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Upton-on-line - Labour & Cabinet Selection

June 30th

This week Upton-on-line was going to come to you from Singapore, but we thought this would be more interesting.

It is a short memo on the history of how the Labour Party selects its Cabinets, and was prepared by Sarah-Jane McCosh, Director of the National Party Research Unit, drawing from (but adding interpretations wholly unattributable to) "The cabinet and political power in New Zealand" by Elizabeth McLeay*.

Labour Cabinet Member Selection Process Summary Points

* Labour uses an "exhaustive" election process by the Caucus - members winning over 50% of the vote are elected to cabinet, those with the lowest votes drop off the bottom of the list and the rounds of voting continue until all slots are filled.

* In the case of electing a new Minister to fill a gap under 'extraordinary' circumstances (resignation, sacking etc), the Leader normally takes their nomination to Caucus who must then vote on the nominee.

* In this way a problem can arise for the Leader if Caucus doesn't endorse the Leader's nominee.

This is seen to undermine the Leader's authority and judgement.

* This "exhaustive election" process does not preclude some patronage and 'doing of numbers' beforehand by the Leader.

Caucus Members can also, opting out of possible selection in favour of another stronger Candidate.

The Maori block have done this before in Labour's past.

* Helen Clark, after her press conference last Wednesday to announce the removal of Dover Samuel's Ministerial Warrant, replied to a reporter's question that the new Minister could be selected anytime in a week, two weeks, three weeks.

Another report has her saying up to a month.

* Clark will want to be doing her numbers firmly before putting her nominee to Caucus, in order to ensure that her nominee wins the selection, so is probably attempting to leave herself as much time as it will take to do this.

* However, she also has to play this off against the issue of when the Police are likely to come back with a verdict on Samuels - it may be to her advantage to have the new Ministerial post filled before that time, in order to make the police outcome irrelevant.

It's possible, for example, that if Samuels is completely off the hook, this may stir up some unhelpful trouble for Clark within the Caucus ahead of the new selection.

* She has some potentially tricky timing issues to consider, and will need to keep a close eye on not only the Maori MPs, but those who have been said to side with Dover within her Caucus (such as Jim Sutton, and others of the old Mike Moore block).

Whilst Clark may not, in the end, face any real hurdle in having her favoured nominee selected at this stage, any supressed difficulties now could mean trouble further down the line.

* Not surprisingly, Clark has now floated the prospect of a rule change to allow Labour prime ministers to select their own cabinets.

Potted History of Cabinet Selection and Rule Formation Labour party has long had a habit of 'majoritarianism', based on labour movement processes.

Leadership has always posed a dilemma in the party - upholding democracy versus the need for strong leadership and discipline.

Throughout the 1930s and 40s the Labour Party was subject to internal turmoil over the process of Cabinet selection - democracy versus the PM's use of the power of patronage which, over time, built up caucus resentment.

Fraser instituted the system of Caucus nominating Cabinet Ministers by secret ballot, using preferential voting.

However, after the 1943 election there were a number of currently sitting Cabinet members amongst Caucus - so an amendment was carried that Fraser nominate sitting members of Cabinet and that Caucus would vote in favour or against each member, those with a majority would be elected.

All Ministers were thus re-elected.

After 1946 a mixture of the two methods was used.

Fraser nominated the ten sitting Ministers and others nominated new names for Ministerial Posts.

(Fraser had to extend the total number of Cabinet posts by two because of problems resulting from this).

This exhaustive ballot process continued again in 1957 - to win a spot a member had to have the votes of more than half those present.

If Caucus did not get the full cabinet complement on first ballot, second and subsequent ballots were held until the necessary number were approved.

In each round those who received the lowest number of votes dropped out. Members who did not wish to be considered could withdraw themselves.

For example, three Maori members apparently withdrew from this process in 1957 in order that they could give Tirikatene a greater chance of becoming a minister (he was the leader of the group).

In this way it is possible for the Caucus to manipulate the system to suit.

In 1976 the rule was adopted that, when in government "the caucus shall elect the members of the Cabinet, the size of the Cabinet to be determined by the Leader (Prime Minister)', that the leader would allocate the portfolios in cabinet, and that when in opposition the spokespersons would be appointed by the leader.

Labour Party Caucus Rules stated that extraordinary vacancies "no matter how caused" (ie sacking or resignation etc) were to be filled by the PM "selecting a person or persons and nominating that person or persons to Caucus for approval".

In this way the re-election of Douglas to Cabinet after his effective sacking (by Lange accepting a letter from Douglas which said he could no longer work in a Cabinet led by Lange) was seen as a collective lack of faith in the PM's judgement, & erosion of his authority, by the media and by Lange himself. Lange resigned, becoming Attorney General & Minister outside Cabinet.

Although Labour's rules have been clarified over the years, and the main principles of the elective cabinet are set down there are still many grey areas covered by convention rather than written rule.

The problem of dismissal remains acute. Not only does a dismissal rebound upon a Prime Minister by indicating the limits of authority as much as the extent of it, but also it raises the question of who should appoint the replacements: Caucus or Prime Minister.

The democratic, participatory convention suggests the former, and prime ministerial authority and cabinet solidarity suggests the latter.

The position of a Labour Prime Minister is imperilled when he or she neglects the party's participatory history.

Thus the story of Labour's selection and election of cabinets tells us a great deal about why Labour Governments which last more than a few years have disintegrated into factional battles.

The authority of the Labour Prime Minister is always conditional, always circumscribed, and Labour cabinets have to be understood in the context of this complex relationship between leaders, cabinet, and caucus. [McLeay, p75]

* McLeay, Elizabeth M, The cabinet and political power in New Zealand, Oxford University Press, 1995, Oxford readings in New Zealand politics ;ISBN: 0195583124

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