Week in Review

Bridges digs himself deeper over policy costing plans

Plans for an independent body to cost political policies seem sensible, although the devil will be in the detail - but National leader Simon Bridges’ knee-jerk opposition borders on dangerous for our democracy, Sam Sachdeva argues.

When you’re in a hole, stop digging.

It’s evergreen advice, and words that may have been on Grant Robertson’s mind as the Finance Minister unveiled plans to set up a new entity to provide independent and non-partisan policy costings for political parties.

Steven Joyce’s claim of an $11.7 billion “fiscal hole” in Labour’s policy plans during the last election was just the latest in a line of National campaign attacks with similar themes; think back to John Key’s notorious “Show me the money” taunt to Phil Goff during the 2011 election campaign.

Labour has had mixed success in rebutting those critiques - but the creation of a Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) may provide a chance for the party to fill up that hole in the ground before it can be pushed back in.

The concept actually predates the fiscal hole saga, with the Green Party the first political party to pitch the idea in 2016.

The office, which Cabinet has recommended be given statutory independence as an Officer of Parliament, would monitor the Government’s fiscal strategy while also providing independent costings of political parties’ policies upon request.

New Zealand is an outlier when it comes to the existence of such bodies, with 29 of the 36 OECD countries having an independent fiscal institution of some type.

Steven Joyce's "fiscal hole" claims made headlines during the last election campaign - could the Parliamentary Budget Office avoid a repeat? Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The OECD itself backed the idea of New Zealand setting up a fiscal watchdog, saying it could heighten scrutiny of the budget process while supporting a longer-term focus on fiscal sustainability.

Any attempts to provide greater scrutiny and independent analysis of politicians’ claims deserve praise, and despite the odd attack, similar entities in countries like the United States, Australia and Canada appear to have functioned well.

One problem is whether parties will be willing to publicise the PBO’s findings should it prove embarrassing.

The Greens’ initial proposal required costings to be proactively released after a party announced its policy, but Robertson has confirmed costings under the Government’s plan would only be commissioned and released at a party’s request.

To suggest that a statutorily independent entity would somehow conspire with the Government to embarrass National is nonsensical to say the least.

In theory, public pressure and political attacks should compel parties to play ball or face the consequences, but that may not always hold true.

Another question mark is whether the PBO would have a similar constraining effect that some critics attribute to the Government’s Budget Responsibility Rules, emphasising prudent fiscal management above all else.

Green Party co-leader James Shaw has argued that the PBO would not embed an austerity approach due to its carefully designed mandate, but some left-wing commentators have already questioned the plans on social media.

Unlikely supporters

In news unlikely to reassure them, the proposal has won backing from some unlikely quarters.

The announcement was praised by the NZ Initiative (which first mooted the concept in 2014) and the Taxpayers’ Union - neither of whom are natural supporters of this government - while Federated Farmers last year submitted in favour of an independent fiscal institution, and in fact argued it should be fast-tracked into existence before the 2020 election (it will not be set up until mid-2021, with the Treasury providing a beefed-up costing unit for next year).

But National leader Simon Bridges came out swinging against the plans, with a claim the Government was merely trying to “illegitimately, undemocratically screw the scrum on the Opposition”.

Bridges can be forgiven for feeling a little wary about the country’s fiscal stewards, given his party’s run-in with former Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf over the Budget hack that wasn’t.

But to suggest that a statutorily independent entity would somehow conspire with the Government to embarrass National is nonsensical to say the least.

The proposed Parliamentary Budget Office would monitor and report on the Government's fiscal plans, while also costing political parties' policies. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The track record of the Ombudsman, the Auditor-General and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment - the three existing Officers of Parliament - hardly suggests they are political stooges, with officeholders having shown a willingness to give the Government a black eye when it is deserved.

Is Bridges suggesting that those watchdogs shouldn’t be trusted?

This paranoia is of a piece with his criticisms of Stats NZ over its 2018 census failures and the suggestion on RNZ’s Morning Report that its data could not be trusted as a result.

To be clear, Bridges is right to slam Stats NZ’s handling of the census - the damning review which led to the resignation of its chief executive is testament to that.

But to leap from justifiable concern to the suggestion that all its work may be tainted is a bridge too far.

Of course, there are some sound political reasons for Bridges to come out against a budgetary body.

In a world where shrieks of “fake news” are thrown around too liberally and the public trust in politicians is steadily eroding, flippantly sowing distrust without good cause is dangerous.

Having an independent entity which could, in theory, authoritatively prove or disprove the claims would reduce National’s ability to portray its opponents as spendthrifts and rely on its own public reputation as a responsible economic steward (fairly earned or otherwise).

Just because something may win you votes does not mean you should do it, however.

In a world where shrieks of “fake news” are thrown around too liberally and the public trust in politicians is steadily eroding, flippantly sowing distrust without good cause is dangerous.

At the end of his two-month ‘listening tour’ of New Zealand last year, Bridges said the public wanted National “to not just bash this Government up, but really do some thoughtful work”.

He could do well to take his own advice, before he digs a hole so deep he can’t get out of it.

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