Pluralism rules, OK? Colin James

New Zealand Politics in Transition
Ed Raymond Miller
Oxford University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0 19 558339 6

Politics in New Zealand, 2ed 
Richard Mulgan
Auckland University Press, $34.95,
ISBN 1 86940 171 9

Beyond the Two Party System. Political Representation, Economic Competitiveness and Australian Politics
Ian Marsh
Cambridge University Press, $34.95,
ISBN 0 521 46779 9

Bridled Power: New Zealand Government under MMP
Geoffrey Palmer, Matthew Palmer
Oxford University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0 19 558326 4

What is left for those looking for an antidote to markets and monetarism after the Berlin Wall has crumbled and elsewhere the “collectivist project” has been damaged, perhaps beyond repair? Pluralism, say these authors, one way or another. Sounds nice, just the thing you’d expect from MMP. But is it for idealists?

For those uncertain what pluralism is (in a political, as distinct from a philosophical or social, context) Pat Moloney provides a postage-stamp summary in Raymond Miller’s textbook. Eschewing turn-of-the-century pluralistic theories of the state advanced against nineteenth-century monolithic theories, Moloney starts with American pluralistic analyses in the 1950s. These saw politics as a “struggle between various groups for political power and influence”, with the government as the “principal source of decisions about how society’s affairs were to be organised” and “to an important degree … responsive and accountable to its citizens for those decisions”.

Pluralism is itself pluralistic, variously emphasising compet-ing elites, a utilitarian assessment by voters of packages offered by alternative governments, the process of policy development and individuals’ acquisition (or not) of power. The state “was seen as a passive and malleable entity”, the “form of which reflected … the traces left on it by its most recent and decisive encounters with external societal forces”. Who left what traces was determined by a variety of factors, most particularly the resources in the hands of individuals and the groups they spontaneously formed. In one form this has been described as a “neutral referee” between competing groups — which has often been used to describe New Zealand of the 1960s under Sir Keith Holyoake’s prime ministership. Competition between groups and overlapping memberships of them helped ensure the stability of the political system.

Really? Then how did the 1980s revolution happen? For pluralism to endure as a model for New Zealand politics and society it has to incorporate and explain the 1980s earthquake or set it aside as a discontinuity, a sort of coup d’état.

Hence what Moloney calls “neopluralism”, which he says “draws a number of lessons from neo-marxist thought” (see, it didn’t all come down with the wall). One such lesson is the influence of economic power (business) on political power, notably to limit the political agenda; another is to re-inject a theory of the state. There is also a recognition that the state and its institutions have a “relative autonomy” and public servants have interests of their own — a point made cogently by public choice theory. Moreover, neopluralists understand that consensus might be rigged and a pluralist polity does not mean one of equality.

The linking thread is the fragmentation of power, which limits the pre-eminent influence of business: other groups do win arguments, governments are sensitive to the ballot box and business is not monolithic (though at the moment in New Zealand the major manufacturing, commercial and farming groups are remarkably at one in their policy prescriptions).

The most prominent academic proponent of neopluralism in respect of New Zealand politics (though he does not affix the “neo”) is Richard Mulgan. His textbook, now in a second and expanded edition, explicitly employs a pluralist framework. His opening chapter advances a pluralist theory of the state, which he buttresses with a long chapter on the pluralist society.

Mulgan sets his theory against three “rival theories”, feminism, marxism and market liberalism (also called neoliberalism or, in the left’s shorthand, the “new right”). This intriguingly omits social democracy, to which most Labourites would now claim to subscribe. Mulgan does refer briefly to socialism and social democracy, or democratic socialism, but not in terms of rival theories of the state; instead he says Labour’s leaders’ preference for concepts such as social justice and equity “carried no necessary connotations of state economic intervention”. Mulgan is not alone in this omission: Miller’s textbook devotes chapters to pluralism, feminism, neoliberalism and marxism but not to socialism or social democracy, except as a subset of marxism and lumped together with keynesian. Conservatism, which does have a theory of the state, is ignored by both books. So is populism — or is that a subset of pluralism? Also omitted, with more reason since they are antithetical to liberal democracy, are fascism and the forms of authoritarianism practised nowadays in the likes of Singapore and Malaysia.

