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Is there a Role for the Governor General in Coalition Formation?

Written By: - Date published: 9:07 am, October 10th, 2017 - 50 comments
Categories: Deep stuff, election 2017, Europe, International, MMP, Politics - Tags:

In the last month in both Germany and New Zealand, new parliaments were elected. In neither case did the outcome predicate a particular coalition between political parties. In Germany, the election winner was Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, CSU. But they are left without their previous ‘grand coalition’ partner. Despite the rise of the Alternative for Germany party there was no question that the CDU was going to lead the negotiations to form a new government. The President of Germany, Frank-Walker Steinmeyer, has already met with party leaders to discuss the election results and hear about progress in forming a new government. In New Zealand, the Governor-General has no apparent role until a clear working government is ready.

The German president’s formal powers are very limited, but not as much as that of the New Zealand Governor General. The German president proposes a candidate for Chancellor to parliament who then has to be elected by an absolute majority. If the president’s candidate is unable to garner support from a majority of deputies, it is the parliament’s turn to propose and elect another candidate within the next fourteen days. Even if parliament fails to elect a new Chancellor in this time period, there is a final vote in which a candidate is elected by relative majority. Only then has the German president some leeway in decisionmaking as they can decide whether to appoint a candidate elected by relative majority (any candidate by absolute majority has to be appointed) or dissolve parliament.

The German Basic Law does not formally restrict the president in their choice of candidate for the head of government. But they are limited by the political realities of the systems. In Germany, presidents have waited for the end of coalition negotiations between parties to then propose the candidate for Chancellor who has a majority behind them. Yet as parliament can elect its own candidate after rejecting the president’s choice, the nomination is less consequential. Further, the stipulation of a ‘constructive’ vote of no confidence means that parliament can only dismiss a Chancellor/government by simultaneously electing a new one – leaving the president to merely formalise parties’ actions.

With the quick rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany Party in Germany this election, it will get much harder for future coalition governments to form without including them. Yet their inclusion will be met with resistance from parties and citizens. With constitutional constraints and established political practice, President Steinmeyer will currently continue to limit his involvement in the formation of a new German government to urging parties to quickly conclude their negotiations and to overcome the differences stressed from the campaign, but in future that will be more tested.

New Zealand’s public in the 2017 elections have been well served by New Zealand First by proposing a short, clear timetable and sticking to it. This has averted any discussion about the role of the Governor-General in appointing a government. However, the protracted negotiations of 1996 show that there is significant risk in continuing without clearer and slightly more activist reserve powers exercised by the Governor-General in coalition formation.

New Zealand would also be very unwise to continue to believe that the rise of highly anti-immigrant politics will not affect our politics as it has in Germany and every other strong democracy. With the continued splintering of the left and centre, it is easy to see coalition formation getting much harder. That will require greater guidance and more formal processes from the Head of State than are currently practised.

New Zealand’s Governor General Dame Pasty Reddy has no background in constitutional or administrative law. But she did do 11 years leading the mergers and acquisitions team for Brierley Investments Ltd, and has tonnes of governance experience. So she knows how to walk away from a deal and how to make one stick, and knows what it takes to put a new entity into the public through sharemarket flotation. The analogy is imperfect but pretty close. In future elections we may not have a politician as disciplined or as experienced in coalition formation as Winston Peters, or a Governor-General as well versed in partnership formation. I think it’s time to plan for that eventuality with some more guidance from the Head of State who will agree to a government being formed.

MMP in New Zealand without active processes to guide coalition formation and without more activated reserve powers from the Head of State is a mess waiting to happen. I don’t think this would take any amendments to the 1986 Constitution Act, or other relevant statutes. In the formation of our government, it is not appropriate for the New Zealand Governor General to act on the advice of the Prime Minister, because the Prime Minister is in a temporary capacity on advice about their own job. A more active independent Governor General would give greater confidence that the parliament can splinter further without concern that governments will get significantly harder to form.

50 comments on “Is there a Role for the Governor General in Coalition Formation?”

  1. Booker 1

    I saw this yesterday and thought our media should really take a lesson in patience: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/09/dutch-politicians-ready-form-government-election-coalition
    Having a coalition five days after the special votes are announced really is a quick turnaround, despite all the whining that’s been going on.

