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Government and Opposition

MPs who understand diversity
Cabinet was supreme

Professor Gary Hawke, Head of the School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington, examines changes in our political system.

There is a tradition of thinking that asserts that ideas change with the passing of generations rather than with changes of mind. Public opinion changes as generations die off and are replaced by younger people with equally fixed but different ideas. It is an exaggeration, but it has some basis.

Our political system has been one of mixed member-proportional representation for more than half a decade, but many people still think in terms of the first-past-the-post electoral system. It existed for most of the lifetimes of most of the current electorate, and contrary to what political junkies think, most people are concerned with politics only when their interests are directly affected – occasionally and usually ephemerally. So traditional thinking persists.

Cabinet was supreme

The former system could reasonably be described as dictatorship with occasional assassination by elections. We elected Parliaments and once the result was known and the winning party elected a Cabinet, Parliament was only occasionally significant. Cabinet was supreme, until it lost an election. That is an exaggeration – future Ministers could make their reputations in Parliament and the public regard for the Cabinet was affected by proceedings in Parliament – but it is not a caricature.

MMP made a difference. Elections now determine the composition of Parliament but no longer have as direct an effect on the nature of the Executive. Those who felt betrayed by the negotiations which followed the 1996 election and gave them a government different from what they thought they voted for had not understood the logic of MMP. Parliament is now more genuinely representative, and citizens' monitoring of the executive is indirect rather than direct.

If we really wanted direct control, we would have frequent referenda – and modern information and communications technology make that possible.

But most of us do not want to spend our time and effort getting on top of the kind of issues that need determination in Parliament. We want agents to do that for us. Deliberative government is likely to be more informed than direct democracy – whatever public opinion polls say about the public regard for Members of Parliament.

MPs who understand diversity

This is not to say that the kind of person we elect to be an MP is likely to have the skills to analyse proposals and make wise choices on behalf of the wider public. The demands by lobby groups and the media for specific policy positions from political parties are an anachronistic echo from the former electoral system. Even then MPs were likely to be required to adjudicate on issues not foreseen at the time of an election. Now nobody can foresee the policy agenda because it depends on what Executive emerges from intra-parliamentary negotiations after an election – and the earlier limitations on the ability to forecast events is compounded.

MMP therefore calls for MPs who understand the enormous diversity of values, interests and aspirations in our society and who can engage in debate and discussion and assess proposed collective decisions for the extent to which they attract support from within that society. The formulation of options rests much more with professional policy analysts than with MPs or political parties. Implementation of Executive decisions which attract parliamentary endorsement are also matters for professionals rather than politicians.

Both our political and our policy processes are directed towards collective decision-making. They are not a giant lolly-scramble in which groups contest for 'resources' which somehow come at the expense of nobody. Government is shifting control over resources from some people to others, and that requires both good understanding of social values and professional processes of policy design and implementation.

We are now more ambitious for our collective decision-making than previously. Modern technology makes it possible to deal with individuals rather than only with very crudely defined groups. We want to deal with the much greater diversity that is now characteristic of society.

Rather than any deterioration of capability, there is now dissatisfaction with the performance of the public sector. There is no answer to that position other than increased capability – and that is a fundamental purpose of the School of Government along with its ability to discern changes in our political and policy processes and to disseminate understanding of them more quickly than is achieved by the passing of generations.

Find out more!

G.R. Hawke (ed) Changing Politics? The Electoral Referendum, 1993 (Wellington: IPS, 1993) is relevant to understanding how our government system has changed.