Monday 31 October 2022

“Governor” Of The People.

Topsy-Turvy: Justice Minister Kiri Allan has got the direction of power and control in New Zealand completely upside-down.

“AS A GOVERNOR.” That is how Justice Minister Kiri Allan described her political function on TVNZ’s Q+A. Unfortunately, Jessica Mutch McKay, standing in for Jack Tame, allowed Allan’s self-characterisation to pass without comment. Which was a pity, since it is highly unusual – unprecedented even – to hear a cabinet minister describe herself in such a fashion. In New Zealand’s down-to-earth democracy, calling oneself a “governor” is just a little bit weird.

New Zealand has had governors, of course, but not for a while. The Governor of New Zealand ruled in the name of the British sovereign, and was appointed by her government. A territory ruled by a governor may, or may not, be democratic, but everywhere and always their duties are exercised alone. There was only one governor in office at any given time in colonial New Zealand, just as there is only one governor in office at any given time in the USA’s fifty states. Being a governor is a job one does alone.

A semantic storm in a teacup? Well, no, not really. Ask a central government politician from New Zealand what they are, and by far the most common response is (or used to be) “I’m an MP.” Even when that MP was also a Cabinet Minister, it was generally left to others to introduce them as the minister of this, that, or the other. To personally flaunt one’s ministerial status in New Zealand was likely to provoke the observation that so-and-so was “a bit up themselves”.

When first encountered, the bureaucratic practice of always addressing the individual in possession of a royal warrant as “Minister” – in recognition of the office rather than the person – strikes most New Zealanders as excessively and ridiculously posh. The Kiwi instinct is to call politicians by their first and/or last names in preference to their titles. Hence, the present Prime Minister is called “Jacinda”, in exactly the same way that her predecessors were hailed as “Bill”, “John”, “Helen”, “Jim”, “David” and “Rob”. Exceptions were made for public servants, journalists, and those officiating at formal gatherings, because, well, it would be a bit rude not to. Otherwise, informality is the rule.

Parenthetically, this egalitarian informality has always struck the acutely status-conscious Brits as reprehensible. There is a famous story, dating from World War II, about the commander of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, Bernard Fryberg, who was chastised by the punctilious commander of the British Eighth Army, Bernard Montgomery, for the way he failed to reprimand his men for not saluting senior officers. Unfazed, Fryberg responded by saying: “On the contrary, Sir, I find that if I wave at them, they generally wave back.”

A constitutional purist would, of course, object that Allan, as a member of the Cabinet, is part of the “Executive” which, under the Westminster System, constitutes the most active branch of government. Indeed, when New Zealanders refer to “The Government”, they are usually talking about the Cabinet, acting collectively. If Kiri Allan is engaged in actively governing the country, then why shouldn’t she refer to herself as a “governor”.

The most straightforward response to this question is: because she’s got the direction of power and control completely upside-down.

Historically, the Cabinet evolved out of the King’s or Queen’s council of advisers, that clique of powerful subjects among whom he, or she, distributed the great offices of state through which the realm was administered.

So far, so Henry VIII.

But, history does not stand still. The evolution of Cabinet government reflects the relentless disempowering of the British monarchy by Parliament, and the British people, to the point where, by the Eighteenth Century, its membership was restricted to those seated in the houses of parliament and appointed solely on the advice of the person commanding a reliable majority of the elected members of that parliament.

The New Zealand version of the Westminster System makes the direction of authority even clearer. Since 1950, this country has had only one parliamentary chamber – the House of Representatives. As its name implies, all the members of this “House” have been elected by the people to govern in their name. Meaning that, if anybody in this country has the right to describe themselves as “a governor”, it is the ordinary voter.

Kiri Allan sits at the Cabinet Table because the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, advised the Governor-General, Dame Cindy Kiro, to issue her a ministerial warrant. The Prime Minister has that power because she commands a clear majority in the House of Representatives. If Allan loses the confidence of the Prime Minister, she ceases to be a Cabinet Minister. If Ardern loses the confidence of the House – or the next election – she ceases to be Prime Minister.

So far, so Politics 101.

Which only makes it all the more mysterious that Allan would ever begin a sentence with the words: “As a governor, …” At least until Sunday’s (30/10/22) Q+A, Allan’s reputation has been that of a rough-and-ready woman-of-the-people: someone not known for putting on airs-and-graces, but for being willing to call a spade a bloody shovel – and then use it. If Allan was to describe herself as anything, the smart money would have been on her calling herself the people’s “servant” – not their “governor”.

Certainly, Allan’s announcement – via Q+A – of her intention to go after the liquor industry is very much an example of leading by serving. She is responding to the anger and frustrations communicated to her by city councils and community advocates confronted with the paralysingly expensive legal obstructions erected by the alcohol distributors’ high-priced lawyers. That she is planning to do this by what looks suspiciously like a curbing of due-process (abolishing appeals and cross-examinations) only confirms what some observers describe as an almost reckless determination on the part of the Ardern Ministry to enact its more controversial reforms before the 2023 General Election.

Frustrated by the lethargy and incompetence of the public service; stung by mainstream media criticism; injured by social media attacks; and bitterly aware that its time is running out; the Labour Government is determined to leave a “progressive” legacy – even if it lasts only as long as it takes an incoming National-Act Government to repeal it.

It is even possible that some Labour leaders, and Allan may be one of them, are saying: “We have to give our core supporters at least some of the policies they requested – and we promised – because that’s the only way we can win.” Less optimistic (but possibly more Machiavellian) Labour strategists, by contrast, may counsel forcing National-Act to play the ruthless right-wing reactionaries, this time, so that Labour can win, next time.