  2. Peter 2

    Thank you very much for this. Are you saying that as the representative of the party with the most votes Merkel does have an automatic right to be first to attempt to form a coalition government?

    • mickysavage 2.1

      Nope he is not.

      This suggestion that there is something called a “automatic right” is a smoke screen. The only automatic right is for each party to count up how many votes they have and how many votes parties that may be sympathetic to them have.

      It is a matter of counting and a race to 61. Nothing else matters.

      • Peter 2.1.1

        So what is the context of this statement?

        “”Despite the rise of the Alternative for Germany party there was no question that the CDU was going to lead the negotiations to form a new government.”

        • mickysavage 2.1.1.1

          It reflects the political reality of the current situation. The CDU was in the best position to start the government formation because of the make up of the German Parliament. I don’t read it as being a statement of some sort of general principle.

          There really has been too much of an attempt to create a rule out of nothing. The first party to 61 seats in NZ wins.

          • BM 2.1.1.1.1

            The first party to 61 seats in NZ wins.

            Should it not be the first coalition to 61 seats in NZ wins?

            This may come as a shock but’s there’s going to be three parties involved in the coalition of the left somehow I doubt they’re just there to make up the numbers and rubberstamp Labour policy.

            • mickysavage 2.1.1.1.1.1

              Shorthand for “the first party that forms a coalition of parties that forms a block of 61 votes”.

              But of course you knew that.

          • Peter 2.1.1.1.2

            Yes, the first to get 61 MP’s lined up wins. The question of interest to me is how do you start the process? Of course, there is no question if we are happy with the current approach.

  3. For a while now we’ve been told by National and it’s supporters in the MSM that the biggest party after the election should form the government. National like this idea because they, being the biggest bunch of in denial collectivists around, are likely to always be the biggest party.

    After this election we’ve also had the ‘biggest vote for change’ meme hanging around.

    Perhaps what we need is a way for the public to tell us what government that they want at the election instead of all this guessing. We could ask people what coalition they would prefer for government. A single additional question: Which party do you think the party you voted for should go into coalition with?

    We could also ask them what policies that they want the government to follow, i.e, this. An aggregation of everyone’s policy preferences would give far better direction to the incoming government than the present do whatever the fuck you want system that we have.

    • greywarshark 4.1

      Sounds sensible DTB.

    • Ad 4.2

      Your last sentence I think is what I am most concerned about. It is the core risk of MMP.

      There remains a very high risk that NZF will go with National irrespective of the policy alignments. There are no rules, and there is currently no office-holder capable of forming those rules other than the Governor-General.

      Whomever does not get in this time will feel very aggrieved because it is on a knife-edge. There will be debate on the rules or protocols for coalition formation after Thursday, no matter what.

      • Your last sentence I think is what I am most concerned about. It is the core risk of MMP.

        It’s the core risk of Representative Democracy where the ‘representatives’ act without even consulting with the people they’re supposed to be representing.

        There are no rules, and there is currently no office-holder capable of forming those rules other than the Governor-General.

        Only parliament can pass laws.

        There will be debate on the rules or protocols for coalition formation after Thursday, no matter what.

        Yes. Hopefully we’ll get a Left leaning government in which case the discussion will likely be more civilised and the outcome actually better than National’s last attempt to secure power permanently for themselves.

        • Ad 4.2.1.1

          It’s not the passage of law; it’s the stuff on our protocols and processes directly after the vote that are bugging me. There’s a place for free-flowing political dealing. And that place needs a few more norms to ensure that we as a whole get what we collectively voted for.

          • Draco T Bastard 4.2.1.1.1

            The GG can’t form the rules. Only parliament can do that.

            Now, we probably do need some rules and protocols that address at least some of the problems that have been identified.

            In the present case we need a way for the public to let the politicians know which government they actually want and what direction they want the country taken in.

    • Hmmmm… there’s some merit in providing an additional question , DTB , regarding ‘which party’s to form a coalition govt’ , – it certainly would clarify public thinking in no uncertain terms. And while it may not fast track negotiations , – as policy still needs to be thrashed out between coalition members,… it would make for a very clean cut decision.

      But how many politicians would want to risk such decisiveness by the public ?

      They would be crapping their pants.

  4. Sanctuary 5

    “Is there a Role for the Governor General in Coalition Formation?”

