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Electoral Commission National Training for Returning Officers

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 21 February 2023
The Rt Hon Dame Cindy Kiro, GNZM, QSO

E nga rau rangatira mā, e kui mā, e koro mā, e huihui nei, tēnei aku mihi māhana ki a koutou. Kia ora tātou katoa.

I’d like to specifically acknowledge: Joe Harawira, Kaumātua; Puhiwāhine Tibble, Kuia; Dame Marie Shroff, Chair of the Board, Electoral Commission; Karl Le Quesne, Chief Electoral Officer and Chief Executive, Electoral Commission; Hone Matthews, Chief Advisor Māori, Electoral Commission; Mandy Bohte, Acting Deputy Chief Executive, Operations, Electoral Commission.

In particular, I acknowledge Dame Marie Shroff, Chair of the Electoral Commission Board; and Karl Le Quesne, Chief Electoral Officer; tēnā kōrua.

Thank you for the invitation to address you all today, and to share my appreciation for the essential work you do in support of our democracy.

Fair and trusted elections are the cornerstone of a free society. Your work around the motu every day is critical in delivering an electoral system that New Zealanders trust.

I have always been impressed by the effort that is put in by the Commission to make it easier for New Zealanders to engage with the electoral system. The proof of the value of your work is in the numbers; New Zealanders vote in general elections at a rate that many other countries can only aspire to.

Even as we celebrate this success, continuing to reach out to New Zealanders by encouraging everyone to vote is critical. Ensuring that everyone who calls Aotearoa their home can have their say only makes our democracy stronger.

Effective representation, of the kind that your work supports, brings us closer together, and fosters trust between citizens.

We can be rightly proud of our relative success in building faith in our political system. However, we cannot pretend we do not face challenges.

In delivering a similar speech in 2020, my predecessor, the Rt Hon Dame Patsy Reddy, noted that democracies around the world were faced with some daunting issues. She mentioned managing division and polarisation, and tackling disinformation, as two key challenges. Both of these issues are just as pressing today as they were three years ago.

Obviously, these issues cannot be resolved by the electoral system alone. However, upholding the integrity of the system is an essential part of any solution to them. You in the Electoral Commission cannot control whether people trust our elections or not. However, you have a critical part to play in whether the system runs, and is seen to run, effectively, fairly, honestly, and transparently.

As I speak to you today about our electoral system, I am minded that this year marks the 30th anniversary of the vote in favour of MMP. The change to MMP ushered in a new era of proportional representation.

Over the last 30 years, the Commission has no doubt learned that running an MMP election is very different from running one under first past the post. At the same time, New Zealanders have learned that the Governments they elect under MMP may be very different from those elected under first past the post.

A generation of voters has also grown up with a system where the aftermath of elections is generally very different than it was under ‘first past the post’. New Zealanders now understand that a clear election night result, in which one of two parties has a majority in the House of Representatives, and the other does not, will be the exception under MMP, rather than the rule

After the 2017 general election, for example, post-election negotiations between political parties continued for weeks before it became clear who would lead the Government.

As Governor-General, one of my key constitutional roles in the aftermath of an election is to ascertain where the confidence of the House of Representatives lies and appoint a Government accordingly. That process is critical for democratic legitimacy.

In our system, that democratic legitimacy comes from the link between Parliament and the executive. Members of the executive must be members of Parliament, and it is the members of Parliament who choose who will make up the executive.

This is all well and good—but Parliament will not be sitting on October 15, the morning after the election. New Zealanders will expect a government to be formed well in advance of the sitting of a new Parliament.

This is where what my predecessor, Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae, called “quantity and clarity” comes in. For a prospective government to be appointed, it must have the necessary quantity of support in the House, and there must be sufficient clarity around the fact and basis of this support.

First, consider quantity. The ultimate test of whether a government has the necessary support is whether it can win a confidence vote in Parliament. The simplest way to do this is for one party to receive enough votes that they take up more than half the seats of the House and hold an unassailable majority.

Although common in our past, and still possible, as the 2020 election demonstrated, under MMP this outcome is now unusual. More often, a party looking to lead a government has had to seek support from other parties, and come to an agreement on who will support whom to reach the necessary majority, and on what terms.

Another point worth remembering is that a confidence vote requires a government to obtain the majority of all members voting, not necessarily all members elected. Parties may indicate that they will not support any government, remain independent, and abstain on a confidence vote. This would change the threshold that a prospective government would be required to meet. For example, if 10 of the 120 members of Parliament abstain from such a vote, a government would only need to receive more than half of the 110 remaining votes, a threshold of 56 rather than 61.

Whatever the level of support a party needs to reach to form a government, it is open to any party, no matter its size, to seek to reach that threshold. The largest party in Parliament has no greater right to form a government than any other. Nor is there any convention in New Zealand that the Governor-General should invite the largest party to make the first attempt to form a government. All that is required is for any party to demonstrate that they have the required quantity of support.

And so, to the second element I will be looking for; clarity. Governments will almost always be formed before Parliament has a chance to sit and vote formally. This means a governing arrangement must be shown to have the votes in the House through other means.

However this happens, it must be clear, unambiguous, and public. Both the public and myself need to know who is forming government, and on what terms, before one can be appointed.

So far, all support arrangements under MMP have been agreed in writing, and announced publicly. The benefits of this practice for both transparency and accountability are clear, and I expect this to continue.

We have also been fortunate that the agreements negotiated after elections have always been made in the expectation that they will endure for a full parliamentary term. New Zealanders have come to expect, not unreasonably, that governments will be formed only when they are intended to remain stable for the duration of a parliament, and that parties will make best endeavours to stick to that commitment.

Subject to the requirements I have outlined, a range of outcomes are possible after the election. We may see another single party majority government, meaning little or no negotiation is necessary. If not, some sort of negotiation will need to take place. This may lead to another coalition government, or support arrangements, or a hybrid of both.

It is even possible that we will see a government that does not command a majority of elected members of Parliament, due to a party abstaining on confidence votes, but that still has the confidence of the House.

We must also acknowledge the possibility that no government will be formed. That has never happened under MMP - although it has happened in the past that negotiations have taken some time, New Zealand has not under MMP been in a situation where no government can be formed at all.

Whatever happens in negotiations, Parliament will be required to sit again no later than 21 December. Even if no new government has been appointed, I will still be required to deliver the Speech from the Throne, on behalf of the caretaker government. Parties will then have a chance to move confidence votes and test the support of the House for different governing arrangements.

At this stage, as negotiations continue and confidence arrangements are tested, the caretaker government would remain in place, and no new government could be appointed until it receives a positive confidence vote from a majority of the House.

If this situation continues, there may come a time when it is clear that a government cannot be formed, and another election is required. The incumbent Prime Minister, bound by the caretaker convention, would be expected to consult other parties and seek majority support for the calling of any new election. Members of Parliament are responsible for resolving matters so that the Governor-General is never required to consider dissolving Parliament and calling an election without ministerial advice.

That is enough of the constitutional formalities. As important as they may be, remember that all of this rests on the superb work I am sure you will do in delivering the election later this year.

Everyone at the Commission, from the staff in the polling places to the leaders in this room, has a part to play in ensuring that the integrity of our system of government is unimpeachable.

Thank you for the work you will do over the course of this year, and many to come, to ensure that our democracy is accessible, responsive, representative, and trusted. Thank you for ensuring that New Zealanders’ voices are heard.

No reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.

Last updated: 
Tuesday, 21 February 2023

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