In New Zealand’s system of government, Parliament sets the rules and the courts decide disputes. But it is the Ministers of the Crown who make the decisions. Those decisions are often hard ones. But Cabinet is the place where the hardest decisions must be made.
Hugh Templeton, a former National Cabinet Minister, recalls that former Prime Minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, used to say if the issue was not hard, it would not have got to Cabinet. Therefore Cabinet decisions would either be bad decisions, or worse decisions.
The late John Roberts, for many years professor of public administration at Victoria University, told generations of students that Cabinet is the buckle on the belt that ties the nation together.
In its weekly meetings, Cabinet must wrestle with the issues that are too big to be made by individual Ministers. The Prime Minister and other Cabinet Ministers must work together to deal with significant government issues that require collective agreement.
The institution of the Cabinet is not defined in New Zealand’s constitutional documents. Its existence is a matter of convention, and successive governments have built that up, making small changes along the way. Find out more about what has evolved about the appointment, role and responsibility of ministers in chapter two of the Cabinet manual and about cabinet decision-making principles and procedures in chapter three.
Some governments, such as that of Sir Robert Muldoon, centralised power in the hands of the Prime Minister. Others, such as that of Walter Nash, encouraged Ministers to make their own decisions, and keep issues away from Cabinet. Both Helen Clark’s Government and the previous Shipley Government used a team approach, with Cabinet committees sorting out issues before they go to the full Cabinet. Cabinet committees have been in place for many decades. Mrs Shipley experimented with "clusters" of Ministers, but Cabinet committees have always provided an opportunity for Ministers with a shared focus to discuss issues before they go to Cabinet.
To a degree, the way Cabinet does things reflects the style and values of the Government concerned. There are, however, some strong conventions that define the character of modern cabinets.
New Zealand Cabinet Ministers are always members of Parliament (in some countries, such as the United States, non-legislators with specialist skills are members of Cabinet). The Ministers in Cabinet are the members of the governing party, or parties if there is a coalition Government. Cabinet procedures and conventions are nowadays recorded in the publicly available Cabinet Manual (available online).
Cabinet meets in private. The discussions, debates, arguments and occasional flaming rows are not recorded, and not made public. Only its decisions are recorded.
The fact that the meetings are private makes it possible for politicians to be candid with one another and engage in genuine debate (as opposed to the play-acting that takes place in Parliament).
All Cabinet Ministers are expected to follow certain standards of behaviour, such as recording their financial assets so that conflicts of interest can be avoided, or at least made obvious. The Secretary to Cabinet is a career civil servant backed by Cabinet Office staff and services. In New Zealand, each Cabinet Minister almost always runs one or more ministries or departments.
Ministers are expected to follow the 'principle of collective responsibility', meaning that, although they may advocate their own perspective before a decision is made, once decisions are made, they share collective responsibility. This rule has been modified under MMP so that Ministers from different parties can agree to disagree.
Not all decisions go to Cabinet. Cabinet deals with:
Individual Ministers also have decisions to make within their portfolios, in accordance with laws such as the Fiscal Responsibility Act 1994, the Public Finance Act 1989 and the State Sector Act 1988.
The role of Ministers is to make the broad policy decisions about what actions the government should take. Ministers are accountable to Parliament and ultimately to voters, for making the right decisions. But Ministers also have help in policy making from civil servants, other MPs, and the public.
Ministers’ main sources of information and advice are the civil servants who make up their ministries and departments. Though they seldom admit it, a great deal of policy is made by them, and simply approved by Ministers. This is not necessarily bad: after all, those civil servants probably know far more about the issues than the average Minister – who may be here today, reshuffled tomorrow as the Minister of something else, and gone at the next election.
David Caygill, who was a Minister in the 1984-90 Labour government, says, “what matters most is that Ministers are clear about their priorities and regularly communicate them to their advisers”.
Caygill, a lawyer who held portfolios from finance to health also says “it is easy for Ministers to become bogged down in crisis management or to be driven by media headlines. Easy, but a mistake”.
A reforming government may try harder to dominate the policy making process. The late Norman Kirk, Labour Prime Minister from 1972-74, led an activist government that felt uncertain about the public service, and wanted to use people with special skills to provide independent sources of advice.
The occasional use of independent advisers by cabinets in the 70s grew in several important ways in the rest of the century. First, the Prime Minister’s department was strengthened so that the PM could be better informed, independently of his or her Ministers. This also helped him or her to co-ordinate government policy and administration in challenging areas.
Secondly, most Ministers hired staff to help in their offices as specialist policy, media or other project advisers.
The new professional class of policy analyst also influences policymaking. Professor Gary Hawke, foundation director of Victoria University’s Institute of Policy Studies, and now Head of the VUW School of Government, says the policy analyst is a particularly important actor on the modern New Zealand policy making stage. Professionalism, research and logic as well as belief and public opinion are these days important in policy making by cabinets who get advice from a variety of sources.
All Ministers are equal around the Cabinet table. But some are more equal than others. One indication of relative power is the place Ministers receive in a publicly known hierarchy given by the Prime Minister.
A key axis of Cabinet debate has always been between “spending Ministers” seeking resources for health, education, conservation and many other things, and the finance Minister who wants to keep a lid on overall spending.
But often a Cabinet may hide more profound differences of philosophy. These different beliefs may be publicly guessed at, but disagreements between Ministers over particular policies are usually shrouded in the principle of collective responsibility. Ministers know that the appearance of disunity can be politically fatal.
Autobiographies from Ministers,
such as Hugh Templeton on the Muldoon years, Dr Michael Bassett on the
fourth Labour government which began in 1984, and Ruth Richardson on the
National government which followed, help those who come after them to
understand past battles and learn about the way dissent is handled in
Find out more!
Harvey McQueen, The Ninth Floor: Inside the Prime Minister’s Office (Penguin, 1991)
Ruth Richardson, Making
A Difference (Shoal Bay Press, 1995)
Updated 22 November 2005