There, it should be added, the similarities between the two texts ends. In an heroic feat of editorship, Miller has gathered 40 bite-sized contributions by a Who’s Who of political writers (and others). The result is a very diversified and in some ways representative (more pluralistic?) introduction to New Zealand politics. But Miller has necessarily sacrificed evenness of quality — be warned, I have contributed a chapter — and evenness of approach.

The section on parties is a good example. Barry Gustafson’s chapter on National is a schematic tour of the structure which neglects to tell us anything about the policy positioning, ideology and modus operandi of the country’s most successful political party; Maryan Street’s on Labour is an account of the organisational and policy adjustment in preparation for MMP; self-styled neomarxist Bruce Jesson’s ruthlessly dispassionate assessment of the Alliance is the best short account of that remarkable, if ungainly, grouping and accurately identifies it as “conservative” on economic policy (a book-length study by Jesson, who in November’s Political Review, gloomily pondered the left’s limited options, would be invaluable); Stephen Rainbow’s and Simon Sheppard’s chapter on minor parties can manage little more than notices of the Christians, ACT, Progressive Greens et al and offers an inadequate categorisation; and Miller’s own, as the acknowledged expert on small parties, on New Zealand First, usefully contexts that ephemeral movement in Peters’ “charisma” and in populism, though he does not draw the consequential distinction with the central positioning wrongly claimed by the party.


The upshot is that students using Miller as a basic textbook will need guidance from their tutors, could usefully fill some gaps by dipping into Hyam Gold’s similarly anthologised textbook, New Zealand Politics in Perspective, last revised in 1992, and would benefit from testing it against Mulgan’s single-minded treatment.

The danger for the beginner is that Mulgan’s approach is also a passionate one. He doesn’t simply record and analyse the weakening of pluralist democracy in the wake of the 1980s revolution; he bemoans it. Mulgan regrets that the state has retreated from substantial areas of activity where it did or could exercise a public influence. Business and the financial sector now have disproportionate influence, he says, and this increased “structural dominance of international capital” lends itself to a marxist analysis (by the likes of Jane Kelsey — though he rejects such analysis as “too simplistic and one-sided”): some groups, in even in the business sector, have stayed the march of neoliberalism, for example, farmers’ defence of producer boards; other groups, for instance social service providers, environmentalists and Maori, are still listened to, indicating “the variety of political influences at work” and confirming “the analytical value of the pluralist theory of the state which recognises the fallacy of trying to locate political control in any one particular interest or group”. But, says Mulgan: “The strength of the countervailing interests is not sufficient to refute the claim that the political system is fundamentally unequal and systematically biased in favour of the interests of wealthy investors. New Zealand democracy here falls well short of the ideal standards set by the principles of pluralist democracy and arguably became even less equal and less democratic in the decade of restructuring.”

Mulgan’s thesis is that Westminster conventions of accountability and consultation were seriously eroded by the way governments went about reform after 1984 and so, in the wake of broken promises and ministers’ nose-thumbing of their core party support, was public trust. “The party structure no longer provided a reliable mechanism for holding elected governments responsible to the electors.” The countervailing force is MMP, which Mulgan sees as breaking down the two-party system and, quoting Lijphart, promoting a more “consensual” democracy.

Well, he would, wouldn’t he? Mulgan was a member of the 1986 royal commission which recommended MMP. But he is in company. Peter Aimer, in a chapter in Miller on the future of the two-party system, traces the dealignment of the two main parties’ voting support from the 1970s on and concludes: “…a constrained, skewed and ‘unnatural’ two-party system was finally liberated by MMP into the normal format for liberal democracies — moderate pluralism.” But note that qualifier, “moderate”:  Mulgan, too, concludes that MMP will be only moderate in its impact on the two-party system.


Cross the Tasman and hear much the same story from Ian Marsh, who speculates on the end of the two-party system there. He notes that “in 1992 independents and minor parties held the balance of power in 11 of Australia’s 15 [federal, state and territorial] legislatures. Five of the nine governments were minority governments in hung Parliaments… the Senate has had no clear majority since … 1976”. The obverse of this is the decline of membership and votes for the two main parties. Marsh identifies four paths along which there might be further decline in the two-party system in Australia: one major party might “corrode from within”; minor parties might emerge as permanent actors; independents might play a permanent pivotal role; and MPs in major parties might take a more independent line.

