The Cabinet manual
Cabinet owes its existence to convention. There is no act of Parliament that establishes cabinet, specifies its composition, or details its powers or any limits on those powers. However, its procedures are described in the Cabinet manual, which is also an authoritative guide to central government decision-making for ministers, their offices and those working within government. It is updated from time to time to document changes in cabinet procedures and constitutional developments. The manual is a primary source of information on New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements. It is endorsed at the first cabinet meeting of a new government.
New Zealand leads the way
The formation of a coalition government in Britain in 2010 gave the British Parliament the impetus to complete its own cabinet manual. This was closely modelled on the New Zealand Cabinet manual.
The Cabinet manual is supplemented by the CabGuide, which sets out the processes required for efficient and effective cabinet decision-making. While the manual outlines the constitutional parameters for decision-making, the CabGuide provides advice for those involved in preparing submissions for consideration by cabinet and its committees.
Ministers must consult others before they make a submission to cabinet. At the very least, ministers wishing to put a proposal before cabinet must talk with their ministerial colleagues and with relevant government departments and agencies, and do so sooner rather than later. In practice, wider consultation also takes place, especially if – as is the case for minority governments – the support of other political parties is essential to passing legislation.
Typically much of the cabinet agenda consists of reports from cabinet committees. These committees consider issues in greater detail than is possible in cabinet meetings, and they are where the detailed work takes place. Officials from government departments are permitted to be part of the debate, but their level of participation depends on the preference of the prime minister and government of the day.
Reporting on Lake Manapōuri
Minutes of cabinet committee meetings are confidential, but occasionally a cabinet committee report of great general interest may be published. An example is the Report of the Cabinet Committee on Lake Manapouri (1970). Its publication was a response to widespread concerns about the environmental impact of raising the level of Lake Manapōuri for hydroelectric power generation.
Each government has some standing committees that are in existence throughout its term. Their number, structure and function are decided by the prime minister, in consultation with coalition parties or parties with support agreements. Cabinet may also establish ad hoc committees from time to time, as it did in the aftermath of the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes.
The Cabinet Office regularly issues a circular setting out the current terms of reference and membership of cabinet committees. Each committee has between six and 10 members. The prime minister chairs the influential policy or strategy committee, and is automatically a member of the other committees.