An impatient PM and the constitution

The budget is at the core of our constitution. The power to tax is assigned to elected representatives. Bill English needed ACT’s or the Maori party’s votes for the authority to tax and spend last Thursday.

This principle reaches centuries back into British constitutional history. Two centuries ago the United States’ independence was founded on it. Three decades ago here an autocratic Prime Minister’s push to change tax rates by regulation triggered a decisive revolt in his party caucus.

The constitution matters. Trampling on it can lead to strife.

There was a minor demonstration of that last week. A royal commission recommended special Maori seats on the looming Auckland supercouncil. The government trashed that recommendation without consultation and there was a modest hikoi.

The constitution is in part about process. The government took a crash-through-or-crash approach to the supercity. It said there was no point in more consultation because the commission had consulted widely.

That, of course, doesn’t square with departing in major ways from the commission’s recommendations. Hence the agitation.

Process matters. But this cabinet has other priorities.

Item one: it has imposed a minister, John Carter, as chair of the special parliamentary select committee on the second supercity bill.

That blurs the boundary between the executive and legislative arms of the state, which MMP has to some extent re-inked after decades of executive domination in an “elected dictatorship”. The precedent for Carter was set by Peter Dunne, another minister, chairing the special committee on climate change.

Dunne gave up the chair of Parliament’s foreign affairs, defence and trade committee when he joined the Clark ministry in 2005. No such notion of parliamentary propriety held him back in December 2008.

Item two: this government’s trigger-happy resort unnecessarily to parliamentary urgency — for example, to ram through the super-Auckland transition agency law last month and to ditch its tax cuts last week.

For this businessman-led cabinet speed is a paramount virtue. Due process gets in the way. All cabinets exhibit this impatience to some degree. This one is showing a special propensity.

Item three: the Auckland transition agency’s plenipotentiary power to override elected councils on even trivial matters. The scope for error — and, in turn, public agitation at it and the government — is wide. It’s that damn constitution again, this time the presumption by people in one of the world’s longest-running continuous democracies that representation is central to proper politics.

Item four: the imposition on departmental chief executives’ staffs of budget advisers answerable only to ministers. That chips at the 1912 principle of a non-party-political, professional and professionally appointed public service.

The point for John Key and his eager ministers is that high-handedness of these (and other) sorts brings its own reward. The arrogance of the 1984-92 cabinets drove support from Labour and National and gave us MMP.

In Britain MPs’ gorging on expenses has gravely damaged Parliament and the constitution. Rebuilding public confidence might take decades and major constitutional adjustments.

Cross the Atlantic. In revulsion at cabal politics in the early twentieth century, Californians adopted binding referendums, including even on tax limits.

There is already a growing demand here for major issues to be decided by referendum and by other mechanisms which take the substance of deliberation out of politicians’ hands. Too much disregard for process will likely build that momentum.

The Clark government gestured in that direction by agreeing to a Green proposal for a panel to develop electoral finance law in the wake of parties’ raiding of parliamentary funds for campaigning in 2005.

The present government squashed that panel. The result is likely to be that electoral finance decisions will continue to be made by the very people who have most at stake, the MPs. That is self-regulation — the very mistake that gave us the banking and credit crisis.

Two issues are wrapped up in this.

First: balance. In part because of impossible budget conditions imposed by binding referendums, California’s constitution is broken, in need of drastic repair. The lesson is the need for governments to balance the occasional need for decisive action against the need for legitimacy through due process.

Second: who guards the constitution? Nominally that is the Governor-General. But in our constitution now the Governor-General is the cabinet’s gopher.

The alternative — with due respect to Her Majesty, whose birthday we deferentially commemorated yesterday — is a head of state with a popular mandate who can occasionally pull on the reins when an impatient government departs from due process.

One option: elect the next Governor-General. That would be a constitutional plus for a Prime Minister who is accumulating constitutional minuses.