If this is the way Labour’s thinking is heading, then Allan’s words are easily explained. People who know they are forcing a majority of the people to accept policies demanded by a minority, will always, under pressure, fall back on the blunt interrogatives of political power: Who has it, and who is willing to use it?

That’s why it is so easy to finish a sentence that begins, “As a governor”, with the words: “it is my will that prevails – not yours.” Easy, but a perilously long way from New Zealand’s egalitarian political traditions.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 31 October 2022.


Brendan McNeill said...

The more energy she puts into addressing the alcohol problem the less time available to work on her proposed hate speech legislation. We can all drink to that.

AB said...

Is that the sound of your fingernails on the bottom of the barrel Chris?

A definition will explain what I mean:

idée fixe, (French: “fixed idea”) in music and literature, a recurring theme or character trait that serves as the structural foundation of a work. The term was later used in psychology to refer to an irrational obsession that so dominates an individual's thoughts as to determine his or her actions.

DS said...

Parliament is sovereign in New Zealand, not the People. It derives its democratic legitimacy from elections, of course, but it is Parliament that "can do anything" (as the phrase goes), not the public.

In this case, I cannot see the point of your objections. Labour forms the Government. It was elected to Govern. Cabinet are the Governors, the executive decision-makers. She did not say she was Sovereign.

(Frankly, it actually sounds more like a tug-of-war between Governance, those who make the decisions, and Management, those who carry them out).

CXH said...

Perhaps it is all a subconscious reaction. She knows that past governors have never done anything good for Maori, the government she is part of has done the same. So maybe she now identifies with being a governor.

The Barron said...

The Government governs. The Cabinet Ministers are given Vice-Regal warrants. This forms the executive branch of NZ, the government. Crown Ministers are given portfolios, most of which give direction and over-sight to government departments. Minister Allen would be aware of her Labour Cabinet forbear Bob Semple's “responsible but not to blame” epithet and seems to go further as by stating she is governing the portfolios, she is both responsible and to blame. This is refreshing.

Kat said...

Well I would rather have someone who "governs" rather than someone who threatens to "scrap" whatever "they" don't like......

Guess we will hear from the usual anti Ardern/Labour trolls squealing about a govt they blame for doing nothing but doing everything they don't like.....

Whats new pussy cat:

Archduke Piccolo said...

Any politician or prospective politician who takes it into his head that he's there to rule, or to 'govern', is not qualified to represent anyone in Parliament. That is one of many reasons why I have never in my life voted for the soi-disant 'natural party of government', the National Party. I've known of MPs and prospective MPs from other parties that had similarly arrogant attitudes.

One hopes that Ms Allen meant something 'small-g-ish' in her choice of word. Certainly Ms Mutch McKay ought to have asked what she meant by that. The answer would have been very informative ... one way or another.
Ion A. Dowman

ZTS said...

I would read that slightly differently Chris.

I think Kiri meant Governance in relation to Co Governance. I wouldnt be surprised if we didnt see this language pop up more commonly as a way of legitimising the idea of 50/50 co governance at every level. We are not MPs we are Governors and one day in about 10? years, 1/2 of us will be Maori.

The elucidation of the Governance concept that you have provided puts this in a more sinister light. Co Governance sounds like we sit around the table and talk over issues until we agree. Suitably reasonable and democratic.

But looking at the term Governance, we see that the link to serving the people is no longer the focus as they will be governing us rather than representing us. I certainly hope that I am wrong and we are not going to see other MPs 'massaging' our concept of representation.

Odysseus said...

The Treaty of Waitangi has since 1987 been misrepresented to suggest the elected government of the day rules in partnership with the tribes over the assorted flotsam and jetsam who have washed up on these shores over the past two centuries. Allan's Ministry of Justice has formally reported to Parliament that the status of Maori as "Treaty Partners" outweighs the human rights protections including freedom from discrimination guaranteed by the Bill of Rights Act which implements the UN Declaration of Human Rights. You can read this assertion in the MOJ's opinion on the Pae Ora (Healthy Futures) Bill of 2021. Unbelievably, it has not been contested by anyone. It is little wonder therefore that Allan does not see herself as a representative or servant of the people, but primarily as someone who has authority over you.

Anonymous said...

Governer,government, Governor?.

Gary Peters said...

Well "kat", if they get elected based on the promises to scrap what "WE" don't like that is called democracy. Sounds like you don't like it.

Happy to be labelled a troll but as a matter of interest, what would you label a political party that promises much, delivers little and actually makes most things they touch worse?

Kat said...

"........what would you label a political party that promises much, delivers little and actually makes most things they touch worse?

Well "Gary" obvious answer is National and sidekick Act.....

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Happy to be labelled a troll but as a matter of interest, what would you label a political party that promises much, delivers little and actually makes most things they touch worse?"


David George said...

Governor Allan has made it clear she intends to have the anti speech laws in place next year. They're already encouraging people to dob in suspects and the budding thought police, in drooling anticipation, have declared their targets: The face of terrorism, the dreaded Trad Wife?

"They use Pinterest and Instagram to draw in other women who are interested in interior design, Children’s clothing, knitting, healthy food for children, and it does draw people in towards a set of white nationalist ideas.

I mean, it’s relatively easy to see if you see a very beautiful, fair-skinned blonde or redhead child with beautiful braiding in her hair and some flowers just step back a little bit, which is really distressing because that’s my heritage cooking with the girls"

Kate Hannah: Web of Chaos documentary.

David George said...

I should add that Kate Hannah is the director of the government's "Disinformation Project".
Are you worried yet?

Anonymous said...

Guvnor perhaps as in...our boss.
On the contrary, as Chris said, We as payers, are Your *Boss*. Cheers Kiri, here's to the 2023 election and the end of your self-appointed mandate to control alcohol and our expression.