In New Zealand, as in Australia, Britain and other developed polities, the “cleavage” between owners and employees which the National/Labour battle represented has long failed to reflect the way increasing numbers of voters have seen their political choices and the combined vote for National and Labour dropped from 99.8% in 1951 to 62.0% in 1996. Moreover, the percentage of those qualified to vote who registered dropped from the 1950s to the 1980s and so did the turnout of those who did register. These factors suggest the vote for MMP in 1993 was a natural next step in that dealignment, even if voters were actually registering a protest against Rogernomics and broken promises. The two-party system was not flexible enough to give adequate voice to new, more complex and often multilayered or lateral constituencies.

What filled the gap? Interest groups and issue movements, operating outside the party system but directly or indirectly on the parties. Marsh argues that in Australia (and, we might add, by analogy New Zealand) the nine major additions to the political agenda in the 1970s and 1980s, including “economic rationalism” (Australia’s name for its milder version of Rogernomics), were all initiated by issues movements outside party politics: “Parties have ceased to be the primary champions for an agenda [but have become] conduits, or brokers, for agendas that originate with others.”

MMP provides more channels for such groups to feed their information, aims and demands into the party system. The obvious examples in the present Parliament here are ACT, which formed explicitly to exploit the electoral opportunity afforded by MMP, and the Greens. (The Alliance aimed not to represent an issue movement but to supplant the Labour Party as the main party of the centre-left.)

Marsh complains that the two-party system turned Parliament, once an arena of shifting alliances on issues, into a theatre of permanent electioneering, where the opposition does not hold the government to account for “particular decisions” but “the merits of particular issues are debated in a context in which the opposition tries to discredit the government’s whole performance”. Policymaking, he says, resides in ministers whose purview is the electoral cycle and thus antithetical to strategy. He quotes Sir John Hoskyns, once a principal adviser to Margaret Thatcher: “Strategy in Whitehall can be defined as ‘the thinking we should have done three years ago but do not have time to do today’.”

Read the National/New Zealand First coalition agreement, with its fractured grammar and incoherence reminiscent of the remit paper of a regional conference of a small party, and you can hardly disagree. But in New Zealand there is an influential counterweight: the bureaucracy has been trying actively to develop and maintain a strategic policy approach, first in budget-making then in policy development generally — though the mechanisms developed to give that more strategic approach were formulated during a period an unbroken 13-year period of unidirectional policy and have yet to be tested for durability in a genuine change of government, that is, to a Labour-led government.


Marsh’s analysis is of Liberal/Labor-dominated Australia. Here MMP was supposed to have ended the two-party mentality, was it not? Not if you glance at the way the government has reverted to majority politics in the House, ramming through elections of presiding officers, urgency motions and unpopular bills on the strength of a whipped majority and blocking nearly all bills by opposition MPs. Select committees seem to have maintained greater distance from ministers and powers of initiative (a point on which the Palmers place great importance) but in the final instance do the cabinet’s bidding. The brief spring of minority government politics in 1995 and 1996 is over.

Moreover, while MMP may guarantee places in Parliament for a limited number of issues-based parties, subject to replacement as issues catch hold and swing their parties over the 5% threshold, so enhancing pluralism, the political culture has not been to elect a Parliament and leave it to their mistrusted politicians to form a government, as MMP implies. For a century we have expected to elect governments.

That did not happen in 1996. Opinion polls and surveys showed the majority, including the great bulk of those voting for New Zealand First, thought they were voting to oust National. New Zealand First instead maintained National in office. Winston Peters compounded that whopper miscalcul-ation by insisting on the treasurership, in effect locking New Zealand First into endorsing all but some tiny elements of National’s economic and fiscal (and therefore to a large extent social policy) line. The disastrous result for New Zealand First is to have been credibly depicted by its opponents as a National poodle, a fractious and occasionally disputatious poodle, but a poodle nonetheless — and an incontinent one, spraying National with embarrassment after embarassment.

There have been four inter-related consequences for a pluralistic Parliament: a breathtaking collapse in support for New Zealand First and Peters, from opinion poll peaks of 30% in May 1996 to 1% in October 1997; wavering or faltering support for the other small parties, ACT and the Alliance; a big rise in combined support for Labour and National; and opinion poll majorities for MMP to be dumped. A petition for a citizens-initiated referendum (CIR) to reduce the House from 120 to 100 MPs stands a good chance of succeeding and might embolden anti-MMP forces to promote a CIR to replace MMP with FPP or, more sensibly, the compromise supplementary member system chosen by Japan in which the party vote is only for the list and thus favours the big parties which win electorate seats.

