The Cabinet System
Although Parliament is the supreme law-making body, legislative initiative comes, as in most democracies, from the Government. Being charged with the administration of law and having the information-gathering resources of the bureaucracy at its disposal, the Government is in the best position to suggest what changes in the law are necessary. For the same reason, and also because Parliament would otherwise be overburdened, much of the working out of the details of law is left to the Government, Parliament exercising the right to veto any aspect of such delegated legislation. The Government in New Zealand may be identified for legal purposes as the Executive Council, while in practice, by constitutional convention, Government policy is made by the Cabinet.
The Executive Council
The Executive Council is comprised of the Governor-General, who presides, and all the members of Parliament whom he has appointed as Ministers. The long standing convention that only members of Parliament should be appointed Ministers was given statutory recognition by the Civil List Act of 1950. The Act further provides that a person who ceases to be a member of Parliament cannot remain a Minister or a member of the Executive Council for more than 21 days. The method of selection of Ministers depends on party practice. The elected leader of the parliamentary National Party chooses his Ministers and assigns the portfolios. In the parliamentary Labour Party the number of Ministers to be appointed is determined and the required number is elected by the caucus. The previously elected parliamentary leader of the party then assigns the portfolios. The powers and duties of the Council are laid down in Royal Letters Patent and Instructions gazetted on 24 April 1919 and in statutes. Broadly speaking, Government regulations made under statutory authority are given legal effect by means of an Order-in-Council.
The Cabinet differs from the Executive Council in a number of ways. The membership of Cabinet may be smaller than that of the Executive Council, since a Minister without portfolio may or may not be a member of Cabinet, but will be a member of the Executive Council. The Governor-General is not a member of Cabinet. Informal discussion takes place in Cabinet in which national policy is determined for submission to Parliament and the activities of the various Government Departments are coordinated.
The secrecy of these discussions is the basis of a collective responsibility of the Cabinet to Parliament. The general agreements reached in Cabinet will be supported in Parliament by all Ministers in spite of any differences of opinion there might have been in Cabinet itself. Similarly, when Orders-in-Council are required to give effect to a decision of Cabinet, confirmation by the Executive Council is a formality and the Governor-General is not placed in the position of having to guide, and possibly influence, a lively political discussion. Cabinet responsibility is both collective and individual.
Individual Ministerial Responsibility
Individual responsibility, however, does not mean quite the same thing in New Zealand as it means in Britain. Ministers in New Zealand are far more ready than their British counterparts to accept responsibility for the activities of bodies acting in the general area covered by their portfolios. They will go much further in answering questions in Parliament about the decisions of ad hoc boards and other statutory bodies. This attitude is perhaps explained by the fact that evidence of maladministration or some other fault in a department is not usually regarded as warranting the resignation of the Minister concerned. Ministers, to summarise a now classic statement, regard themselves as “responsible, but not to blame”. A Ministerial explanation on such an occasion will not unusually refer to various civil servants who are to blame. Not surprisingly, civil servants very occasionally feel constrained to reply publicly to charges, or build up independent public support for themselves as a safeguard.
Though Cabinet discussions are informal they are governed by procedural rules. Cabinet delegates some duties to committees. The committees may even undertake certain executive action within the limits of established Government policy.
Any matter which a Minister desires to raise in full Cabinet can be brought before his colleagues at his initiative. Although the actual agenda is in the hands of the Prime Minister, a matter is normally brought before Cabinet by a Minister in a previously circulated Cabinet paper setting out the question on which a decision of Cabinet is required. Cabinet is provided with a small secretariat to whom such papers are handed and by whom they are distributed. The secretariat also serves the Cabinet committees. In discussions of Cabinet papers the Prime Minister or his deputy or the most senior Minister present is in the Chair. He endeavours to gauge the general opinion. As in British Cabinet meetings, it is not the practice to take a vote on issues. If there is no agreement on a recommendation embodied in a Cabinet paper a proposal may be rejected or amendments may be considered, or the matter may be referred to one of the standing committees of Cabinet or to an ad hoc committee specially appointed for the purpose. Whatever the decision, it is recorded by the Secretary of Cabinet, who is the head of the secretariat and the only person permitted to be present throughout Cabinet meetings, apart from Cabinet members. Occasionally, when advice is sought from a departmental head or other expert, he will be invited to attend while the business which concerns him is being discussed.
If a member of Cabinet has personal interests in a subject under discussion he is required to declare them and retire from the Cabinet room while a decision is being made. His absence is recorded.
Collective Responsibility and the Life of Governments and Parliament
The collective responsibility of the Cabinet, before Parliament, is part of the explanation of the conventions relating to Cabinet resignations, dissolution of Parliament, and parliamentary organisation and procedure. The Cabinet must be able to command a majority of votes in the House of Representatives in support of its general policy and, as a rule, of its specific proposals for the government of the country. A Cabinet which loses this support either resigns en bloc, or the Prime Minister asks the Governor-General to issue a Proclamation dissolving Parliament so that a general election may be held. The Governor-General's discretion in calling on someone to form a new Cabinet or in refusing a dissolution is crucially limited by the need to have his actions endorsed by a Ministry able to command a parliamentary majority. Since, in New Zealand, there are two main disciplined political parties contending for office, Cabinets are unlikely to lose their majorities in Parliament except as a result of deaths, resignations of members, by-elections, or because a general election reduces the representation of the majority party.