Bridges is offside with supporters in bridling against an independent budget office

“I didn’t come down in the last shower,” Opposition leader Simon Bridges huffed on RNZ’s Morning Report when quizzed about his objection to the establishment of an independent Parliamentary Budget Office.

We are left to conjecture on what he did come down in and when it might bring him to earth.  A thunder cloud of paranoid suspicion, perhaps.

On this issue his instincts have seriously failed him. When the Taxpayers Union is welcoming a Green Party initiative now that it has been modified, Bridges and the Nats should take a bit more time before declaring their position.

Taxpayers’ Union spokesman Louis Houlbrooke says:

“It’s not often we support new spending initiatives, but this one is a goodie that we’ve been backing for years. The operation of the Office should actually save taxpayers money in the long run: political parties will be less likely to commit to low-value spending when the effect on taxpayers is clear.

“We’ve pushed for this Office ever since we launched our popular Bribe-o-meter, and were pleased to see the Green Party join the cause.”

The union had been less supportive of the Greens’ plans to house the unit inside Treasury.

But it is being set up as an independent office of Parliament and:

“Taxpayers will welcome the decision to rectify this, ensuring costings are not biased by the Government of the day.”

The announcement was similarly welcomed by the NZ Initiative (which first mooted the concept in 2014) and Newsroom reminds us (and Bridges, if he is willing to listen to supportive opinions) that Federated Farmers last year submitted in favour of an independent fiscal institution, arguing it should be fast-tracked into existence before the 2020 election.

Progress on the creation of an agency to provide political parties with independent and non-partisan policy costings was announced by Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Associate Finance Minister James Shaw.

Cabinet has recommended that the independent Parliamentary Budget Office is given the status of an Officer of Parliament.

“This will give the PBO the necessary independence to undertake the role for which it is being established,” Finance Minister Grant Robertson said.

The Government has submitted the proposal to the Officers of Parliament Committee recommending this status. A decision on the recommendation is expected in the coming weeks.

Setting up the office delivers on the Confidence and Supply Agreement between Labour and the Green Party.

The PBO is designed to monitor the Government’s fiscal strategy as well as provide independent costings of political party policies.

Associate Finance Minister James Shaw said the independent PBO will mean more transparency about what political parties are promising to do and fewer political games played.

“Having an independent Parliamentary Budget Office should lift the quality of debate about the ideas being put forward by political parties. The PBO will help cut through the noise to deliver New Zealanders unbiased information during election campaigns,” James Shaw said.

“The PBO should enhance New Zealand’s democratic framework by levelling the playing field, meaning that political parties have access to the same resources to give the public consistent and independent information.”

Are we to suppose Bridges is not so keen on a level playing field?

The Office is set to be operational from mid-2021.

Too bad it won’t be ready before the next election. But Robertson said the Government is  “taking the time to get this right,” which means

“ … we’re drawing on international experience and carefully listening to the feedback from the earlier consultation process. 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.

According to Robertson, the government engaged with the National Party on the proposal earlier in the year and welcomed former Finance Spokesperson Amy Adams’ positive response.

“We understand that National’s new Finance Spokesperson Paul Goldsmith will be consulting his caucus on the proposal,” Grant Robertson said.

Perhaps Bridges has not been communicating with those MPs.

Newsroom today reports:

“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 …  ”   

The report recalls Steven Joyce’s claim of an $11.7 billion “fiscal hole” in Labour’s policy plans during the last election and John Key’s “Show me the money” taunt to Phil Goff during the 2011 election campaign.

More significantly, it notes that New Zealand is an outlier when it comes to the existence of such bodies – 29 of the 36 OECD countries have an independent fiscal institution of some type.

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.

Newsroom’s common-sense observation is that 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. But:

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 issue is  whether the PBO would emphasise 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.

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

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?

At Kiwiblog, David Farrar is another supporter of the proposal.

I have been an advocate of such a unit for many years. I was pleased to see the Greens promote it last election and Labour agree to implement one in their agreement.

The proposed model of an independent office of Parliament is the right one, as independence is key.

Farrar has recorded Bridges’ response:

“I oppose it because I don’t trust the Government on it. I think it is an opportunity they see to illegitimately, undemocratically screw the scrum on the Opposition,” Bridges said.

He said he felt this way because he was having trouble getting a Treasury secondee to help National’s office, as is tradition, and had been asking for months.

Bridges was eventually offered a Treasury secondee but he said this staffer was clearly unsuitable for the role.

“I feel like we’ve been obstructed from the get-go by the Minister of Finance’s office and also by Treasury.”

“How can I trust them with a supposedly independent institution over the top of that to provide a view on our costings?” he said.

Farrar then tells Bridges he is on the wrong side of this one. He may well be right in not trusting the Government – “but that is even more reason to support this proposal of having costings done by an independent agency of Parliament”.

Voters deserve to make informed decisions on the cost of promises by politicians. This proposed agency will be a key step towards that. You really don’t want parties self-costing their own policies as they often under-estimate the cost – especially Labour.

This proposal is good for voters, good for fiscal conservatives and good for responsible political parties that want to ensure their policies are affordable.

Farrar hopes it gets unanimous support by Parliament.

This obviously will require Bridges to change his mind.

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