What's in a constitution? What the PM needs.

“La constitution, c’est moi.”* So it seems, to hear the Prime Minister. Sticklers for form are sand in the gears.

Last week’s constitutional marvel has scandalised purists. But this country’s tradition is to adjust the constitution to political need. Helen Clark, Winston Peters and Peter Dunne are firmly in that tradition with their invention of sometimes-ministers who are mostly in the opposition.

Impossible, say constitutionalists, focused on form. Expedient, say politicians, focused on governing. Bizarre and unworkable, the rest of us might say, focused on commonsense.

Before the election there were four levels of support for a government: (1) coalition (in the government), (2) confidence-and-supply (ensuring the government has a majority on votes which decide whether it may hold office), (3) general support in return for policy concessions and consultation and (4) simple support with little or no reward.

In the 2002-05 Parliament Labour and Jim Anderton were in coalition, United Future gave confidence-and-supply and the Greens gave support but voted mostly against confidence-and-supply.

Now, thanks to post-election wagging of the dog by two much-shortened tails, there are two more levels.

Between coalition and confidence-and-supply come ministers outside cabinet — thus, without question, part of the government even if claiming not to be in coalition — giving confidence-and-supply but free to join the opposition on all matters outside specified portfolios, in Peters’ case foreign affairs, racing and senior citizens’ matters; in Dunne’s, revenue (tax) and health.

And between confidence-and-supply and general support come Green “spokespersons” on defined policy areas who are committed to abstain on confidence-and-supply.

It’s not pretty. But the real question is: can this constitutional jerry-building work as politics?

The core principle is long-established. To hold the Prime Minister’s warrant from the Governor-General, Clark must be able to prove, by a vote in Parliament, that she has the “confidence” of a majority of MPs who choose to vote. She must be able to pass her Budget and defeat no-confidence motions.

The government itself does not have to be in a majority, just be able to assemble one (which in this Parliament is 58 votes, given the Greens’ abstention). In fact, for 10 years most governments have been minorities.

But to pass legislation they must assemble majorities bill by bill. That has required compromises. In 2002-05 the Greens frequently backed government bills and United Future frequently opposed them. On the foreshore and seabed law New Zealand First, then in opposition, came to the rescue.

In this Parliament there will be more combinations and permutations — especially since no one knows how the Maori party MPs will vote on many matters. There will likely be more backdowns and defeats on clauses or even whole bills.

Those are not fatal to a government. Moreover, on confidence votes small parties have a powerful incentive not to vote the government down — to avoid the blame for an election, in which they might as a result lose votes. That, at least, is the folklore and much of politics operates on folklore, such as that a rugby test win is good for the government.

Actually, defeat doesn’t necessitate an election. If Clark lost a confidence vote and Don Brash could assemble the five-party hotchpotch he touted two weeks back, the government could change hands without an election. The last time that happened was in 1912.

Is that where Clark’s constitutional excrescences will lead her: to defeat?

Return to the central point: this is politics.

When I mused to some Foreign Affairs officials in April that Peters was likely to be Foreign Minister if National led the government, they were not amused.

But when he went offshore as Deputy Prime Minister in the National coalition, Peters was charming, sensible and on-message — the government’s message. Foreign Affairs boss Simon Murdoch, who was Prime Minister’s Department boss then, will ensure Peters is well-buttressed with top advice and Clark and Phil Goff will surround him.

So he should do the job unremarkably, even on trade and defence. The same goes for racing and probably senior citizens. And Peter Dunne, who has been in both Labour and National cabinets, plays by the rules.

The crunch will come when Peters attacks Clark on other matters with his usual free-range scathe. In Australia and elsewhere Peters will be heard as speaking for the country. How many such embarrassments will she be able to ride out before the rope snaps?

Well, confident third-term Clark is not the uptight first-termer. And Peters needs a better political epitaph than “twice-fired minister, 1991, 1998”. For all his maverick record, it could, just conceivably, work.

Which is the acid test of a constitution in this republic-in-all-but-form.

* King Louis XIV of France is said to have famously declared: “L’�tat, c’est moi” — “I am the state.”