NZ First Leader Winston Peters will not invoke the so-called “agree to disagree” processes laid out in the Cabinet Manual for Ministers from a coalition partner who are at odds with a Government policy.
In this case, it is the Employment Relations Amendment Bill.
He told POLITIK last night that he would not invoke the “agree to disagree” process.
“Of course not,” he said.
But even so, he has consistently refused to say that he will support the Bill as it stands.
Though he did say in Parliament last Thursday that it would pass “in the fullness of time.”
The Cabinet Manual says the process allows Coalition governments to decide to establish “agree to disagree” processes, which may allow Ministers within the coalition to maintain, in public, different party positions on particular issues or policies.
But the situation is complicated and raises serious constitutional questions.
Peters has been arguing that the Cabinet agreement to the Bill to go into the Chamber for its first reading was not the end of the matter.
He will be referring here to the fact that Bills are frequently, often drastically, amended, between their first reading and when they emerge from their Select Committee.
However the NZ First member on the committee which considered this legislation voted for it.
There are more opportunities to amend legislation during its subsequent Committee stages in front of the whole House.
Speaking on RNZ “Morning Report” yesterday, he said: “When it (the Bill) goes to Cabinet, to go before Parliament and in a special committee of Parliament in a second reading, what about that sounds like finality?”.
“It never has been so why are you or your colleagues (to interviewer Kim Hill) saying it’s finality without any regard to the full committee of the House or the Third Reading.”
The Bill would have to pass through the full Committee and the Third Reading on the basis of votes.
For it to be overturned or substantially amended at that stage without the agreement of Labour would involve Peters voting against the Government, which, because it is a coalition, would mean he was voting against his own Government.
He would not be in this situation if he were not a Cabinet member.
It is for precisely that reason that the Clark Government instituted the “agree to disagree” process which was a first for a Westminister Parliament.
The Westminister Constitutional Convention is that the Cabinet act and speak as one.
The New Zealand Cabinet manual says: The principle of collective responsibility underpins the system of Cabinet government.
“It reflects democratic principle: the House expresses its confidence in the collective whole of government, rather than in individual Ministers.
“Similarly, the Governor-General, in acting on ministerial advice, needs to be confident that individual Ministers represent official government policy.
“In all areas of their work, therefore, Ministers represent and implement government policy.”
And it would appear from answers in Parliament yesterday from the Minister in charge of the Bill, Iain Lees-Galloway that it is, as it stands, Government policy.
“The bill as introduced was agreed to by Cabinet,” he said.
But he left the door open for changes.
“Should the Government see any opportunities to improve the bill in the future, that will be a decision of Cabinet also.”
However, he then offered a glimpse of what looks like being a backdown by the Government on the questions that NZ First have raised over Multi-Employer Collective Agreements. (MECAs)
“The bill as returned from the Education and Workforce Committee is what I intend to bring before the House for the second reading,” he said.
“If the Government sees an opportunity to improve the bill, that will occur at the committee of the whole House, and that will be a decision of Cabinet.”
Along with the fact that he is not invoking “agree to disagree”, that is as clear a signal as we are likely to get that Peters and the Labour Party leadership are negotiating over the MECA clauses and that NZ First are making gains.
Thus the Government looks like it will take the not unusual move of amending its own legislation during the second reading with the support of NZ First.
Thus constitutional decency will have been preserved but at what political price?