What does a government do when Parliament is slow or difficult? It thinks up other ways to do what it wants.
This term the government does not have a near-automatic “left” majority with the Greens nor a willing backer of “urgency” to fast-track government business and/or extend sitting hours, as United Future did in the 2002-05 Parliament.
And it will more often face a sceptical or hostile majority in select committees, where most of the important work is done on legislation. Both there and in the House it will face a much expanded, more combatant and more cocksure National party.
That doesn’t mean the government cannot get legislation passed, even quite complex and contentious legislation. The Maori party might well supply majorities for some types of “left” legislation. And New Zealand First is not averse to regulatory solutions.
But to assemble such majorities the government will often need to negotiate with several parties, whereas often in 2002-05 the Greens alone or United Future alone would do.
And that will mean much more consultation and negotiation generally. Ad hoc won’t do. In any case Labour’s agreements with New Zealand First, United Future and the Greens have consultation, official briefings and negotiation built into them.
Time spent consulting and negotiating is time not spent writing and passing law.
So the days of a sledgehammer Building Act to crack the leaky homes nut look to be over for the time being. Likewise for grand-scheme bills like the Marine Reserves Bill, which is likely to be reduced to a few judiciously targeted changes to existing legislation.
For now at least triple bypasses or massive, damaging chemotherapy to repair (or ravage) the body politic are out. The political medicos will have to turn to keyhole surgery or tightly targeted gene therapy.
Which might just be where politics and policy are heading in any case.
Critics of MMP, particularly in business, deplored the paralysis they divined in the fine balance the voters delivered this election. But what has been “paralysed” and might it lead to a cure?
Here are some casualties of the “paralysis”: laws adding compliance costs to business; laws for new taxes; more workplace regulation of the workplace. Of course, laws cutting taxes, compliance costs and regulation have also been “paralysed” but they are opposition laws which would not be likely outcomes of a “non-paralysed” Parliament under a Labour government.
One bill held over from the 2002-05 Parliament which does reduce tax payment compliance costs does have a majority.
Then consider this proposition: that Parliament as it is now constituted is a proxy for public opinion. By definition, the voters did not make a “mistake”, however much some don’t like the outcome.
If so, then the much increased consultation and negotiation forced on the government by the voters is also a proxy for more consultation and negotiation with interest groups outside Parliament.
In a sense Helen Clark made that point in her first speech after forming her new government. She talked of the “need to be working for a broad national consensus on how we can own our future and improve our economic performance.”
She didn’t mean any old consensus, of course. It was to generate “more fairness, inclusion, opportunity and security”. But she did say she wanted to talk to all pressure groups. That includes business groups who backed National.
Why? Because if she is to last three years and win a fourth term after the looming economic slowdown (which might turn nasty), she needs business less hostile than it was in this year’s election campaign.
In any case United Future is much closer to business thinking than Labour and New Zealand First’s MPs come more from National’s side of the fence than Labour’s. The voters pointed her right, not left. So lobbying her support parties — and other parties — might actually generate results.
Put together the slow Parliament, much more negotiation and Labour’s need for a broad consensus and you logically get pinpoint policy, not blockbuster policy — keyhole surgery and gene therapy, not bypasses and massive drug doses.
This requires not just more sophisticated politics but more sophisticated policy management. Pinpoint policy works only with cooperation not through conformity.
Maybe this is where MMP is pointing us, into a window of time when policy and legislation is less intrusive and more finely tuned and leaves more space for private citizens to decide how the world should go round.
After all, if medicine can modernise, why can’t politics?