    Is the Governor General elected?

    If the latter answer is yes, then it is a yes to the former. Otherwise, unless you have a mandate you should have no active role in formation of democratic governments.

    • mickysavage 5.1

      The US relies on the constitution and the President of the Supreme Court. We could do the same.

      • Andre 5.1.1

        Bush vs Gore gives a pretty stark illustration of the downside of partisan political appointments having any authority when it comes to forming a government.

      • Once was Tim 5.1.2

        Actually MickyEss, I’ve been thinking more and more about the role of the Judiciary in our funky little cuntry that supposedly punches above its weight. I often wondered why the Chief J Wonder hadn’t spoken out louder over things like legislation that breaches HR/BOR and Treaty law, or the growing trend in passing what are judicial functions to Munsters and Administrators (such as by way of regulation, or appeals)

    • RedLogix 5.2

      As per Mickey … we need a much improved and updated Constitution. Many aspects to be considered.

    • gsays 5.3

      i agree sanctuary, with the ‘appointed’ governer general (akin to ecan ‘appointments’), then no way to GG having an influence on formation of government.

    • Ad 5.4

      The Governor-General already has a strong role.
      They just don’t do more than the bare minimum.

  5. Peroxide Blonde 6

    The sooner we become a republic like Ireland or Germany the better.
    A president, elected by popular vote and not parliament, will have the mandate to navigate critical constitutional moments.

    Ireland has has three presidents since Mary Robinson was elected in 1990 and the current one, Michael D Higgins, looks like he will do another seven year term. They provide a continuity above and beyond daily politics.

    NZ has England’s monarch as its Head of State. England has embraced a narrow negative nationalism which largely rejects non-English speaking foreigners. We do not share their values. We have to cut that tie. ASAP.

  6. Paul Campbell 7

    Well the GG really has two roles here:

    – if someone comes to her and declares they have a working govt (and she agrees) then she gives them the nod and we have a govt

    – if no one can form a govt she calls another election

    • Ad 7.1

      That is well established.
      The point of the post is we should expect more from her role and capacity than that.

      • Should we though?
        How does the GG know what the public thinks?

        • Ad 7.1.1.1

          Once the voting is done, the view of the public under MMP is that there is no hive-mind singularity. They have had their voice, as clear as they can make it. It is not the task of the public to form a government, but only to vote for the party their prefer. That for the most part is the task of parties to sort it out.

          The question will come into focus on Thursday, no matter what the outcome.
          Either the voters of National, or the voters of Labour-Greens, are going to feel mightily aggrieved.

          It is even possible that a government is not able to form – even after the kind of time period we have seen recently in the Netherlands. At that point the Governor-General may have to call a fresh election. But on whose advice?

          • Andre 7.1.1.1.1

            Well, the Governor General is supposedly just the representative of the sovereign, right? So surely the GG would call a new election on the advice of the Queen (or King). Seems as good an option as any.

          • Draco T Bastard 7.1.1.1.2

            Once the voting is done, the view of the public under MMP is that there is no hive-mind singularity. They have had their voice, as clear as they can make it.

            That would indicate that we need to make it clearer.

            It is not the task of the public to form a government, but only to vote for the party their prefer.

            But it is the task of the public to have a say in how their country is governed and thus we could extrapolate that they should have a say in what coalition if formed.

            Either the voters of National, or the voters of Labour-Greens, are going to feel mightily aggrieved.

            True but the view of the majority is what counts. If the majority of people aren’t upset then we could assume that they’ve got the government that they wanted.

            Of course, there’s probably going to be no one measuring that.

        • greywarshark 7.1.1.2

          DTB
          I think that the vote is supposed to be what the public thinks. And if that is not clear and there is difficulty in getting a ‘stable’ party together, though National goes around saying they have achieved this like a magic incantation to ward off earthquakes, then doesn’t the one with the most votes go to the GG and advise that they can’t form a stable government?

          In this year’s case, perhaps Labour and National would go hand in hand and confess that they cannot manage to make it separately or together with their cohorts, and throw in the towel for this round.

