Setup takes NZ into unknown territory

By Bernard Orsman

There is nothing to stop New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and United Future leader Peter Dunne taking ministerial jobs outside Cabinet and criticising the Government on issues outside their portfolios, say constitutional experts.

Constitutional lawyer Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former Prime Minister, and Dr Bill Hodge, Auckland University associate professor in politics, last night said the Government was entering new constitutional territory but all it took was a tweak of the Cabinet manual.

Under Helen Clark's new coalition Government announced yesterday, Mr Peters and Mr Dunne have signed up to the principles of Cabinet collective responsibility in their portfolio areas but are free to criticise other Cabinet decisions. NZ First and United Future are also bound by their coalition agreements.

Sir Geoffrey said criticising Cabinet decisions was a constitutional novelty but there was no difficulty with it.

"You can change the Cabinet manual because in essence the enforcement of collective responsibility is a political decision for the Prime Minister and these conventions of the constitution are quite flexible."

He said the Cabinet manual was altered when the Alliance joined Labour in 1999 to get an agreement to disagree on issues and it "worked well".

"In essence I can't see why this (latest 'constitutional wrinkle') can't work and to some degree MMP has required some relaxation of the collective responsibility principle."

Dr Hodge said the new rules were a move away from the executive speaking with one voice to a situation where politicians were wearing two hats: ministerial and political.

Changing the constitutional principles and conventions was fine in theory but how it was applied by Mr Peters and Mr Dunne was a political question.

There were bound to be practical difficulties and political constraints on the pair from criticising other Cabinet decisions and they could be blamed if things came unstuck.

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