMP is, after all, no more than a means for electing a government. It is not a creed, and certainly no guarantee, for the good conduct of government.

One of the disappointing aspects of the book is the at times superficial treatment of how MMP may change the functioning of the three key branches of the New Zealand government ‑ cabinet, Parliament and the public service. The book contains detailed chapters on each of these topics, but with the focus more on how these institutions have operated in the past than on the future under MMP. The often‑made assertions of MMP supporters are repeated (that the cabinet will be more accountable, Parliament more effective and the Treasury more constrained) but not subjected to detailed analysis.

Many of the MMP references have the appearance of last‑minute additions and are not convincingly woven into the analysis. No doubt publishing deadlines worked against Mulgan. The book was required for the 1994 academic year, which allowed very little time for updating following the November 1993 referendum. In any case, many of the practical implications of the change to MMP are only now becoming clear and Mulgan could not be expected to produce a definitive text on post-MMP New Zealand politics.

Mulgan is particularly critical of the Labour Government’s lack of an election mandate for the economic policies implemented by Finance Minister Roger Douglas and the willingness of both Labour and National governments to break election manifesto promises when these stood in the way of economic reforms. The Labour Government even violated the “fundamental assumption of a healthy democracy”: that politicians should be guided by the electoral consequences of their actions. Labour, however, was “more interested in making history than winning again in 1990”.

It is a measure of how much in jeopardy the democratic system ‑ in Mulgan’s terms ‑ had fallen that the media tended to praise the “courage” and “strength” of the Government rather than question its ideological extremism and lack of political mandate. Mulgan includes a particularly incisive chapter on the media which deserves careful attention by members of the fourth estate who all too often justify rather than question Government economic policy. Mulgan cites the example of the use of bank economists as supposedly unbiased commentators when, of course, they reflect the views of the banking and financial interests they work for.

The book seeks to analyse New Zealand politics within the framework of the pluralist theory of democracy. Under the pluralist model governments act as the “honest broker” between the many and unequal groups and interests that make up society. However, Mulgan seems to be aware that his theoretical discussion fits rather uneasily into his descriptive analysis of the New Zealand political process, as he invites his non‑academic readers to skip the theoretical chapter, or come back to it later.

He nevertheless returns strongly to the pluralism theme in his final chapter and, not surprisingly, concludes that new Zealand “falls well short of the ideal standards set by the principles of pluralist democracy” ‑ indeed, so far short, it might be asked whether pluralism is an appropriate framework in which to analyse New Zealand politics. Is it not time to recognise that, like it or not, the role of government in New Zealand has changed and is unlikely to return to the brokership role between interest groups that characterised the politics up until the 1970s? As Colin James convincingly argues in his book New Territory, the world has changed. It may be regrettable, but New Zealand must also change. Market forces, not government decisions, will now determine our economic future. Mulgan also recognises this, but warns that the advantage this gives to the powerful rather than the vulnerable has “helped to undermine the democratic legitimacy of the Wesminster system itself”. Such a serious change warrants a more appropriate framework of analysis to substantiate it.

Mulgan strongly challenges the “new right” dismissal of interest groups as defenders of special privileges and detrimental to the wider national interest. Interest groups are, according to Mulgan, “vital to democracy”. So, too, are political parties, which the “new right” tend to lump in with interest groups as purveyors of privilege. MMP, Mulgan argues, will help restore political parties and interest groups to their important role of linking the varied interest of society with government. But are political parties as central to an effective parliamentary democracy as Mulgan suggests?

It is Mulgan’s idealised view of political parties that contrasts most sharply with my recollections of working in politics. Indeed, having been tutored on books such as Austin Mitchell’s Government by Party, it came as something of a revelation to discover that, at least during David Lange’s period as Prime Minister, political parties were irrelevant to much of the government decision‑making process. Of course Mulgan would not disagree ‑ and indeed he cites the fourth Labour Government’s arrogant use of power as a major reason for the need to revitalise political parties under MMP. However, it can be argued that parties were very much part of the problem ‑ and should therefore not be rewarded by an MMP system which in effect allows the party to appoint about half the MPs. Membership of major political parties has shrunk to a fraction of their former numbers, (and apparently has continued to decline despite the prospects of MMP). At least in Labour’s case, parties no longer provide even a significant amount of election funding, but rather contribute the negative deadweight of debts from former campaigns. Labour, like National, has become dependent for its funding on the business community.

It is true that in the mid‑1980s, before the onset of Rogernomics, major parties ‑ while declining in membership ‑ were held in much higher regard than they are today. It is interesting to reflect on whether the 1986 Royal Commission, if it had been deliberating in today’s political climate, would have recommended MMP. It is more likely that it would have favoured what was then its second choice, the single transferable vote system (STV), which has the advantages of proportional representation without surrendering to the party so much of the power over MP selection.

