Both of National’s governing partners have invoked the “agree to disagree” provisions of their coalition agreements in the past week. But what does that mean in practice?

When three parties join forces to form a coalition government, policy disagreements are inevitable due to different priorities and diverse ideologies.

This is why “agree to disagree” mechanisms are often built into coalition agreements.

Both NZ First and ACT have used those mechanisms to distance themselves from two policy areas over the last few days.

NZ First invoked the provision over the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Covid-19 response last week, while ACT announced on Tuesday it will use the mechanism to oppose the Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill.

So, what does that mean for the coalition and for the two policy areas at the centre of those disagreements?

Agreeing to disagree

The general approach to governing in New Zealand is that once Cabinet agrees to something, all ministers support that decision publicly, whether they personally agree with it or not, says constitutional law expert Graeme Edgeler.

But there could be occasions where smaller parties in a coalition hold different views and need a way to demonstrate that.

Edgeler said this could be because of something a party promised its voters pre-election or because they simply have too different a view on an issue.

“Every so often, there’s going to be something where [the coalition partners] decide ‘we can compromise on some things, but this is something we can’t compromise on,’ but they still want to be in the government, they still support overall government policy,” he said.

What happens to policies they disagree on? 

If a coalition partner invokes the “agree to disagree” provision over a piece of legislation, it means that party won’t vote for it in Parliament.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that legislation will fall over, Edgeler said.

For example, ACT has ruled out supporting the Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill, which means the National-led government would need the support of parties outside of the coalition to pass the law.

“[But] this was a Labour party bill in the first place, so the assumption is that the Government will be able to get votes from Labour to pass it in,” Edgeler said.

When ‘agreeing to disagree’ becomes more

While “agreeing to disagree” offers coalitions a way to express differences, disagreements over policies can be destabilising.

Edgeler cited the collapse of NZ First and National’s coalition back in the 1990s when the parties disagreed over the sale of Wellington Airport.

“That was very destabilising for the government because the coalition broke up over it,” Edgeler said.

He said problems can also arise if one party has an eye on the next election and feels like it needs to send a message to its supporters about issues it previously campaigned on.

But generally, Edgeler said, “agree to disagree” provisions are just a political reality for the business of governing in the MMP era.

“It was slightly controversial the first time one of these went into a coalition agreement, but now I think it's just a generally accepted way forward,” he said.

“That's just one of the changes that has happened since New Zealand adopted MMP, which comes with multi-party parliament and also multi-party government.”

Image: Illustration image by Nadine Christmas

More stories: 

How the proposed sick leave changes could impact you

The Government is proposing changes to the Holidays Act.

Three Strikes makes its return: The controversial law explained

The Government is reviving the Three Strikes legislation Labour scrapped two years ago.

Changes to gender and sexuality education: What’s in the guidelines?

What changes does the coalition government have in mind?