Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a press conference at Parliament. Photo / Getty Images
In 1979 an academic lawyer at Victoria University wrote a book about New Zealand politics called Unbridled Power. I was at school and bought a copy which I still have.
It was a story of New Zealand's then rather unique form of government. Its message was summed up in the title of a chapter called "The Fastest Law in the West".
With only one chamber of Parliament, no provincial or state governments, and a first-past-the-post voting system, the description was very apt.
Between three-yearly elections, the government of the day could do pretty much whatever it wanted. And from the 1970s to the 1990s a succession of governments did exactly that.
Laws were changed frequently, often in a few days, without meaningful discussion outside of ministers talking amongst themselves. Many law changes bore a loose or no relationship with what a government promised to do at an election.
There were so few checks and balances our system was often described as an elected dictatorship.
Rob Muldoon was the first Prime Minister who really took advantage of this unique governing system. He made himself both the nation's leader and its finance minister and then proceeded to treat Parliament as his personal rubber stamp.
As the world economic situation deteriorated he took more and more outlandish decisions that impinged on people's liberties and livelihoods, until the public finally threw him out.
Then followed two governments that, while in many ways doing necessary things, managed to betray their voting bases. The Lange/Douglas Government, which included the book's author Geoffrey Palmer, turned its back on the Labour faithful with its economic reforms, and the Bolger Government did the same for its base with the superannuation surtax.
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Both governments did things they explicitly promised not to do before they were elected.The public had had enough, and when given the opportunity, chose a new voting system which would favour coalition governments rather than unbridled power. Our current system of MMP was born.
MMP has not been perfect. It has often frustrated governments and their supporters and prevented them from doing things they sought mandates to do. One of my biggest regrets about the Government in which I served was we were not able to secure enough votes for fundamental RMA reform.
Yet MMP has created stability and relative prosperity. Over a period of 20 years New Zealand has made solid incremental progress, without the wild lurches and rough edges that characterised government decision-making in the previous 30 years.
Until last year. As a result of the Covid 19 pandemic, voters did what many did elsewhere and re-elected an incumbent government with a significantly increased majority.
However, only in New Zealand, with its single House of Parliament, did we effectively return to our old system of "elected dictatorship".
On election night, the Prime Minister trotted out the tired old trope about "governing for all New Zealanders". Since then her Government has become increasingly high-handed.
The first overt sign was the decision to remove the public's say on the provision of Mori wards on local councils. Whatever the merits of Mori wards, voters had been clear in referendum after referendum they didn't want them.
The Government rode over the top of that, without saying so in the election campaign.
Next was the grand health centralisation.
Despite a taskforce floating the idea before the election, the Government refused to reveal its hand until afterwards, in the sure knowledge that losing control of local hospitals would not be popular in regional New Zealand. Now we are creating a giant health edifice run from Wellington, mid-pandemic, using mostly the same people who have been so sluggish on the Covid response.
But the Government was just limbering up. The pending return to industry-wide centralised wage bargaining, which before the election was to collectivise workplaces for the most vulnerable workers like cleaners and bus drivers, became after the election about every workplace; and needing only 10 per cent of affected workers in an industry to make it happen.
This week, under urgency in Parliament and using the excuse of Covid 19, they introduced a law that will alter many thousands of existing legal contracts between commercial landlords and tenants all over the country.
Rather than the Government compensating companies who can't afford to pay their rent because of government-induced lockdowns, it decided to legally require people who own the properties to do so instead.
This is an eye-watering precedent with far-reaching consequences to the sanctity of commercial contracts.
For good measure the same bill will give minister Chris Hipkins the unfettered right to postpone next year's local government postal elections for up to a year.
But the biggest over-reach of all so far is minister Nanaia Mahuta's threat to confiscate water infrastructure assets owned by ratepayers without fair payment, in order to create four new corporate water entities around the country.
She is also refusing to provide shares in or direct oversight of those entities back to local councils.
That is a travesty.
There are good arguments for water reform, and some amalgamations into regional entities that can borrow money to invest in assets makes sense. But confiscating the assets of any organisation not owned by central government is going several steps too far.
These are all signs of a government getting too big for its boots. The impression is worsened by the expensive wall-to-wall propaganda, sorry advertising, being employed to sell the water reforms and other contentious policies like the gold-plated tram for Auckland's inner west. Covid-19 publicity is legitimate, political propaganda is not.
A year after being handed an old-style first past the post result, and having possibly developed a taste for bossing people around during the Covid response, the current Government is regularly behaving like its Muldoon-style predecessors.
I'm not being partisan. Any government, left or right, handed this much power will tend to overreach. New Zealanders are reasonable people but they don't like ministers whose power goes to their heads.
They gave the Government a cold shower this week in the latest poll and they'll likely reach for the fire hose again if the "my way or the highway" attitude continues.
We do still have an MMP voting system after all, and that makes it far easier to "throw the bastards out", or seriously nobble them, even without a dominant Opposition party.
- Steven Joyce is a former National MP and Minister of Finance.
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