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Loyalty, discipline and ‘leader’s coat-tail’ parties.

  • December 8th, 2007

“But MPs in those parties have to accept that they are hitch-hikers. They must laugh at the leader’s jokes, and skip in step with him, even if the leader can’t skip, or changes step without warning”.

I should have anticipated resentment (like that of Lindsay Mitchell) to my shorthand for concern about  sycophancy in parties that hang off a leader’s seat. It was not a coded insult, so clearly explanation is needed.

It was not aimed at ACT, though I worried when ACT changed its policy in 2005 to focus on a seat, rather than just the party vote. As it turned out the decision saved ACT  in Parliament. But there is a cost.

I watched from close range the travails of MPs in “leader’s coat-tail parties” over two terms.

I remember, for example, Ron Mark smacking himself on the head beside me after he and Peter Brown had done a tradesmanlike job throughout a long afternoon, articulating a coherent position on some Bill. At around 5pm (when the Parliamentary radio broadcast audience is augmented by commuter drivers) Winston swept in. He absorbed the debate for a few quiet minutes (without a word of enquiry to his troops). He launched a crackling speech, full of quotable derision for the idiots on the wrong side of the debate. Then he swept out.

“Silly me” said Ron facetiously. “I must have forgotten. Today is Thursday. Thursday’s the day we support the government”.

Winston had just demolished the position Ron had supported all afternoon.

That kind of highhandedness is open to a “party” leader who controls his followers by the veto he holds over who can hang off his seat. From what I heard from my Green MP colleagues they suffered the same from Anderton in the previous Parliament.

Gordon Copeland has experienced it at the hands of Peter Dunne (think anti-smacking bill), with Dunne not needing to worry about the policies dear to the parties and party voters lured into his spider’s embrace, election after election.

Sure, MPs in all parties must endure in silence contradictions and mistakes from their leaders. Cabinet solidarity no doubt offers that trying experience daily. Without that discipline a party could never govern. The people rightly worry about electing people who can not sort out who is in charge. 

Absorbing vicarious crap with grace is an experience not confined to politics. Every good lawyer will have had to change step without warning, to do the best one can for a client whose mouth and mind are competing to sink him. Even when the client is blaming the inevitable debacle on his ‘idiot lawyer’, client confidentiality means that all one can do is grit the teeth and think of the consoling invoice.

But there is a healthy constraint on the leaders of real Parliamentary parties. They lead by consent. If they lose the confidence of a bare majority of their team, or test their tolerance too far, they’ll be sacked. Accordingly, there are strong natural disciplines on any temptation they might have to change step without warning. Without needing conscious thought, they will minimise the times when they cause their team to say “our mistake” for looking out of step with the leader.

I did not set out to hurt the faith of decent ACT people in their leader. That faith will no doubt strengthen as National sensibly holds close to the centre, leaving ACT plenty of ideological space for dry economics and libertarian social policies.

But without trying I can think of recent public examples of curiously idiosyncratic ACT voting. For example, I have not been able to understand the ACT vote on the EFB companion Bill that legitimised Labour use of Parliamentary funds for electioneering in the next election. It may represent high principle, or it may be a symptom of “Leader’s coat-tails party” syndrome.

Rodney Hide’s first reading speech purported to explain but left me baffled.

Many will no doubt feel that it is worth risking personal high-handedness to support a ‘leader’s coat-tail’ party. Such parties were made possible by the odd electoral design decision to allow them as exceptions to the minimum 5% party vote requirement for MMP representation.

I think it was a mistake.

I welcome the prospect of independence in Parliament offered by personal seats. But to give their holders the power to hang pet parties off those seats has been expensive. The 5% minimum was meant to prevent the Italian pattern emerging, where party fractionalisation added to the paralysis and unsavoury horse-trading associated with coalition building where many small groups are each given veto power by the need to get a 50% voting agreement.

Some fragmentation makes MMP work. H Clark has had the wit and good fortune to be able to trade potential support among the Maori Party, the Greens and NZ First. That may in turn have been possible because three way oligopolies are unstable (do not facilitate monopoly conduct -why the Commerce Commission wants to keep The Warehouse out of the hands of either of the two big supermarket chains).

If there had been only two contenders instead of three it would have been easier for the two to gang up on the government and set the agenda.

The gaming possibilities after the next election must have the minor parties salivating. For me, had I felt able to stay as an ACT member after the last election, the prospects of Ministerial office would have been greater. Experience here and overseas has seen minor party MPs with a disproportionate share of Ministerial posts. 

I hope there was some sound reason for the curious position of ACT on the companion bill. I understand that Rodney has shown what he can contribute to the House, with outstanding recent speeches on the EFB.



Steven, thanks for that lucid explanation. It helps a lot to understand what you meant. (And pity Ron Mark at the next election — I think all of NZ First will be gone.)

I have a request of you, for when you get into government this time next year, and hopefully into Cabinet too…

Please don’t stop blogging.

What we really need is a government that is listening to the grass roots, not just their own favourite “focus groups”. A government that is willing to change direction and admit mistakes. A government that is rational, and can see when a counter argument makes more sense than their own. (eg I don’t think that National are being rational about Climate Change — they are listening to the political rhetoric, rather than the facts).

Admittedly, there are some times when a country needs leadership through a tough time, in order to reap the benefits on the other side (like the 1980’s). But people are willing to listen to the vision and the rationale.

And you seem to be one of the best at doing that. (I only hope that John Key keeps listening.)

  • sfranks
  • December 8th, 2007
  • 3:51 pm

I’ll try, but part of blogging is “getting it off the chest”. I suspect that when people are putting in 16 hour days implementing they find it harder to keep up the explanations and the thinking.

It may be that governments use up stored intellectual capital, without enough thinking time to replenish it. Another reason why the people wisely toss them out eventually, when allowed to.


I was equally confused by Rodney’s position. Perhaps he was pissed off he had to pay some money back and it’s clouded his thinking.

But I agree his performance on the EFB has been outstanding.

  • Camryn
  • January 10th, 2008
  • 6:36 am

I’m still worried about splitting the vote with Heather in WLG. Haven’t you ensured you’ll both lose?

  • sfranks
  • January 12th, 2008
  • 10:35 am


I’d be stunned if Heather really means to push for constituency votes, whoever is selected for the National nomination, though I’m sure she’d love to be a constitutency MP.

She is normally rational and objective.

She knows the research that shows how many floating voters split their vote.

If she goes for constituency votes she’ll be depriving ACT of party votes. Now that ACT holds Epsom, her rational focus must be on party votes however much she’d like to have a seat that would free her from having to eat frogs at Rodney’s request.

Electorate campaign organisers always want to go for broke on a constituency campaign. It is much more fun than playing your part as a cog in a national campaign. A cerain amount of brave talk about getting seats is accordingly permitted in minor parties, to retain the supporters who’ll otherwise get bored.

Heather has stood for office before in Wellington. She’ll look for any verdict in early polling. Unless it shows good prospects of a personal seat she’ll put her energies elsewhere, whatever the brave talk at present.

  • James Read
  • January 28th, 2008
  • 8:39 pm

Stephen, are you sure you are not yourself guilty of that which you accuse others, inconsistency? As a nationally recognised legal expert, you must surely be aware that you will have now to tow the National Party line,on all legislation even if you believe it to be either impracticable or even unethical.Act isn’t perfect, but what party is flawless?


That is a perennial dilemma in politics. Nevertheless it is not necessarily the case that there is more difficulty in reaching a consensus with which one is comfortable in a bigger group. It also depends on where the group starts and how fixed are the views of those from whom one differs.

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