John Armstrong's opinion: Omens don't look good for Labour and Greens Parliamentary Budget Office proposal

Unveiled by Labour and the Greens around lunchtime; rubbished and rejected by National before afternoon tea-time. So much for the latest attempt to broker across-Parliament consensus on a matter of some importance.

James Shaw and Jacinda Ardern. Source: Getty

It is too soon to be definitive and completely write off as a dead duck the joint Labour Party-Greens initiative to establish a Parliamentary Budget Office which — among other things — would be tasked with costing political parties’ policy programmes and election promises. The omens don’t look good, however.

What is at issue is the possible creation of a special entity which would enjoy the same status and esteem accorded to other “watchdog” Offices of Parliament, such as the Ombudsman, the Auditor General and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

A Parliamentary Budget Office would likewise be strictly independent. That would be essential for its findings to be carry weight.

It confuses things to attach the tag of “watchdog” to the new office. If it is intended that such an agency should replicate equivalent bodies operating in overseas jurisdictions, then most of its work would be concentrated on providing independent oversight of the fiscal performance of the government of the day— rather than focusing on the future spending planned by political parties once they are in government.

There is no argument about the potential value of something which— as the Greens’ co-leader James Shaw puts it — “cuts through the noise” of election campaigns.

There is no argument about the potential value of having such an authority delivering “unbiased information” for voters to digest and thereby bringing more transparency to what political parties are promising.

Whether such an instrument would lift the quality of public debate and result in “fewer political games being played” — as Shaw also claims —is very much a moot point.

It is worth the try. There is going to be little public confidence, however, in something which will supposedly reduce political game-playing instead itself becoming a political football.

Grant Robertson. Source: 1 NEWS

What will have rung alarm bells in the Opposition wing in Parliament Buildings is that Labour’s Grant Robertson has so far said next to nothing about the mechanisms which would be available to a Parliamentary Budget Office to enable it to monitor a government’s fiscal track record.

Indeed, this week’s joint announcement by the Finance Minister and his Green Party side-kick that the Cabinet had given the go-ahead for a Parliamentary Budget Office was notable for the lack of detail as regards the functions and powers which will determine how this adjunct to New Zealand’s unwritten constitution will operate.

So much for transparency; so much for enhancing public debate.

If as oft said the devil is in the detail. The only defence available to Robertson and Shaw in respect of that lack of detail is that the pair might well need to retain as much flexibility as they can muster to try to entice National to come on board.

The prevailing bottom-line which applies to the likes of the Ombudsman and the Auditor General is that they have the unquestioned backing of all political players. That is fundamental. Without that assurance coming from all quarters of the political spectrum, those institutions immediately risk being perceived as less than wholly independent. Their authority is undermined. Their decisions start to fail to stick.

The vacuum detail-wise has left some pretty basic questions still without answers.

It needs to be stressed — in fact it cannot be stressed enough — that any costing of policies undertaken by any Parliamentary Budget Office would only be done at the request of the party which is promoting that policy.

It is inconceivable that the office would undertake such an exercise at the behest of a rival party, or that costings would be done solely on the initiative of that office.

Such courses of action would drag the Parliamentary Budget Office into the political domain and thereby destroy any claim it would have to being independent.

The whole purpose of the exercise is to provide political parties — especially those in Opposition which do not have access to the resources of the public service — the opportunity to tap into expertise which is of help in developing credible and viable policy planks.

The big plus is that giving Opposition parties access to an alternative and hugely credible source of advice is that it would act as a massive disincentive for opponents contemplating making wild assertions of the Steven Joyce variety.

The latter’s now-infamous claim during the 2017 general election campaign to have discovered a $11.7 billion “hole” in Labour’s spending forecasts was widely and mercilessly ridiculed because that sum was so extreme as to defy credibility.

Steven Joyce. Source: 1 NEWS

Had the-then National frontbencher come up with a more moderate amount, he might well have inflicted serious damage on Labour rather than himself.

Had Labour had recourse to a Parliamentary Budget Office, Joyce may well have incurred even more embarrassment on top of what he had heaped on himself. Herein lies the real reason for Simon Bridges’ seemingly out-of-hand refusal to have any truck with the joint Labour-Greens initiative.

National understandably regards the whole shebang as a blatant attempt by its old enemy to blunt what has arguably been its most proven weapon — namely scaring the living daylights out of voters by suggesting Labour suffers from an in-bred and incurable proclivity to waste money which should have been left in taxpayer’s pockets.

Labour’s rebuttal of that charge has come in the form of ever-more detailed “alternative Budgets” highlighting where the money is coming from to fuel the party’s extra spending.

In order to sway doubting voters that its mathematics can be trusted, the party has routinely contracted economic consultants based in the private sector to audit its alternative Budgets and attest to the veracity of those documents’ fiscal projections and assumptions.

Such a response only goes so far in ameliorating the difficult politics which hang over the party when framing the party’s economic policy.

The party is severely handicapped by the plain and simple fact that far more voters consider National to be the better managers of the economy than think the same of Labour.

That is not supposition. It is simple fact. Labour does not have so much a monkey on its back as a gorilla wearing steel-capped boots kicking it continuously in the groin.

The result is that Labour is constantly on the defensive. The Greens’ articulation of the merits of having a Parliamentary Budget Office on hand and being tasked with independently costing party policies has offered Labour a possible route out of that political morass.

Securing a big tick of approval from a Parliamentary Budget Office as to the accuracy its costings could easily be spun as official confirmation of the responsibility displayed by the party across all aspects of economic policy.

That would leave Bridges and National with a problem. To criticise Labour would be to criticise an office of Parliament. To avoid that Bridges needs to explain why having a Parliamentary Budget Office is not a good idea.

Not surprisingly, he has struggled to find such an explanation. That is because there isn’t one.

Bridges has one big thing going his way, however. The proposal for a Parliamentary Budget Office is now in the hands of Parliament’s Officers of Parliament Committee. Without National’s say so, however, the proposal cannot proceed, at least not in its current manifestation.

Parliamentary Budget Office, RIP?