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Government in New Zealand

4 — The Executive

page 58

The Executive

The Constitutions of the Dominions differ from the British constitution in giving more definite recognition to the executive branch of government. The executive power in New Zealand is formally vested in the Governor-General as representative of the King. In the exercise of this power the Governor-General is required to act on the advice of an Executive Council, but he may, if he sees cause, dissent from this advice, in which case he must report the matter to the Sovereign without delay. The extent and the nature of this potentially-important reserve power is a subject on which legal opinion is much at variance. In New Zealand, however, it has not been used in such a manner as to cause a political crisis since 1892, when Lord Glasgow refused a request to appoint additional members to the Legislative Council. The Executive Council consists of the ministers of the Crown who by constitutional convention are appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the leader of the party which has a page 59majority in the House of Representatives. The payment of the Prime Minister and of eleven other ministers is authorised by the Civil List Act of 1920 and its amendments. The present rate of payment is £2,000 a year to the Prime Minister and £1,300 a year to each of the other ministers, these amounts being at present subject to a reduction often per cent. The Civil List Amendment Act of 1936 provides for the appointment of Parliamentary Under-Secretaries at a salary of £600. One appointment has been made under this provision, the appointee being described officially as 'Parliamentary Under-Secretary in Relation to the Minister of Finance'. At first, he was in effect the political head of a sub-department concerned with housing, though he was not a member of the ministry or of the Cabinet. His status and functions were never very clearly defined. At present, there is no disposition to make further use of the power to appoint Under-Secretaries.

In Great Britain, the political executive appears in three different forms. First, there is the Ministry, which consists of all the political heads of departments; second, there is the Cabinet, which consists of the more important ministers and meets infrequently; and, third, there is the 'inner Cabinet', a still smaller group of five or six members which meets frequently and is the effective authority in the more important issues of national policy. In New Zealand, no 'inner Cabinet' has developed and the page 60Cabinet, the Ministry, and the Executive Council have normally the same membership; so that the Cabinet might be regarded as the Executive Council in informal dress. As in Great Britain, the Prime Minister is, by a custom which has hardened into a constitutional convention, more than primus inter pares. His resignation involves the resignation of the whole Ministry; he can call on individual ministers to resign; and in the selection of ministers he has in theory a free hand. In 1918, certain members of the Reform party sought to secure the assent of the Prime Minister, W. F. Massey, to a proposal that ministers should be selected by the party caucus. During a debate in the House of Representatives, Mr Massey affirmed that his right of free selection was constitutionally established and could not be abandoned. In practice, of course, this right is tempered by the need to placate groups within a party and to reward long service to the party. Though the consideration of fitness for office is not ignored, neither is it the primary consideration. It can also be assumed that the collective responsibility of Cabinet is a constitutional convention. In 1932 (this was the year in which the Liberal ministers in the British National Government had been conceded the right to differ from their colleagues on tariff policy without resigning), the Minister of Finance in the Coalition Government, Mr Downie Stewart, spoke against the Government's action in compulsorily page 61reducing interest rates and yet agreed to remain in office. However, his position, like that of the Liberal ministers, soon became untenable; and the exception seems to have proved the rule.

Some idea of the type of men who reach Cabinet rank is given by the following tables showing the occupations, age groupings, and educational attainments of ministers in the ministries between 1856 and the present time. In order to relate changes of personnel to changes in political development these tables have been made to correspond with the four main periods in the country's political history. The same method was followed in the previous section in analysing the personnel of the New Zealand Parliaments.

Age Grouping Of Cabinet Ministers 1856–73
Under 30 2
30–39 22
40–49 34
50–59 23
60 and over 23
No data 13
Average ages in Cabinets: 1856, 39.5; 1856, 38.6; 1856, 38.1; 1861, 44.0; 1862, 42.3; 1863, 46.4; 1864, 47.0; 1865, 47.3; 1869, 46.1; 1872, 55.5; 1872, 45.7; 1873, 48.5; 1873, 45.7.
Education Of Cabinet Ministers 1856–73
Primary Secondary University No Data
6 56 35 5
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Occupations Of Cabinet Ministers 1856–73
Law 29
Professional 33
Journalism 8
Commerce 14
Trade 2
Farming 13
Trade Union Secretaries
No data 3

Like the Parliaments of this period, the ministries are remarkable for their youth, their high educational standard, and the predominance of the professional element. The proportion of lawyers in the ministries is much higher than in Parliament.

The next tables show the personnel of ministries in the period between the abolition of the provinces and the rise of the Liberal-Labour party.

