Depending on a party’s protocols, ministers may be elected by the party caucus, chosen by the prime minister, or selected by a mix of both methods. Under the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system there are three categories of minister: ministers in the ‘core’ cabinet, ministers outside cabinet, and ministers from support parties.
Prime ministerial control
The prime minister’s control of ministers and cabinet has occasionally been challenged. At the end of 1988, after months of personal and political disagreements, Labour Prime Minister David Lange dismissed his minister of finance, Roger Douglas. However, a few months later the Labour caucus voted Douglas back into cabinet. This precipitated Lange’s resignation.
The prime minister assigns ministers portfolios for policy areas such as finance, health and economic development. Ministers determine government policy and exercise any statutory powers or functions within their portfolios. The prime minister has the power to dismiss or demand the resignation of a minister, and to reshuffle portfolios.
Ministers are assigned seniority by the prime minister. Their rank depends on factors such as their length of service, the importance of their portfolio and their personal standing with the prime minister. The minister of finance, who has responsibility for the Treasury, is usually one of the highest-ranked ministers.
Individual ministerial responsibility
Individual ministerial responsibility is a constitutional convention. Members of cabinet are individually responsible in three main ways:
- they are accountable for decisions that they take in relation to their portfolio responsibilities
- they are responsible for their own professional and personal conduct
- they are responsible for decisions and actions (and the consequences that follow) of individuals and organisations for which they have ministerial responsibility, whether or not they were party to or knew of those actions. This is known as vicarious ministerial responsibility.
Breaches of ministerial responsibility
The Cabinet manual provides some guidance, but ultimately it is for the prime minister to decide, in a broader political as well as a constitutional context, whether a breach of individual ministerial responsibility has occurred and, if so, what the consequences should be.
Grounds for resignation or dismissal include misuse or abuse of the financial supports available to a minister, and misleading the prime minister, one’s cabinet or parliamentary colleagues, or Parliament itself. On some occasions ministers who are the subject of an accusation will stand aside until matters have been investigated. If no serious fault on the part of the minister is established, their cabinet position will be restored.
Vicarious responsibility is the one aspect of individual ministerial responsibility where the consequences of a breach are most debated. In one view, even where a minister is unaware of an action taken by a subordinate, he or she should resign. The contrary view, held by successive New Zealand governments, is that rectification should be placed ahead of resignation.
After the Cave Creek tragedy of 28 April 1995 – when a Department of Conservation viewing platform on the West Coast of the South Island collapsed, killing 14 people and seriously injuring several others – a commission of inquiry found that the department was at fault. The minister of conservation, Denis Marshall, chose not to resign but to stay on to remedy the faults that had contributed to the disaster. Eventually he resigned, not from cabinet, but as minister of conservation. His announcement to Parliament on 30 May 1996 explicitly stated the rectification view: ‘On ministerial responsibility, Ministers should at the very least publicly make themselves accountable and ensure that the errors will not occur again. I believe I have done that. I said in the House last November that I am profoundly sorry. Today I am taking a further step to express my sorrow for what happened that fateful day at Cave Creek.’