This is an easy to read book on a very specific subject, New Zealand electoral law, and the Parliamentary process by which it changes. Although somewhat dry, for anyone interested in the political process, with Parliament at the centre, it will be of interest. But in the end it just highlights the constitutional vacuum in which the New Zealand system of government functions, and the lack of interest in political history.
Dr McLeay is a retired ‘political scientist’, and active collaborator with constitutional law experts at Victoria University. The subject matter of the book also extends some thesis work undertaken by James Christmas. The specific area of their interest is the 1956 Electoral Act, and clause 189 in particular. This concerns the manner in which electoral law, the rules governing voting in elections, can be altered in a consensual manner. The key term is ‘entrenchment’, and the decision to make any electoral law subject to a substantive hurdle, whereby changes can only be made through referendum or a ‘super-majority’ vote in Parliament. But since the Electoral Act itself can be altered by a simple majority in Parliament, we then have a discussion of whether there should be a ‘double entrenchment’, to protect the existing rules.
This may make sense to those reading the book, but it is actually contradictory, as it is impossible to entrench the rules in anything other than a moral sense. Since the idea of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ is supreme, and it is not possible to bind future elected parliaments, the existing rules are as vulnerable as any other piece of legislation. In practice the vulnerability only really comes up in the debate over the Māori seats.
So what is the point of the book? Well, the point is exploring the somewhat wider political context and historical significance of the constitutional changes during the 1950s. The historical significance is really because of it being the first National Party ministry, and with some specific constitutional changes that it imposed, such as the removal of the upper chamber of Parliament, known as the Legislative Council. This marked the beginning of the two-party system, and the ‘unicameral’ system of government, in which the party with the majority of seats takes Executive power. The ‘winner takes all’ mentality is still seen in the National Party campaigns, despite the change to MMP.
Focussing on the historical context is central to the early chapters of the book, and the use of archival papers, particularly those of the National Party leader, Sid Holland. It has to be said that Holland is not a favourite subject of study for political scientists or biographers. Most do not get past the repressive legislation imposed by Holland during the waterfront industrial dispute in 1951; and the author mentions that the Official Secrets Act was also part of Holland’s legacy. Indeed, she concludes that section 189 of the Electoral Act was the result of a ‘tiny political elite [playing] around with the New Zealand constitution behind closed doors.’ The undemocratic nature of the process for the new act emphasises the ‘boys club’ mentality of the time.
Reviewed by Simon Boyce
In Search of Consensus: New Zealand’s Electoral Act 1956 and its Constitutional Legacy
by Elizabeth McLeay
Published by VUP