What is certain is that MMP will end forever two‑party politics in New Zealand and usher in an era of multi‑party politics. But was this not happening anyway? (It was ironical that our last election under first past the post (FPP) nearly produced a hung parliament.) Under MMP there is an incentive for any factional grouping that considers it can get over the 5 per cent threshold or win an electorate seat (and thereby get its overall percentage of votes translated into parliamentary seats) to separate from established party groupings. Hence some Greens are questioning their future with the Alliance, the Maori with Labour and the moral and economic right with National. Interest groups which have previously attached themselves to a political party may under MMP prefer the freedom to change their allegiance to maximise their political advantage. In these cases MMP is clearly working to weaken rather than strengthen established political parties.

There is also a strong incentive for ambitious politicians (and particularly current MPs unlikely to gain nomination for an electorate seat) to establish new political groupings and seek election as party list candidates. While the objective may be to rejoin with former colleagues after the election to form a government, it is scarcely a remedy for revitalising political parties which Mulgan seeks from MMP. Clearly, in such cases, parties would be formed not in terms of the ideal of providing parliamentary representation for expressions of public concern, but for the selfish needs of certain MPs to further their political ambitions.

The greater number of parties produced by MMP is likely to mean weaker parties. The decline of political parties, which is a phenomenon of the Western world generally, is unlikely to be countered by MMP ‑ and may be hastened by it. We may even need to get used to the possibility of politics without parties, where the focus will be on the shifting alliances of interest groups, or single issue movements seeking to impose their views through government by referendum.

Mulgan argues that the need for parties to reach an accommodation amongst themselves to enable either minority or coalition governments to operate will lead to more accountable government. But the realities which have long characterised politics are unlikely to change. Negotiations are likely to include only the party élites and be carried out behind closed doors. Mulgan may well be disappointed with his hope that MMP will “strengthen the constitutional legitimacy of parties as democratic institutions”.

Although this review has focused on MMP-related issues and particularly Mulgan’s view of the central role of political parties, the fairest basis to judge the book is by its own objectives. As has been noted, Politics in New Zealand was written as an undergraduate text. As such it provides a very comprehensive coverage of New Zealand politics, extending beyond MMP‑related topics to include areas such as the courts and local government. There are also gaps ‑ the most serious of which is the absence of any detailed consideration of the subject of leadership. The position of Prime Minister is covered, but the impact of personality on prime ministerial style is not considered.

While this book is clearly the best available text on New Zealand politics, it must be also acknowledged that it faced only limited competition in the textbook market. Although Geoffrey Palmer’s books New Zealand Constitution in Crisis and Unbridled Power contain useful material, their constitutional focus makes them more suitable for law rather than political science students. Mulgan’s own guarded criticisms of the misleading interpretations of New Zealand politics ‑ and particularly political parties ‑ which follow from constitutional theory are well made. Hyam Gold’s third edition of New Zealand Politics in Perspective suffers from the inevitable shortcoming of an edited work made up of contributions of uneven quality. It is also increasingly dated, and largely irrelevant to post-MMP politics. Anthony Woods’ Governing New Zealand is still an excellent short text, as is Keith Jackson’s The Dilemma of Parliament, but both are now also seriously out of date. There are other useful more specialist works, such as those produced in the Oxford series on New Zealand politics, but these are generally too specialised for introductory courses.

I assigned the book to a stage 1 political science course and, at the conclusion of the New Zealand section, asked the students to assess the book. Most rated it very highly. They particularly appreciated the attractive writing style and absence of jargon which tends to pollute many political science texts. The clear layout, use of tables and the extensive bibliography and index were all noted with approval.

The students also made a number of useful suggestions for improving the text. A number felt that at over 300 pages the book was too long and detailed and that summaries could usefully have been included at the end of each chapter. The need for a glossary defining key political terms was also stressed. Concern was expressed at the limited coverage of gender issues, especially compared with the more generous coverage of ethnic politics.

But overall the students’ assessment confirms that Mulgan has succeeded in the very difficult challenge of producing a book which readers with little or no background in New Zealand politics can easily comprehend. At the same time he has included enough of his own interpretations of New Zealand politics to challenge the politically aware readers. It is to be hoped that he follows this successful formula in updating MMP developments for future editions. It will be interesting to see if he retains his confidence in political parties.

John Henderson is head of the political science department at the University of Canterbury. He was Director of the Prime Minister’s Office during David Lange’s term as Prime Minister.

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