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By Philippe Legrain ADD COMMENTS

Coalition governments are par for the course in many countries in the world – and they often work fine.

Bryan Gould points out on the Guardian’s Comment is Free that they work well even in a country with a Westminster-style democracy: New Zealand.

The real significance of non-majority government is the change that it brings to the process of government. The New Zealand experience has been that government ministers are constantly engaged in a process of negotiation; each piece of legislation, each major policy decision, has to be preceded by discussions to ensure that a parliamentary majority exists to support that particular measure.

Curiously, this does not seem to have meant that the government’s programme is hopelessly delayed or frustrated. It has meant, at times of course, that legislation cannot be introduced until the necessary deals have been done, but the corollary is that the passage of more thoroughly prepared and carefully drafted legislation – once introduced – is smoother and takes less time. An even bigger plus is that the legislation – appealing as it must to a wider constituency than that represented by just one party – is often more soundly based and widely supported, with more of its contentious rough edges rounded off, than it would otherwise be.

The psychological change is also important. There is less of Quintin Hogg’s “elective dictatorship”. There is less obsession with doing down the opposition parties at every opportunity, since their support might be needed on the next item in the government’s programme. In other words, governments are not only freer to, but are required to, think more about broad-based positions than about the immediate party battle. There is a greater understanding of the value of broad public support and keeping in touch with public opinion. And parliament itself is more widely representative of the range of opinion, and its members have a greater interest in and understanding of the processes of government.

It is not necessary to idealise these outcomes. Government is still a messy, difficult, at times bad-tempered, partisan business. But we should not be frightened of ghosts and shadows.


Posted 20 Apr 2010 in Blog

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