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Follow the majority that agrees with me, part 2

The Greens continue to make up principles of democracy as they go. Why can’t they just stick to the real arguments on military deployment?

In 2013, amid polls showing 70% public opposition but majority support in Parliament, Russel Norman criticised the government loudly about its lack of respect for public opinion on state asset sales. Dr Norman refused analogies with the 2007 smacking bill (which enjoyed some 90% public opposition but majority parliamentary support), citing the “overwhelming majority” in Parliament with which the latter passed, but he never articulated a criterion for when a public majority should be heeded.

Now, on the deployment of New Zealand defence personnel to Iraq, Dr Norman is proposing yet another mode of democratic accountability. This time, Dr Norman does not propose a referendum. Rather, he (and Labour’s Andrew Little) suggests that Parliament should get to vote on the matter. Dr Norman, again, criticises John Key for making the decision “without a mandate”.

Yet a parliamentary mandate was not enough for Dr Norman to be content with asset sales, nor was an overwhelming parliamentary majority enough for his party in 2001 to support the (Labour) government’s decision to deploy personnel to Afghanistan. And while Dr Norman makes reference to the public in his speech, he’s clearly much more obsessed with Parliament’s right to weigh in on this matter. What gives?

It’s fairly obvious how Dr Norman is choosing which mandates to talk about, just as it’s obvious why Mr Key will not run a parliamentary vote on this deployment, and why Helen Clark was happy for Parliament to vote on the 2001 decision. Mr Key knows he would lose this vote; Ms Clark knew she would win that one. Dr Norman is pressing on mandates whenever he happens to be in the majority—just as I pointed out when writing about asset sales in December 2013.

In other words, everyone is running or advocating whichever procedure will favour them.

Where does the power actually lie?
It’s worth saying that the vote in 2001 was not a vote of authorisation. It did happen, but the resolution was that the “House declares its support” for New Zealand’s contributions to the coalition. It was a symbolic vote—a nice feel-good for the government, but not a necessary one.

Constitutionally, the power to make military deployments (and declare war) is part of the royal prerogative, exercised on the advice of the prime minister (ref). Parliament doesn’t get any sort of veto right (unless it passes legislation to give itself one). It does, of course, have the role of holding ministers accountable for their decisions and there are a range of means (questions, urgent debates, debates after ministerial statements) to do so.

Dr Norman knows this, of course: notice his rhetoric is about “mandate”, not “authority” or “power”. And one might advance a good case for why the power to commit military personnel should lie only with the legislature, not the executive. But that’s not the system we have today, and until that changes, we shouldn’t pretend it’s how things work. A system that people kept having to second-guess to get right would collapse pretty quickly.

Just make the argument
Parties are entitled to be opposed to military deployment, just as they are entitled to hold stances on any other issue. And there is no obligation to be part of the majority, or to advocate the stance held by the majority, or to implement it. If there were, the Greens would be a very different party: most of their views, after all, would place them in the minority of the New Zealand public.

But the reasons the left should be using are the actual reasons they oppose military action: because they think it is more likely to inflame the situation than help it, or because they think New Zealand lives aren’t worth risking, or perhaps something else. That is, in itself, a substantive debate, and—credit where it is due—one that Dr Norman and the Greens are duly engaging in. It would just be nice if that’s what their rhetoric focussed on, rather than some moving goalposts about when the government should care for which majority.

To avoid doubt: Astute readers will have noticed that (a) this post spares Andrew Little from the same criticism, because while he moved for a vote, that detail was not his emphasis, and (b) this post did not advocate a position on the substantive case for or against deployment except to say there was one.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. An excellent analysis. I did however find the first paragraph a little complicated. Maybe it was the use of brackets, which contained a point which could be included as part of the main argument.

    25 February 2015

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