Ambiguous mandate on sale of assets

National’s plan to sell 49% of its stake in five state-owned companies (commonly called the ‘Asset Sales Policy’) was a major platform for its campaign; yet polls consistently showed asset sales to be unpopular among the broader New Zealand public.

Due to this lack of public support, some commentators are questioning whether National has a mandate to follow through with the policy.

Mandate theory says that through voting, we authorise our MPs to behave or act according to what they promised.

Whichever party forms government is then justified in carrying out its work and should carry out what voters wanted them to do.

Voices from the opposition are insisting that the low public support for asset sales despite high support for National means that the policy itself was not authorised by the electorate and hence should not be implemented.

National says it has a mandate to follow through with the policy because the party received a higher share of the vote and the electorate had full knowledge that if it won the policy would be implemented.

Mandate theory becomes messy under MMP because it is not until after elections, when negotiations between parties take place that the government’s policy programme is confirmed.

In fact, under most electoral systems the idea of ‘mandates’ has its limits, because the government’s duty is not just to carry out a pre-established checklist, but also to respond to the needs of the time, some of which cannot even be known at an election.

Further, voters might support some of a party’s policies but not all of them (as seems to have been the case at this election), making it impossible to determine what has been authorised or endorsed.

We need to think about our elections as times when we elect MPs and parties who govern on our behalf, not just a set of policy prescriptions.

Their policies are important and give a crucial indication of the direction of the party. But to think narrowly of their authority as simply enacting whatever they campaigned on creates problems.

The authority and responsibility for final decision-making fundamentally rests with the government, not with the outcomes of opinion polls.

It is rare that any decision will be popular with all constituents; however, regardless of popularity, decisions must be made.

National has decided that asset sales are in New Zealand’s best interest and based on how many people have voted for the party, it has the authority to implement the policy.

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