The National Party is trying to prevent the Government from setting up an independent body to cost political parties’ policies and monitor the way taxpayer money is allocated and spent.
The Green Party has for some time advocated for the establishment of an independent fiscal institution so that there's more effective scrutiny of fiscal policy and transparency around what political parties promise to do.
Calls for one became particularly salient when in the lead up to the 2017 election the then-Finance Minister and National Party campaign manager, Steven Joyce, claimed Labour had a $11.7 billion “fiscal hole” in its books.
The Coalition Government in May 2018 announced plans to set up a Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), and in September 2018 started consulting on the matter.
On Tuesday the Government said work on setting up a PBO was taking time, so it wouldn’t be operative until after the election in mid-2021.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson wanted the PBO to be given ‘Officer of Parliament’ status.
Given to the likes of the Auditor General and Ombudsman, he said this status would provide the body the necessary independence for it to carry out its role.
Members of the Officers of Parliament Committee, who represent different political parties, need to provide their unanimous support for this status to be granted.
While there are technical ways around this, National digging its heels in on the matter will make it more difficult for the PBO to be established in the form currently proposed.
National Party Leader Simon Bridges on Tuesday said: “I oppose it because I don’t trust the Government on it. I think it’s an opportunity they see to illegitimately, undemocratically screw the scrum on the Opposition.”
He said he felt “obstructed” by Robertson’s office and Treasury, as he’d unsuccessfully endeavoured to get a Treasury official to help him cost policies.
“If they won’t even provide me with a secondee at the Opposition’s own cost, how can I trust them with a supposedly independent institution over the top of that to provide a view on our costings?”
Robertson said the Treasury official matter was a completely separate issue that was being worked through.
He said Bridges’ response was “hugely disappointing” and stressed the high level of independence that would be given to the PBO.
The Officers of Parliament Committee is expected to make a decision in coming weeks on whether to grant Officer of Parliament status.
Robertson had expected legislation to set up the PBO to be introduced before the end of the year, with the intent of it being operational from July 2021.
“It would have been ideal to have the office set up before the 2020 election, but we’re making sure we’re taking the time to get this right,” he said.
“To do this, we’re drawing on international experience and carefully listening to the feedback from the earlier consultation process.”
In the meantime, he said Treasury would establish a new team to provide a policy costing service to the political parties represented in Parliament.
Parties can currently ask the Finance Minister to request that Treasury costs a political party policy. This service will be improved ahead of the 2020 election, as political parties will be able to approach Treasury directly for this service to be carried out.
Associate Finance Minister and Green Party Co-Leader James Shaw said the PBO would result in fewer political games.
“Having an independent PBO 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,” 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.”