Joe Hendren

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Monday, September 12, 2005

A friendly warning to the Greens from a former Alliance parliamentary researcher

With the prospect of the Greens going into formal coalition with Labour after the election, Frogblog has been reassuring David Farrar the pressures of government will not lead to the Greens splitting like NZ First or the Alliance.

"“The point is: yes, there are differences in positions on particular policy areas, but there are processes available, which have been built up over the past three years, that allow our two parties to come to a compromise position and, if that's not possible, to respectfully agree to disagree and allow Labour to look elsewhere in the House for support."

The real issue here is not that such a mechanism exists in the cabinet manual, but how often it should be used.

On going into Government in 1999 most Alliance activists thought the agree to disagree clause meant that the Alliance would vote with the Labour party on any measure that moved towards Alliance policy, and vote against things that went against our policy.

While this might have been a touch idealistic, it is how most Alliance activists understood the 'agree to disagree' clause. When I look back, this issue was actually at the heart of most of the disagreements between the activists and the party leadership.

While the inclusion of the 'agree to disagree' clause in 1999 may have made it look like Labour appreciated the need for each party to maintain its own identity, in reality Labour comes from a first past the post culture where 'cabinet collective responsibility'’ is to be strictly maintained. In retrospect, this should not have been a surprise, as it was entirely in Labour'’s political interests to do so.

This can be seen from the wording of the 1999 Coalition Agreement.

"The coalition government will operate within the convention of collective cabinet responsibility, subject to the provisions of this agreement, and the expectation is that cabinet decisions will be taken by consensus."

"“There may be public differentiation between the parties in speech and vote which will not be regarded as being in breach of the convention. Such issues are expected to be infrequent and the parties recognise that dealing with them openly and responsibly is critical to the credibility of the coalition. Differentiation on such issues will not detract from the overall acceptance that the two parties are taking joint responsibility for the actions of the government."

Unfortunately, it appears the Green Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons has also swallowed the line that party differentiation is to be "infrequent", a line I strongly suspect comes directly from a pre-election chit chat with Aunty Helen herself.

"Well the Cabinet Manual now has a clause that allows partners to agree to disagree and even to vote separately. I think that's got to be used with great caution and very sparingly, but I think it is a good safeguard for those rare cases where it's too important just to compromise."

Given my experience working in Parliament while the Alliance unravelled, Jeanette'’s words filled me with both alarm and sadness. Green activists need to ask their leadership how often they expect the 'agree to disagree provisions' to be used. I can't stress this enough. That said, Frogblog does provide some examples of how these provisions might apply to some obvious policy difference between Labour and the Greens.

Rod has made clear that Green MPs would argue against a free-trade deal in Cabinet and if they lost that argument, they would say so in public using the agree to disagree provision in the Cabinet manual. This would be neither anything new or particularly surprising. The Alliance did this over the Singapore free-trade deal, and Labour would easily be able to get support from across the other side of the House.

I think most observers of the 1999-2002 Government were surprised the Alliance did not officially differentiate more often than it did. Jim was the key problem here, but that is a post in itself. What I do think the Alliance proved was that differentiation could occur between coalition partners and this was not a threat to government stability or cohesion. In fact, when the Alliance did vote a different way to Labour it wasn't much of a big deal.

And that my friends, is the second part of the problem. Writing press releases for Alliance MPs in Government was an eternal balancing act. Generally what would happen is that I would draft something a bit too critical of Labour, and it would get toned down by the MPs! But when the differences between parties are put in a way that is too "“respectful"” (to use FrogBlog'’s word) often the media simply do not want to know.

While the need of the media for apparent "conflict" is most at fault here, I do think the Greens do deserve a "respectful" bollocking for a media strategy that I believe aimed to minimise the prominence of Labour's junior coalition partner. There seemed to be a consistent pattern - every time the Greens approved of something they would "congratulate the Labour-led Government" or simply the "Government" (though they do recognise Laila on PPL), whereas if it was something to be criticised often their press release would refer to the "Labour/Alliance Government". While I appreciate the Greens are entitled to act as a separate party, with their own interests, it would have been nice to see some greater understanding of the position of the Alliance in Government, even if it was soley inspired by 'there for the grace of God go I'. I'm sorry, but the press releases and speeches from the Greens continually stating that the Labour/Alliance government had signed up to the Singapore Free Trade Agreement, without any qualifications regarding the Alliance position, pissed me off. (some examples)

Now I am not blaming the Greens for what happened to the Alliance - only pointing out some of the difficulties we had attempting to preserve an independent message. Perhaps when some group claims the Labour/Green government is a sellout on GE they will understand...

I agree with Jeanette that it was not always clear to supporters of the Alliance when Alliance MPs had put up a fight on an issue in cabinet and lost. But Aunty Helen's ideas about collective responsibility put our MPs in a real bind. Jeanette goes on to say that she believes there is "“nothing in Cabinet solidarity or the Cabinet Manual that prevents you from going to the public when an issue's being debated and saying, look this is our view, we argued it all the way through in Cabinet, we didn't have the numbers, we lost."

But according to my reading of the cabinet manual, ministers in a coalition government are required to show "“careful judgment when referring to party policy that differs from government policy". It states that "“a Minister'’s support and responsibility for the collective government position must always be clear". There is only one single exception to this - the "“agree to disagree" clause in the cabinet manual.

3.23 Coalition governments may decide to establish "agree to disagree" processes, which may allow Ministers to maintain, in public, different party positions on particular issues or policies. Once the final outcome of any "agree to disagree" issue or policy has been determined (either at the Cabinet level or through some other agreed process), Ministers must implement the resulting decision or legislation, regardless of their position throughout the decision making process.
3.24 "Agree to disagree" processes may only be used in relation to different party positions. Any public dissociation from Cabinet decisions by individual Ministers outside the agreed processes is unacceptable.

Interestingly, the cabinet manual contains no assumption the "“agree to disagree"” processes ought to be used "“sparingly" or "“infrequently"”. I believe this indicates the way forward. If the Greens go into government I hope they push Labour on this issue, as this would represent a real gain for the progressive movement for the future, as well as increasing the Greens own chances of survival.

Helen may make a big thing of how rare it is for a Westminster Parliament to have an "agree to disagree"” clause, but this is really a red herring. The old conventions of a 'Westminster Parliament' ought to have been chucked out with First Past the Post. We should redesign our conventions using more relevant comparisons, such as European countries with long histories of stable coalition governments elected under proportional representation.

MMP may not survive if New Zealand'’s third attempt at a coalition government once again leads to the rapid and near fatal decline of the smaller coalition partner. This greatly worries me. If MMP does survive, coalition governments may become very rare indeed. New Zealand's cabinet processes need to be reviewed once again, to ensure they fit with the new parliamentary system. We did not vote for proportional representation in 1993 only to have a first past the post style government installed through outdated cabinet conventions.

I hope the Greens do take this as a friendly and well meant warning - I am happy to share my thoughts before the election after all :)

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At 1:41 pm, Blogger Comrade_Tweek said...

Pertinent thoughts Joe.

The Greens need to step very carefully. I get the horrible impression that some of then learnt nothing from the Alliance's meltdown.

Hopefully, I will be proved wrong.


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