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The role of the Leader of the Opposition

MMP makes a difference
Government and Opposition cooperate
Issues help alternative government formation

The Opposition’s main role is to question the government of the day and hold them accountable to the public.

National Party leader Dr Don Brash says the Opposition represents an alternative government, and is responsible for challenging the policies of the government and producing different policies where appropriate.

As Leader of the Opposition, Dr Brash is responsible for representing the Opposition at state functions, meetings with dignitaries and other important events.

Attitudes to the role of the Leader of the Opposition should be taken into account by people who wish to anticipate what the Oppostion might do. There may just be shades of meaning, as readers may see when thinking about the views on the role by Dr Brash, and the man he defeated for the role, Bill English. Under the Mixed Member Proportional - MMP - system, other opposition parties own attitudes can influence outcomes - watch that space. The way opposition parties work together can influence the outcomes - if they succeed in working together and in building the "political numbers" they increase their chances of toppling the government.

Holding the Government accountable

Dr Brash says one of the most important jobs of the Opposition is to constantly question the Government. “Any Government has to remain answerable to the public at all times, and a good Opposition can put the spotlight on serious issues and have them resolved quickly”.

He says an active Opposition will also debate legislation vigorously in the House and during the Select Committee process to ensure the legislation receives careful consideration.

Dr Brash says being in Opposition is not just about opposing the Government. “There are occasions when the Opposition agrees with the Government. If the solution proposed by the Government has wide support, and is soundly based, then it’s only natural for the Opposition to agree".

Leading the Opposition

“Opposition parties don’t have the same resources as the Government and the Executive, so we have to work twice as hard to get the same results”, Dr Brash says.

The Government has access to government departments and advisers to form their policies, where the Opposition often has to go down different avenues to source the same information.

“It’s also really important that the leader keeps a close eye and ear on what the public is saying, needs and wants – because problems are often caused by the Government not delivering.’

Concentrating on the issues that matter

Dr Brash says there are some issues “sometimes caused by Government negligence” that become the Opposition’s main platforms. For National in this election cycle, this has included tax relief, law and order, Treaty issues and education he said to DecisionMaker in August, 2005, during the election campaign.

“I have been told many times that New Zealand’s political landscape changed when I talked about Treaty and race issues in my 2004 Orewa speech. The tidal wave of reaction to my observations caught the Government short, and forever altered the way we talk about race relations.

“I believe the Leader of the Opposition has an important role to play in raising issues such as this.”

Bill English, Dr Brash's predecessor as National Party leader had told DecisionMaker several years earlier he considered the Opposition’s formal role in Parliament is to “hold the government to account.” Bill English, who was National Party leader at the time of the 2002 election and spokesperson on Education in the run up to the 2005 September election had said. “That often means opposing what the government does. It always means questioning what the government is doing.”

Dr Brash became leader of the National Party in October 2003. He was reconfirmed as leader by his expanded caucus, after his party narrowly lost the September 2005 General-Election, but doubled the number of National Party members elected.

“The other major role is proposing alternatives to what the government is doing so the public gets the benefit of political debate between different directions,” said Bill English, then a member of the opposition party with the most members in the Parliament elected in 2002. Another role is representing the opposition on formal occasions, such as state luncheons.

MMP makes a difference

Bill English said there is not a big difference in the role of Opposition in New Zealand’s MMP – mixed member proportional – versus the FPP – first-past-the-post – era of political systems.

“But in MMP the Leader of the Opposition has the additional job of working to present an alternative government, which of course involves other opposition parties, or potentially government parties that are part of government. You have to work with other parties to present an alternative government,” he said.

The Opposition’s role is only partly to “oppose, oppose, oppose”. He thinks of the role more constructively as holding the government to account. “If you go about that in a positive way – you can cause government to adopt positive proposals.”

Government and Opposition cooperate

“Under MMP there is certainly more effort by government and opposition MPs to thrash out positions. The executive has less control over the select committee process because the Minister’s party, in the current Parliament never has the majority of votes. On the other hand, you see Ministers working to manipulate that process, because they can't really be in control of it,” he says.

At one end of the spectrum there are occasions on which oppositions agree with the Government. These tend to be where it is simply in the wider public interest that a problem is fixed, where the solution the government is proposing has wide support, and it is hard to disagree with it.

He said that on the other extreme, opposing a Government is most useful for an opposition in defining its own position. A Government has the advantage that its decisions matter and the Opposition does not have the platform through its own decision making process. Oppositions get a hearing when giving a view on what the Government is doing.

Issues help alternative government formation

“If you can find an issue on which all the non-government parties agree, then that will help with the job of forming an alternative government. That has become a more important part of being in opposition than it used to be,” Bill English said.

He said the processes for working out positions between the centre right opposition parties are “highly informal”. Issues attempted by National in the Parliament elected in 2003 included:

  • welfare and dependency policy, and
  • constitutional change driven by treaty policy.

“The other centre right parties seem to be agreeing with us. At this stage there is regular discussion over issues, particularly where the government is under pressure,” he told DecisionMaker. The game from now on is for the main opposition party to strengthen its hand when it can find ideas where it can get consensus with other opposition parties.

There is a political risk to a party in loss of identity, subordinated to the common good “whether in opposition or government”. He said six months into the new Parliament “at this stage of the electoral cycle that is not really a problem. The interests of the smaller centre right parties are better served by having a big party in a strong position. They can’t form a Government. They need a party which can.”

Updated 22 November 2005


Photo of parliamentarians English and Field at Pasifika.

Former National Opposition leader Bill English attends the Pasifika with (on the right) his wife, Mary, and (on the left) Labour MP Taito Phillip Field.

Photo of Bill English with Maori at Ratana.

At Ratana, the home of the Maori Ratana spiritual movement, Bill English called for a debate on the Treaty of Waitangi: "The movement's leader has been quoted as saying we are all one people, no divisions," he said. Dr Brash, the