Providing clarity about the PM’s powers

A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand proposes to clearly define the Prime Minister’s functions and powers, and to impose some limits.

The Prime Minister is the head of the Government, and has a number of important powers.

The Prime Minister determines the number of ministers, and their portfolios, and whether they sit within or outside of Cabinet. He or she also determines whether a minister should resign. The Prime Minister, using the power to advise the Governor- General, effectively has the power to hire and fire ministers.

The Prime Minister also chairs Cabinet and decides the Cabinet agenda and its procedures. The Prime Minister can dominate the Cabinet to a greater or lesser degree depending upon his or her style.

The Prime Minister advises the Governor-General when to dissolve Parliament and call an election.

These two powers – to effectively appoint and dismiss ministers, and to call early elections – give the Prime Minister considerable power and make him or her the most important constitutional figure in real terms.

The capacity for an early annihilation of Parliament, coupled with the capacity to get rid of ministers, keeps other Ministers and MPs in line. The incentives owing from both these powers are considerable. MPs who are ministers generally prefer to stay as ministers, and MPs who are not ministers generally prefer to continue to be MPs rather than be exposed more often than is required to the potential of electoral defeat.

The Prime Minister is also in a strong position to influence public opinion. He or she can command attention in the media by announcing policy or defending government policies. The media continuously seek comment and information from the Prime Minister’s office on every conceivable subject. In few countries in the world is the Prime Minister so accessible to the media.

Further, changes in media mean that communications between those who make the decisions and the public is now more difficult than once it was. The news media now publishes less news about politics and government than it used to do.

We do not propose to fundamentally change or downgrade the importance of the Prime Minister. But we do think it important that the functions and powers of the Prime Minister be clearly spelled out, so everyone can see them, understand them, and hold the Prime Minister accountable for them.

We also propose some limits on Prime Ministerial powers.

  • We propose to limit the number of people who can be appointed to Ministerial positions, so the Prime Minister cannot use Ministerial roles for political purposes. What do you think about this proposal?
  • The Prime Minister will also be unable to exercise control over when the House meets by using the ancient powers of proroguing or dissolving the House. What do you think about this proposal?
  • We propose that the Prime Minister cannot also be the Minister of Finance. The reason for this is that the concentration of power in one individual would be too great. Some people have told us that this proposal is too prescriptive. What do you think?
  • We also propose a fixed four-year Parliamentary term, which will reduce the control that the Government, and in particular the Prime Minister, can exert over the House of Representatives by threats of early elections. Most of the feedback we have received on this proposal has bene supportive, so long as other checks and balances that we propose are also adopted. Do you agree?


What are your views?