To be a credible Opposition
On Sunday the Leader of the New Zealand Green Party, James Shaw, announced that his party would be donating its Parliamentary questions to the Opposition National Party. It seems that this was a surprise to both the National Party and Green Party supporters, and the merits of this arrangement are not completely clear. In this post, I want to talk briefly about the trade‑offs that might be involved, and about what it means to be a credible opposition to government.
There are always trade-offs when it comes to a rebalancing of political power. Shaw has defended the new arrangement by claiming that there is little to no benefit in the Greens asking the Government ‘pasty’ questions about what a great job the Government is doing. Better, in his view, that Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition make use of the questions to ‘hold the Government to account’.
This seems to be a popular view, but we need to remember that pasty questions have an important function within our Parliamentary democracy. They are (a somewhat forced) opportunity for the Government to promote the good work it is doing as a Government. This is an important counterbalance to the more critical questions that come from the Opposition, and ensures that Question Time exposes a range of views. But by giving up pasty questions, part of the accountability of the Government to electors (rather than to the Opposition) could potentially be lost.
Secondly, it is open to question whether National will be better placed than the Greens to formulate and ask searching questions of the Government on certain issues. The ‘expectation of office’ that comes with being the primary opposition party complicates the incentives on National to be critical of certain Government initiatives, either because those initiatives are popular or are actually aligned with the National Party’s key policy. In this sense, some would argue that the best opposition party to hold the Government to account is one with no realistic prospect of office. Without any disrespect intended, the Greens may better fulfil this critical function on certain issues. (This may be why the Greens have reserved the right to use their Parliamentary questions on an ad hoc basis.)
Finally, how effective the National Party is generally at being a credible Opposition should influence a political decision such as this to afford it more tools to express and advance that opposition. On this front, I haven’t seen much evidence yet that National really knows what being in Opposition is all about.
As would perhaps be expected the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges, has jumped on the Greens announcement by claiming that the additional questions will be a further tool to hold the Government to account. That’s a theme that the National Opposition have been strong on rhetorically since they became the Opposition, and I think it’s worth pausing to consider exactly what they mean when they say it. Often it seems to me to mean no more than being critical of the current Government. If the Government makes an announcement, the Opposition will explain to voters why that announcement is a silly idea.
But criticising the incumbent Government only has limited constitutional value as an accountability mechanism. The Opposition’s primary role within our Parliamentary system is to present itself as a credible alternative government. This often means being selective about criticism of the incumbent, and demonstrating an ability to be constructive where that matters to voters. It means providing ongoing evidence of commitment to core values that motivate effective policy, presented by credible representatives who are trusted by and responsive to the electorate. It means holding yourself to account just as much as you try to hold the Government to account.
When put in those terms, it’s the Greens rather than National that start to look like a credible opposition party after this announcement. They are the ones who have adopted a kaupapa of selective criticism mediated by constructive engagement. There’s a lot still to play out following this announcement, and it may backfire in unanticipated ways, but at the moment the Greens are the ones exercising considered political judgement about what it means to hold the Government of the day to account.