Story: Cabinet government
What happens in cabinet stays in cabinet – the discussions of that group of government ministers are strictly confidential, so debate can be frank and robust until a decision is reached. Then ministers have to publicly support it. But, under the coalition governments that MMP has brought with it, some of cabinet’s conventions about collective responsibility have had to change.
Full story by Chris Eichbaum
Main image: New National government's first cabinet meeting, November 2008
The Short Story
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What is cabinet?
Cabinet is a group of government ministers that makes major decisions about governing the country. The size of cabinet has grown over time. In the 1890s there were seven cabinet ministers. In the 2000s there are usually around 20 ministers in cabinet, and a few ministers who are ‘outside cabinet’.
Each minister has areas of responsibility (portfolios), which often relate to a government department or ministry.
Cabinet usually meets once a week.
What cabinet discusses
Cabinet considers and makes decisions about important things such as:
- government policy
- proposals that will affect the government’s finances
- proposals that will affect New Zealand’s constitution or change the structure of the public service
- new laws
- appointments to government boards
- international treaties.
Cabinet was started by convention rather than by an act of Parliament. Its procedures, which have evolved over time, are described in the Cabinet manual.
Cabinet ministers are also members of one or more cabinet committees, which consider issues in more detail than is possible in cabinet. Each committee has a specific area of interest, and new committees can be established if needed. For example a committee was started after the 2010-11 Canterbury earthquakes.
Cabinet is based on three major principles:
- Unanimity – once a decision has been made by cabinet, all cabinet ministers have to support and defend the decision in public, no matter what their personal views are on the decision.
- Confidentiality – everything said in cabinet is secret. This is so that ministers can say what they really think and have robust debates.
- Confidence – cabinet and government need to have the confidence of Parliament.
Changes since MMP
Since the introduction of the mixed-member proportional electoral system in 1996 governments have been coalitions of a large party with smaller support parties. Sometimes government ministers will come from the support parties, but they are usually ‘ministers outside of cabinet’. Processes were developed so the different parties in a coalition were able to ‘agree to disagree’ on some issues.