Do our politicians have too much power?
I have just been reading an interesting (if somewhat pessimistic) account of the British constitution in the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog by Nat le Roux. It's quite long, but worth a read because it gives an excellent account of some of the key tensions that occur wihtin an unwritten constitutional system.
Le Roux’s thesis is that the executive branch – the people we usually refer to as ‘the government’ – have increasingly seized constitutional power over a number of years at the expense of the remainder of the constitutional system. That is, neither Parliament nor the courts act as an effective check on executive power. Politicians, once they have been elected to government, can pretty much do what they like.
The most important point that le Roux makes is that the rhetorical justifications for increased executive power don’t ring true in a modern constitutional system. The idea that politicians have a democratic mandate because they are elected by the people they serve is almost always overstated. Few governments obtain political power on the basis of an outright majority of popular support, especially under the British first-past-the-post voting model.
Further, le Roux argues that Parliament’s democratic mandate does not really serve to legitimise government action through voting on legislation. Even if Parliament is representative of the population’s views, the government tightly controls the legislative agenda and voting occurs largely on political party lines.
These smae points all hold true in New Zealand, because we have a very similar form of government. However, we don't hear the same calls for increased government power nearly as often. The main reason for that is that, if anything, our executive is probably more powerful the the British executive, and so they don't face the same barriers and frustrations. For exampl, in New Zealand there is no Upper House, which makes passing legislation harder, and there isn't really a strong tradition of the judiciary criticising government decisions.
New Zealand does have one advantage over Britain in that the House of Representatives is elected on a proportional basis. This tends to mean that a wider range of views are taken into account in the development and passage of legislation. In short, the governing party is required to compromise at least some of the time in order to pursue its legislative programme.
Le Roux also makes the point that in a modern constitution, democracy is best understood as a broad concept. Politicians only ever have an approximate mandate based on the views of the people, and so there are institutional checks and restrictions that prevent executive government from going too far. In New Zealand, the main checks are the proportional way we elect governments and the frequency of Parliamentary elections. Are these chekcs enough, or do they leave our politicians with too much power onece they are elected? While I don’t share le Roux’s pessimism, we should always be questioning whether the checks we have on executive government are sufficient to secure good government in the broadest sense.