Thus in the next election the National/Labour combined vote will be up and votes for smaller parties less than half the 1996 level, maybe as low as 12%-15%. This would look awfully like a return to two-party politics, with Labour and National alternating as dominant leaders of governments.

This is not assured. Labour’s current popularity says nothing about voter confidence in the Labour party as a government and voters may be quick to desert it again if it falls short of expectations. There is little evidence yet of the innovative thinking Labour will need to do if it is to redevelop social democratic principles to produce convincing responses to the social policy conundrums of the next decade and at the same time to hold the votes of middle New Zealand. National, too, cannot count on the 40%-plus support that marks a major party. Governments of all stripes may well continue to be ground on the wheels of structural social and ethnic change, the gap between demand and supply of key social services and the brutalities of the international marketplace — hardly Mulgan’s and Marsh’s desired pluralism and a recipe for policy instability.

Nevertheless, the odds are that Labour and National will remain relatively large and smaller parties will come and go over the 5% hurdle, representing social or issues groups or simply popular movements. In that event MMP will amount to a facilitation of the pluralist polity. The electorate is more diverse and fragmented and Maori politics may in time supply a group of electorate MPs holding the balance of power. And smaller parties acting within a coalition could, if well managed (by contrast with New Zealand First), have more influence than factions within each major party have had. An example: a Labour government acting alone under FPP would right now be able largely to ignore popular concern at the multi-lateral agreement on investment (MAI), whereas, because the Alliance is linking with groups campaigning against it and because those groups reflect a wider unease, a Labour-led coalition government would have to pay some attention. By contrast, the failure of the extraparliamentary Labour party and its backbench MPs to curb the cabinet’s deregulations drove many out of the party or into support for proportional representation to ensure the left voice would be heard.


Which is one of the ironies of the birth of MMP. Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who set up the MMP royal commission, was a vital figure in both the substance and style of the fourth Labour government’s breakneck reform. The pace and extent of that reform could be carried off only because the government had the sort of unbridled power he inveighed against in 1979. Double irony: the Unbridled Power? title of his book that year had a questionmark. The title of his second in what has become a three-book series dropped the questionmark — Palmer was then Deputy Prime Minister. The title of the third, written with his son, Matthew Palmer, now public law deputy secretary of justice, allows itself a hint of triumph of a battle won; government under MMP is Bridled Power.

The reason: “In a very real sense MMP restores Parliament’s capacity to make and unmake governments.” The Palmers go on to assert that the public would probably not take kindly to an early election and punish those who precipitate one. Though at the moment voters would probably welcome an election, to get the result they sought in 1996, generally voters dislike snap elections, which puts pressure on coalition partners to resolve differences rather than risk a split and an election.

The Palmers conclude from that that MMP underpins the principle of collective cabinet responsibility. But even the prospect of severe election defeat did not stop some in the present Coalition — including even Jim Bolger while Prime Minister — making comments at odds with government policy; New Zealand First deputy leader Tau Henare has several times vowed to fight to change government policy. And even when we get beyond this odd first MMP coalition to more collegial cabinets of congenial partners we are unlikely to return to the tight disclipline of 1982 when Derek Quigley was sacked for a speech interpreted as querying the government’s “think big” policy.

But does Parliament have the capacity to make and unmake governments? Yes, technically. But, as the 1996 coalition-making process demonstrated, it is the parties which make governments; Parliament merely ratifies the result of interparty negotiations. And parties — or defections from parties — will unmake governments, though it may require an adverse vote of confidence to force a government to resign. Changes to the standing orders changes in 1996 have made almost all votes party rollcalls and individual votes are rare. The nineteenth-century notion the Palmers’ assertion conjures up of shifting factions of MPs unmaking a government has not been restored by MMP.

On the other hand, Parliament may have a greater hand than the Palmers acknowledge in preventing an election. The Palmers assert flatly that a Prime Minister has the power to call an election. But there is real doubt that a Prime Minister facing a hostile majority does have that power; a Governor-General would, in some constitutionalists’ opinion, have the right and perhaps the duty first to inquire whether another government could be formed within the existing Parliament. Even if the Prime Minister has a formal majority but the coalition partner disagrees with the decision to call an election and makes that known to the Governor-General (as United did in 1995, for instance), it is not sure the election would be granted.

