Making Local Government Coalitions Work

Making Local Government Coalitions Work

The 2021 Local Government Elections are testament to the success of the initial purpose of proportional representation in our electoral system. The objective was to ensure that numerous smaller parties representing local interests would have an opportunity to gain support, thus avoiding the dominance of large ethnically-based parties, possibly with a different ethnic group dominating each province. Coalitions are a feature, not a bug, of our electoral system.

Now we have what the founders of our democracy sought in a number of local government jurisdictions – the next objective is to achieve the alliances based on compromise, which will be necessary to enable our leaders to negotiate policy platforms that include the most key elements of each group’s policies. As an electorate, we send our leaders into the “town square” to negotiate a shared platform to implement over their term.

Compromise in countries dominated by two or three large parties is not easy, where party bosses prefer to hold out for the next spin of the electoral wheel when their party might return to winner-takes-all power. The USA presently shows what can happen in a two-party system where each party becomes dominated by its extreme flank and sees no space for compromise. It is even more challenging at the local authority level, where the focus tends to fall on the personalities who win the better-paying committee leadership positions and less on the policy approach of each party.

Back home, the initial prospects do not seem promising, with the larger dominant parties drawing the line at which parties they are prepared to work within coalition governments. It goes without saying that we cannot hope for success in every local authority, but out of 66 hung municipalities gearing up for coalitions, some will be led by leaders who seek the common ground and can find coalition partners.

So how do we support coalition politics? As voters, we need to give our vocal support to leaders who, when faced with significant support but not an outright majority of votes, are able to enter coalitions with others to craft a workable majority, without surrendering the core principles of their party. This might mean that all parties are able to agree on a platform that excludes one or more of their top priorities. Party leaders in this position need to accept that there is just not majority support for their cherished number one priority – but that does not mean that other lesser priorities might not be achievable.

With multiple local authorities seeking to achieve similar objectives – delivering services, maintaining infrastructure and building more, attracting new investment and jobs, we now have hundreds of different authorities each attempting different experiments on how to achieve similar objectives. National bodies have been developed, not least in the Ministry of Finance, to track the performance of local government against targets. Perhaps now is the time to focus more attention on these scorecards of progress, and associate more successful authorities with the parties, and more importantly, the coalitions of parties that drive their progress.

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