Bridges withdraws support because of staffing dispute
By Richard Harman (author)
Opposition Leader Simon Bridges is opposing a Government proposal to set up an independent Budget monitoring agency because Treasury could not supply him with a suitable staff member.
He says that because the Government can't supply him with the staff member, he can not trust them to allow the agency to operate independently.
He is objecting to a proposal from Finance Minister Grant Robertson to establish a Parliamentary Budget Office (similar to one in Australia) which would monitor the Government’s fiscal strategy as well as provide independent costings of political party policies.
The PBO would be overseen by the officers of Parliament Committee which is chaired by the Speaker and has five members including two National MPs.
Like similar organisations such as the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, it would have the power to appoint its own staff and would not be responsible to the Finance Minister or the Cabinet.
The proposal was immediately endorsed by the right-wing Taxpayers’ Union and the neo-liberal NZ Initiative and opposed by the left-wing blogger "Bomber" Bradbury who asked: “Why would you trust the neoliberal Wellington Bureaucratic elites to cost political promises?”
But regardless of that heavyweight support, Bridges says National does not support it.
“As soon as I became opposition leader. I wanted a Treasury official, so we wrote to them (the Government), and we waited months and months, and then we got annoyed, and we went back to them, and we said very clearly that they were mucking us around,” he told POLITIK.
“It was only when we started making quite clear that we would effectively potentially go public on this that they then put someone up, but they were not suitable for our purposes.
“ It was far too little too late.
“We wanted someone because it's about us being able to do the costings to hold the Government to account particularly around budgets.”
Bridges said the Opposition was required to pay for the official and that he needed the official to help with the development of National’s policies and planning.
POLITIK understands that the first request to Treasury for a secondee attracted no takers among Treasury staff; the second produced a senior female Treasury official, but she was rejected by Bridges.
“Forgive me if I'm deeply cynical but I don't trust the Government on this proposal given the way that they undermined us around that very modest request for a Treasury official which other Oppositions have been entitled to.
That’s it; that’s the primary reason why I say I'm distrustful.
"Bridges says the proposal is nice in theory, but in practice, he is deeply sceptical it could work.
“You are asking oppositions to trust a Government with their deepest secrets and its most important strategic calls in the middle of an election campaign, and we’re just not going to do that.”
Bridges in recent weeks has seemed to step up claims questioning the Government’s legitimacy and integrity.
He has claimed a majority of New Zealanders believe the electoral system was "gamed" at the 2017 election; that all of Statistics’s census results might not be able to be trusted and yesterday he was saying the Government was “screwing the scrum” over changes it wanted to make to the Electoral Act.
The comments raise questions as to whether he is embarking on a Trump-like populist trajectory.
So consequently, does he now see trust as one of the major ongoing political issues?
“No, I wouldn't go that far,” he said.
“I think it's more about competence and the Government's ability to get it together a bit over halfway through their term.
“It seems to me they are trying to illegitimately undemocratically, slowly, surely, screw the scrum.
He says that though that raises questions of trust, it's not a core component of National's pitch to the electorate.
“That is much more around what's in it for New Zealanders and the competence of this government to deliver that.”
Bridges' Opposition to the PBO came as something of a surprise to Robertson who had earlier been given an in-principle approval to keep developing the proposal from former National finance spokesperson, Amy Adams.
National’s current spokesperson, Paul Goldsmith, told POLITIK that the idea, in theory, sounded fine but in practice how would it work.
He said he was highly sceptical about it.
Robertson said It is currently anticipated that legislation will be introduced before the end of the year, with the intention that the PBO be operational from 1 July 2021.
In the meantime, resource has been set aside for an interim costing unit for the 2020 election, to be hosted by the Treasury, as is possible now.
Robertson said that given that the PBO would not be established in time for the 2020 election, Ministers had agreed to improve existing protocols, by which parties could ask the Minister of Finance to request that the Treasury cost a political party policy.
For the 2020 general election, the Treasury will establish a new team to provide a policy costing service to the political parties currently represented in Parliament.
Political parties will be able to approach the Treasury for this service directly.
Robertson said the service would be performed independently from the Government.
New Zealand is something of an exception, not having a PBO. Only eight of the 36 members of the OECD don’t have one.
Ironically at the OECD’s annual conference on PBO practices in February this year there was an update from the New Zealand treasury on progress towards one here.
Bridges' objections will not stop the office going ahead, and since it won't come into effect until 2023, National may have moderated its stance by then.