IN COMMITTEE Knocking Up a Coalition

Sometime towards the end of this month the representatives of some of our political parties are going to sit down to hammer out the coalition agreement that will permit the formation of new government. Remember, under MMP, governments are not decided at the ballot box; but in the corridors of power afterwards.
Now, just for the fun of it, let us assume that you are bigwig in minor party that did rather well on election night. The hangover has cleared and you figure your lot could be in with shot at the big time.
Problem is, you and your mates have neither the research resources, nor the institutional memory of the major party or parties with whom you are going to have to negotiate. Which raises the question of how you can be certain that they are not going to hoodwink you.
Well, one way would be to seek some assistance from the relevant department or other state sector agency. Yup, the Sir Humphreys are allowed to help out, but only under very strict conditions, so there are few things you’d best know.
First you are going to have to channel all requests through the State Services Commissioner. He will not be of much use to you, however, unless Helen Clark gives him the thumbs up (at this point she will still be the Prime Minister no matter what happens to Labour on the 17th). Convention requires that she agree, even though you (being management type) may be planning to cut her out of the subsequent action.
Even so, don’t expect too much too soon. Don’t, for instance, expect some Sir Humphrey to hold your hand in the negotiations and run the show for you; that will not happen until after you get sworn into Cabinet. While face-to-face meetings can be arranged between officials and those requesting information to clarify what information and analysis is being sought, responses will normally be in writing. Officials in party-to-party meetings is no-no – at least until matters reach fairly advanced stage.
What other assistance can you expect? Well, you can request that the relevant government departments bash out some costings for the policies you have in mind. However, these can only be developed with the assistance of Treasury (something which you had better get used to). You can also run your ideas past the relevant department, and it can provide objective advice on issues such as implementation and potential pitfalls. What it can not do, under any circumstances, is feed in its own ideas for your consideration – Sir Humphrey-like.
Throughout the mating dance, great circumspection is demanded on the part of all state servants involved.
And if you find this bit frustrating you may care to keep in mind the fact that the officials and departments that are seeking to make sense of what you are up to, and helping as much as they can, may simultaneously be advising another group of potential country-runners down the corridor.
As things progress towards betrothal, however, they may become little more forthcoming. At the point where there is agreement among parties to join together to form government – this is technically known as the “preferred partner” stage – fair range of central agency representatives and departmental executives are permitted to turn up in person to advise on the details of the pre-nuptial (or coalition) agreement.
Perhaps New Zealand will have new government by the time the next issue of Management magazine is published.

Julie Collier is editor and publisher of Select Committee News.

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