The Palmers’ book is a useful blend of formal information on (without getting into detailed annotation of) the constitution, institutions and processes of representation and government, first-hand accounts of parliamentary and ministerial practice, observations (some, for example in respect of the media, trenchant) on the way politics and government are conducted and on the constraints and influences on politicians, forecasts of life under MMP and prescriptions for reform — a “new constitutional settlement”, no less, including a move to a republic, a written constitution and judicial review of legislation.

Much of the book will be familiar to readers of Sir Geoffrey’s two previous “(un)bridled) books (though there is extensive revision, excision and addition) and his more free-ranging and opinionated 1992 book, Constitution in Crisis, from which here and there chunks are quoted verbatim in the new book. Sir Geoffrey’s style rings through: at times the book reads like a primer (by teacher Sir Geoffrey), at times like a serious constitutional tract (by constitutional lawyer Sir Geoffrey), at times like a peon to reform (by politician Sir Geoffrey, who did a lot of reforming, including the now mildly influential Bill of Rights Act). There is also more than a hint of the (highly paid) public lawyer and advocate Sir Geoffrey has become. Matthew, perhaps fittingly as the son, is less in evidence, though occasionally one can see the influence of one of the sharpest minds in the public service.

The Palmers are enthusiastic supporters of MMP, which they think a “more democratic” system, “likely to lead to more debate, more consensus and more national dialogue about government policies before they are enacted. In short, more pluralistic polity.

But is our political system more pluralistic only as a result of MMP? The answer embedded in the Palmers’ book is, No. Before MMP there were profound changes in the practice of government.

Among the most important was the Official Information Act (OIA), which has made almost all government papers available publicly on request (though sometimes after a delay). The Palmers’ somewhat formalistic assessment of the OIA underrates its impact. Public servants now assume something will be made public unless there are strong reasons against it; senior officials have even been known to observe that much is published that could legitimately be withheld. Ministers have long since ceased to be routinely embarrassed by revelations and a report by the Law Commission on the OIA in October reports no ministerial or cabinet vetoes on the release of information since 1987. This has made information far more available to outside groups and enabled them to participate more effectively in the political process, thereby pluralising it. (Whether it has improved the quality of papers written inside the public service is uncertain.)

Another important development was the Fiscal Responsibility Act which means the state of the government’s accounts and its forward plans are well publicised and analysed in detail by private sector economists. The “opening of the books” which used to provide incoming governments with excuses not to carry out inconvenient promises is now an anticlimactic business.

A third development is the greater select committee initiative, mentioned above. Though the Palmers tend to overrate this development, it has given outside groups more scope to influence the political process.

These and other enhancements of the political process all occurred independently of MMP (though the committees were given a boost by the peculiar conditions applying during the transition to MMP between 1994 and 1996). Which brings us back to where we came in and to Aimer and Mulgan: MMP does modestly promote a more pluralistic polity. But MMP is only one among many such influences and there have been forces working against pluralism. In other words, the natural tensions of politics are at work.


But are all our authors barking up the right tree? Pluralism at times seems to say no more than that liberal societies and their politics are complex. Is pluralism a system of thought — a real “ism” — or a truism? Is it an ideal, as Mulgan insists, or a description?

Its main value may be to remind us, when analysing politics, that there are many dimensions to the individual, the society (and societies) in which the individual lives, forms alliances and interacts economically and many dimensions to the power structures which govern those relationships. Individuals are not as rigorously individualistic as a lot of the theory built around individualism and capitalism assumes. That theory has a crisp aridity — intellectually rigorous, difficult to challenge on its own ground and excellent discipline for social-liberal thinkers inclined to woolliness but, in the hands of aparatchiks charged with converting theory into policy, as prone as marxism to descend into dogma.

Pluralism, by contrast, is as messy as democracy and the market (both the worst options except for the alternatives). Almost by definition it does not offer a one-size-fits-all ideology — rather, it identifies warning signs against anti-democratic tendencies embedded in all ideology. However unsatisfying that is for romantics looking for an ideology after the fall of the Berlin wall, at the end of century ravaged by rampant ideologues it may not be a bad thing.

Colin James is retiring editor of New Zealand Books and a political journalist who has written six books on politics and policy and social change. He has also run forums on MMP and public servants for the Institute of Policy Studies, summarised in Under New Sail: MMP and Public Servants

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