Age Grouping Of Cabinet Ministers 1875–91
Under 30
30–39 12
40–49 47
50–59 26
60 and over 13
No data 9
Average ages in Cabinets: 1875, 46.9; 1876, 45.9; 1876, 49.3; 1876, 48.0; 1877, 45.3; 1879, 50.9; 1882, 54.1; 1883, 50.9; 1884, 52.7; 1884, 47.0; 1887, 47-5; 1891. 43-1.
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Occupations Of Cabinet Ministers 1875–91
Law 21
Professional 23
Journalism 9
Commerce 19
Trade 1
Manufacturing 2
Farming 20
Trade Union Secretaries
Labourers 5
No data 7
Education Of Cabinet Ministers 1875–91
Primary Secondary University No Data
15 59 27 6

In this period the average of ages is rising and the educational standard falling slightly. The representation of farming interests has increased and there is a slight reduction in the professional element.

The next tables show the personnel of ministries in the period during which the Liberal-Labour party held a majority in the House of Representatives:

Age Grouping Of Cabinet Ministers 1893–1906
Under 30
30–39 3
40–49 9
50–59 12
60 and over 8
No data 3
Average ages in Cabinets: 1893, 49.4; 1906, 60.0; 1906, 53.0.
Education Of Cabinet Ministers 1893–1906
Primary Secondary University No Data
19 11 4 1
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Occupations Of Cabinet Ministers 1893–1906
Law 4
Professional 4
Journalism 1
Commerce 5
Trade 5
Manufacturing 1
Farming 7
Trade Union Secretaries
Labourers 7
No data 1

The most noticeable feature of this period is the marked decline in educational standards. More than half the ministers have had only elementary education. In the occupational groupings the professional element shows a marked decline by comparison with the previous period and there is on the whole a more even representation of economic interests. The increase in the average of ages continues.

The next tables show the personnel of the ministries in the period of conservative government which followed the defeat of the Liberal-Labour party in 1911:

Age Grouping Of Cabinet Ministers 1912–31
Under 30
30–39 1
40–49 14
50–59 49
60 and over 43
No data 12
Average ages of Cabinets: 1912, 54.6; 1912, 54.0; 1915, 57.8; 1919, 57.6; 1925, 57.6; 1925, 59-6; 1928, 59-6; 1930, 584; 1931, 57-5; 1931, 57.1.
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Education Of Cabinet Ministers 1912–31
Primary Secondary University No Data
44 44 28 2
Occupations Of Cabinet Ministers 1912–31
Law 30
Professional 6
Journalism 11
Commerce 11
Trade 6
Manufacturing 3
Farming 45
Trade Union Secretaries
Labourers 5
No data 1

The educational standards of ministries is slightly higher than in the previous period and slightly higher than for Parliament itself. Farmers now constitute by far the largest occupational group, though lawyers are still well represented. Ages are still very much the same as in the previous period.

Of the members of the first Labour Ministry constituted at the end of 1935 seven were trade union secretaries, two were engaged in trade, one was a merchant, one a lawyer, one a farmer, and one a journalist. Of these thirteen ministers, one was a university graduate and ten had not continued their formal education beyond the elementary stage. The average of ages was 54.9, six members being in the 50-59 age group, four in the 60 and over age group, and three giving no information about their ages. It will be noted that the marked rise in the page 66educational standard of Parliament produced by the general election of 1935 is not reflected in the ministry.

The functions of the political executive in the modern democratic State are remarkably varied. In one aspect, the Cabinet is a committee of the party with a majority in the popular assembly charged with the task of translating the party's declared aims into an immediately practicable policy. In another aspect, it is a committee of political heads of state departments charged with the task of harmonising and co-ordinating the activities of departments. But these two tasks by no means comprehend the whole work of the cabinet minister. Besides attending to such business as is referred to him by the permanent head of his department, he must during sessions spend a large part of every day in the House of Representatives piloting through such legislation as his department requires, answering questions about the work of his department, and assisting his colleagues in general debates on government policy. If there is a by-election, one or more ministers will probably take part in the government candidate's campaign; and in a general election most ministers will tour the country. Finally, the minister cannot afford to forget that he himself has a constituency which must be watched and nursed.

