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2001 Cabinet Manual - Jim Anderton Speech

Hon. Jim Anderton
9 April 2001 Speech Notes

2001 Cabinet Manual

I should first remark on the significance of this occasion.

It's not that long ago that the launch of a "Cabinet Manual" would have been unthinkable.

A Cabinet Manual originally began to be developed from January 1948 when the Secretary to the Cabinet was first admitted to the Cabinet room.

In those days, the rules and procedures of Cabinet were a closely guarded secret.

There was an Official Secrets Act instead of an Official Information Act, and the prospect of a public launch would have been anathema.

A consolidated Manual of the 'rules, precedents, conventions and procedures' of Cabinet was eventually issued in 1979.

But until 1996, the Manual was published in loose leaf form, because it was amended so frequently.

It's important to look at the history of the Manual because it shows that the practices associated with Cabinet Government can and do change.

The Cabinet Manual of course is a guide to constitutional rules, not the source of them.

But it is an authoritative guide.

It is an enduring document – even if, as I have observed – it is one that allows for frequent and significant change.

This 2001 Manual reflects still further updates.

One of the most significant concerns collective responsibility.

Before the last election, the Alliance and Labour signalled that we would take a new approach to government.

The Coalition Agreement we signed after the last election put the new approach into effect.

The 2001 Cabinet Manual captures the idea in a more enduring form.

The new approach specifically envisages that parties may publicly disagree from within Cabinet.

It establishes a process for doing so.

In addition, the new Manual notes at paragraph 3.22 that parties within government will have different policies.

It notes that Ministers can be expected to refer to those separate policies –although, obviously, with some care.

Part of our job as politicians is to persuade the public to our point of view.

To build public support for ideas.

That is a role that parties should always jealously preserve within government.

The approach we have adopted will fit any coalition government – not just ours.

Some thought the constitutional and political sky would fall in if we re-drew some of the lines in the doctrine of collective responsibility.

Some thought Cabinet Government would never work.

In fact, we have changed the way we work because it was necessary to do so in order to make Cabinet Government work better.

I well remember watching from Opposition as parties would come into government and then abandon their previous policy.

It gave rise to enormous cynicism among the public.

Having worked under the new rules for about sixteen months, we can observe that the public has reacted with the deepest calm.

The sky did not fall in.

In fact, it might be said that the sky looked more like falling in when the pressure cooker was applied to prevent parties from publicly disagreeing.

In voting for MMP and then voting for coalitions, the public wanted parties to be able to promote their own policies with integrity.

It is inevitable that when two or more parties govern together, they will have different policies.

(Otherwise, they would be the same party).

But that fact alone does not have to undermine government.

It enriches it.

There is hardly a single day when the Alliance and Labour do not have a different starting point on a policy question before the Government.

That is good, because it means that all sides of a question can be explored and arguments get strongly tested.

But it hasn't meant that coalition parties have had to fight for their respective corners across the front page of the newspapers.

On the other hand, it is universally acknowledged that we do have different policies, and that both parties have a responsibility to rehearse those policies.

Both coalition partners in this government recognise the importance of that, and that is why we have taken a relaxed attitude to the fact of disagreement.

I think that historians of New Zealand's constitutional change will record the Alliance's contribution to this Cabinet Manual.

That contribution has been that our conventions must recognise difference, as well as collective responsibility.

It is hard old dogs to learn new tricks, and it has been hard for our old First Past the Post institutions to learn some new tricks under MMP.

When Chou En-lai was asked if he thought the French Revolution had been successful, he replied that it was too early to say.

I risk speaking a few centuries too soon, therefore, if I suggest that we have found some magic answer.

We are still learning to make party difference and stable government work.

The test will not only be the successful completion of a stable government for this term of office.

The test will be whether the approach we have taken is also adopted by other governments in future.

I am confident that it will.

I believe we have pioneered something that will last.

I would like to pay tribute to the Cabinet office staff who have spent hours and contributed their official wisdom in compiling this Manual

And I would like to end by paying tribute to our coalition partners for having the courage to make changes to the way government works.


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