  7. Hanswurst 8

    To all intents and purposes there is no difference between the roles of the GG and the German President when coalitions are being formed. Certainly, the choice to exclude the Alternative for Germany (whose rise has been rapid, but by no means “sudden”, and not even remotely limited to the 2017 federal election) results purely from a consensus at parliamentary level. Merkel is the key figure in forming a government, and that purely by virtue of her being the sole viable candidate for chancellor as dictated by the makeup of the incoming parliament. If there were a numerically and practically viable alternative, we would face a similar situation here to that in NZ.

    Perhaps a more important observation would be that Germany will have far more protracted and detailed coalition talks – and that the parties have already taken far longer to consider their positions before even entering formal negotiations – than NZ, despite there being only one viable coalition from the outset. Merkel’s statement that she intended to form a government based on that coalition came this weekend, and was coupled with an announcement that she would take any coalition agreement to her party for ratification before forming any such government. Basically, as far as I can see, the German style of negotiation is not geared towards producing a government either faster or more “democratically” than in NZ, and, to the extent that the formation of a government may be furnished with a basis-democratic legitimation beyond the makeup of the elected parliament, that has nothing to do with the role of the President (who, incidentally, is not a directly elected representative of the people) ex officio. For those reasons, Germany seems like a very odd comparison for discussing the role of the GG in NZ in forming a government.

    Far more interesting in an NZ context, although a little of topic here, would be the German rule of discounting the party votes of those who give their electorate vote to a successful direct candidate who is either independent or from a party that fails to make the thresholds of either 5% or three electorate seats. I say this with particular reference to the Act Party in Epsom, whose voters effectively exert greater influence on the proportional makeup of parliament than voters for other parties, or in any other part of the country, can exercise with their vote.

    • greywarshark 8.1

      Hanswurst
      I think we must do something about this Epsom situation, and I have been wondering how. The German approach sounds feasible.

    • Ad 8.2

      I could have gone for a comparison with the Austrian President, who is more activist in the formation process, and also politically partisan.

      Instead,I wanted a softer comparison to a very restrained constitutional setup to be as similar to ours. There was no point using Commonwealth comparitors. I could also have used the Dutch model, but Germany was more interesting to our context because of the interesting “Jamaica” coalition formation.

      Trust me, the question of the role of the Governor General and what they could have done is going to get pretty pointed, pretty fast.

      • Hanswurst 8.2.1

        Why? It seems to me that you are raising a minor constitutional point of almost no consequence whatsoever. Most of the criticism I have seen from the conservative side has been directed against MMP and Peters himself. In terms of whatever coalition we end up with in the near future, there have been other coalitions in the past, including the contrastingly contentious ones of 1996, 1997 and 2005, without much interest in the role of the GG.

        The modern Westminster system sees parliament as the appropriate context for forming an executive and holding it to account, and I have never observed any appetite in NZ for decision making by an individual that the electorate had no say in appointing, and whom many would hardly be familiar with at all. As such, whatever the outcome of current negotiations, I suspect that the general gaze will continue to be directed at parliament, rather than the figurehead representative of a figurehead.

  8. Partition for NZ1st to go with Labour/Greens

    One way to inform the politicians which way we actually want them to go.

  9. CoroDale 10

    Nominating Kelvin Davis for this Governor General job. Labour need Raymond Huo (霍建强) as deputy for the negotiations with China and Fonterra.

  10. Anonymous 11

    Here’s a crazy idea: forced full grand coalition, every time. Parliament is elected to represent the people and parliament as a whole should negotiate internally on positions, policies, and the progression of law – you know, the thing they’re doing now to try and decide who will form government. Our current adversarial system creates more PR stunts than (or as) laws, and is a sad reflection of polarisation on issues in society (whatever, if any, causal links exist). I think such a grand show of negotiation and co-operation would be a positive influence on both our governance and society at large, it may even make a dent in the machoness of our politics.

  11. Sparky 12

    In my estimation the office of the Governor General like the Commonwealth itself is an archaic symbol of colonialism and needs to go. As can be seen in Australia for example its backward rules can I believe potentially undermine democratic government.

    Germany is quite different having shed its Royalist connections after WWI and Fascism after WWII. That said its interesting how the election outcomes there mirror NZ. Given what is in my opinion mishandling by the previous German government over issues like mass immigration and the environment, I’m amazed much the same players were returned to office at all (if in a watered down form). But then as we can see too people listen to the MSM and are slow to change.

    It will be interesting to see where this leads both here and in Germany.

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