The world-wide tendency for the powers of the executive to increase at the expense of the legislature page 67and the judiciary has been particularly marked in New Zealand, mainly because the content of politics in New Zealand is almost exclusively economic. As a source of legislation, the Cabinet is now almost as important as Parliament. A few years ago, the iniquity of legislation by order in council was vigorously proclaimed by chambers of commerce, lawyers, and newspapers; but the report of the British Committee on Ministers' Powers, which received much publicity in New Zealand, and the patent impossibility of arresting the flow of delegated legislation have created a more realistic public attitude. In accordance with the provisions of the Regulations Act of 1936, delegated legislation, instead of being scattered inaccessibly through the gazettes, is now issued in a form in which it is easily bound and classified. The most notable example of the exercise of judicial powers by a minister occurs in the administration of the transport licensing system, the minister being the final authority, to the exclusion of the Courts, in any appeal against the decision of a licensing authority.

It might be expected that, notwithstanding the variety of a cabinet minister's work, it would be possible for a dozen men to govern New Zealand, which has fewer inhabitants than Liverpool, is not troubled by racial minorities, and has no pressing problems of foreign policy, without shortening their lives by overwork and lack of sleep and without page 68creating around themselves an atmosphere of flurry and crisis. But it is not so. The machinery of government in New Zealand works with as much jamming and overheating as the machinery of government in a great empire. The main reason why the smallness of the country and the relative simplicity of the problems of government do not make administrative processes smooth and orderly is that the New Zealand cabinet minister is in a much closer relationship with the electorate on the one hand and his own department on the other than the cabinet minister in Great Britain or France. New Zealanders expect their cabinet ministers to be accessible and to move about the country. The minister who stays in Wellington and goes about his work behind a bodyguard of secretaries is on the way to unpopularity. Since the days of Seddon, the ministerial tour has been an established political institution. Accompanied by a retinue of secretaries, departmental officials, and journalists, the minister moves from hamlet to hamlet in the favoured district, receiving deputations, making discreet promises, meeting local body members, and opening a school here, a bridge there, and a post office somewhere else. In the meantime, his desk in Wellington is being silted over with memoranda and correspondence. This would not matter much if ministers were content to have referred to them by the heads of their departments only such issues as come within the sphere of policy. On the whole, page break page 69however, ministers delegate power reluctantly and involve themselves deeply in matters which in larger countries would be left to permanent officials. In the decade or so before 1935, the work of the Cabinet was to some extent lightened by the creation of statutory authorities or boards responsible directly to Parliament to adminster the railways, broadcasting, and transport licensing. The present Government has brought these services back under direct ministerial control.

Congestion of state business at the centre has in recent years been accentuated by the uneven distribution of responsibility among ministers. Since the state of the national finances in a large measure determines the activities and the policies of all other departments, the finance ministry tends to assume a special importance. During the economic depression, when the problems of public finance were specially urgent, this tendency was accentuated and the minister took responsibility, sometimes formally and sometimes informally, for portfolios allied to that of finance. This concentration of functions has been continued and indeed intensified under a Labour Government. The Minister of Finance is, as such, responsible for directing the policy of the Reserve Bank and the State Advances Corporation; as Minister of Marketing he is responsible for the guaranteed prices scheme for dairy produce, the organised marketing of dairy produce and meat in page 70Great Britain, and the internal marketing of a wide range of products; and as Minister of Customs he is responsible for the carrying out of tariff policy and is therefore intimately concerned with the problems of secondary industry. While there is much to be said for such a grouping of functions, it has one grave disadvantage. New Zealand's economic relations with Great Britain are so close and so much regulated by the State that the Finance Minister must expect to visit London at least once every three years; and, as the responsibilities of the Cabinet are now distributed, his departure may dislocate the business of government for three or four months.

New Zealand's most urgent political need is a more efficient organisation of the executive branch of government. The tendency for power to become centralised within the Cabinet is probably a symptom of the Cabinet's failure to carry out its functions as the co-ordinating authority for the state departments and the other agencies of government; cognate portfolios come under the one minister because only in this way is co-ordination possible. It is impossible, in the modern State, to keep government business in categories, each the exclusive domain of one state department; particularly in the economic field, half-a-dozen departments may be involved in one relatively simple act of government. The commission which enquired into the public service in 1912, and made the only official investigation of New Zealand's page 71machinery of government with any pretence to thoroughness, advocated the creation of a Public Service Board which, under the general direction of the Cabinet, would organise the business of government. In effect, such a board would have been to the public service as a whole what the general staff is to an army. However, the Government of the day preferred to hand over the task of controlling the public service and co-ordinating the work of departments to a Public Service Commissioner responsible directly to Parliament. What it failed to see, and what the 1912 commission saw very clearly, was that policy and the means to carry it out are so intimately related that really effective co-ordination of the work of departments is possible only if the co-ordinating authority functions under the direct control of the policy-making authority.