Your election is the PM's cat and mouse game

Yesterday was the Queen’s official birthday. It comes at an apposite time as the Prime Minister ponders when to call the election — as if it were her election and not yours.

Her pondering presumes a regal power, a lingering vestige of an era when sovereignty resided not in the people but in the monarch. When Helen Clark announces the election day she will be acting as if the sovereign, exercising the royal prerogative. Is this right in 2005?

Back in Tudor times, half a millennium ago, the monarch summoned the English Parliament, prorogued it and dissolved it. Its purpose was to do some of the King’s business, voting taxes or passing laws. Its value was to validate what the King did by enlisting the gentry.

Over time the gentry’s power waxed and the King’s waned. Since the nineteenth century the monarch — in this country the monarch’s representative, the Governor-General — has been bound to accept the Prime Minister’s “advice”.

There is a proviso: that the Prime Minister commands a majority of the House of Representatives. In 1984 when Sir Robert Muldoon, under stress and un-sober, “advised” Sir David Beattie to call a snap election, Sir David did not grant it until Sir Robert had assured him he had a majority.

Sir David might properly have gone further and independently checked out the majority, since one of Sir Robert’s election pretexts was that he could not be sure of a majority after Marilyn Waring had said she would vote for Richard Prebble’s nuclear-free zone bill.

These “reserve powers”, as they are called, are all that is left of the Tudor monarchs’ absolute power. These days the monarch reigns; she does not rule. That requires a Governor-General to be greatly reticent in any use of the reserve powers, such as Sir John Kerr’s dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and precipitation of an election in 1975 in Australia. It could provoke a politicians’ backlash which removes even that vestige.

Hence Sir David’s limited inquiry in 1984. Dame Cath Tizard said when Governor-General that the reserve powers were parked where they could not be used. So Sir David did not sack Sir Robert when, having lost in 1984, he would not devalue the currency, as the incoming Labour government wanted and officials were advising to deal with the currency and financial crisis his election precipitated.

Such gubernatorial reticence leaves the Prime Minister in command — in effect exercising sovereign power on those matters.

Sounds quaint in 2005. It is more than quaint. It is a serious anachronism.

Early this year the Prime Minister talked of going full term, which she said stretched to September 24, the last constitutional date for the election. The implication any voter would logically have taken was a September election.

More recently she has said any day after three years from the July 27 date of the 2002 election is also “full term”. Which it is.

That is the timing National and New Zealand First psyched themselves into. Winston Peters pitched a string of speeches and immigration windups for May. National has been putting up punchy billboards and putting out populist prods from Don Brash.

That early energy has played into the Prime Minister’s hands by getting her opponents to show theirs. It is no surprise that a recent report sourced a July 30 election date to insiders.

Friday’s UMR poll suddenly reversed the speculation. Logically, a government that had muffed its Budget and slid behind National in a poll run by its own pollster would be keen to delay the election (to September?) to recover its balance.

A few more weeks of this and a “surprise” date would be mid-August (that is, not September). So stand by for August speculation.

Expect, in other words, more of this undignified cat-and-mouse game. The date of your election is the Prime Minister’s plaything. Think about that.

Peters has been thinking. The man with an addiction to rabbits-and-hats does not like being Clark’s mouse.

Over the past three years, since the Prime Minister played fast and loose with the election date in 2002, a growing minority of MPs, including some ministers and Green leaders Jeanette Fitzsimons and Rod Donald, favours a fixed election date. So has a minority of real people. For business a certain election date would be a great help in planning.

Doesn’t fit our sort of political system? New South Wales gave the lie to that a decade ago.

There would need to be adjustments to the way confidence votes are handled: an alternative government would need to be available before an existing government was removed from office. A protocol would be needed to enable an election, under strict conditions, in the event of serious government breakdown or impasse. Foreign models could readily be adapted.

And a fixed date would make elections wholly yours. Four centuries on from Elizabeth I, in the twilight of the era of Elizabeth II, maybe it is time to make it clear where sovereignty really now lies.