Time to come clean on coalition compromises

8:50 pm on 12 September 2017

Analysis - Tax, tax and more tax. Jacinda Ardern has been fending off questions about tax nearly every day since she became Labour leader.

A coalition government needs to be transparent, writes Tim Watkin.

National's Bill English, Winston Peters of New Zealand First and Labour's Jacinda Ardern Photo: RNZ

Despite all the questions, her position is anything but transparent. But she's not alone - New Zealanders are heading into a knife-edge election blindfolded by almost all the parties.

This election campaign we've heard plenty of party promises. As I said on RNZ's Caucus podcast a couple of weeks back, this has become a bidding election. The two main parties' positions and plans have been spelled out pretty darned clearly.

Except for the exceptions. Case in point: Labour's tax plan. The party has promised what could be profound changes to New Zealand's tax system in the next term, saying it wants tax reforms that address housing affordability and tax fairness. It will form a working group to consider and advise.

That in itself is hardly remarkable. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth on the right, promising reviews and working groups is common. Heck, Labour's got a couple more planned, including on serious issues such as mental health and climate change. The phrase "kicking the can down the road" became synonymous with National's previous leader John Key.

To read and hear a member of the fourth Labour government like Richard Prebble howling about transparency is like an Australian cricketer railing against under-arm bowling. Labour's manifesto in 1984 was as artful a collection of vagaries as has ever been put to the public and after winning a second term in 1987, Prebble and his fellow Rogernomes embarked on a series of reforms - arguably the most radical tax reform ever considered by a New Zealand government, including a flat tax - without campaigning on them.

Equally, National has kicked the question of water exports into the next term, asking the Ministry for the Environment's water allocation technical advisory group to consider whether to charge bottlers. Conveniently, the group is due to report back after the election.

So far, so similar. Parties know these issues could cost them votes and they want to deal with them outside the heat of an election campaign. Good enough? No. But hardly unusual.

So it is right and proper for journalists to be pushing Ardern on tax. That pushing has seen Ardern rule out changes to the top rate of income tax, a land tax on the family home and an inheritance tax. So the line that she doesn't want to constrain her working group sounds increasingly hollow. I'd say it's 95 percent certain Labour will introduce a capital gains tax next term, so they should be committed enough to transparency to say so.

Equally, English should be expected to be more transparent on water royalties and bottling.

But in focusing debate on those issues, we're missing the elephant in the room. While parties are pushing their own agendas, none are addressing the reality that coalitions mean compromise. None - except perhaps the Greens - are willing to tell us just what they might compromise on and what their coalition government might look like. That certainly is not good enough. Not under MMP.

Back in the early MMP elections, there was much more of a focus on bottomlines and how coalitions would work. This campaign, party leaders have been saying that they can't comment on coalitions and negotiations until they know how much sway voters have given them. "It depends on the numbers, so vote for us," they all say. Winston Peters likes to bang on about not being able to play his hand until the cards are dealt.

That's bunkum. This is no game and politicians don't have the right to keep their cards hidden from voters. In essence, they're saying, "We'll negotiate the government in secret without any indication of what might result. Trust us."

To be fair, we know a little. We know Labour will call the Greens first to discuss a coalition and the Greens will only go with Labour (not National). We know New Zealand First won't go with ACT or "a race-based party", which means the Māori Party. We know the Māori Party wouldn't consider a deal with a government wanting to axe Whānau Ora or hold a referendum on the Māori seats.

The key point is, though, that we don't know what concessions National and Labour will entertain if New Zealand First is 'the decider'. We don't need firm commitments in stone, but deserve more transparency than we're getting. How might they negotiate on, say, rail from Auckland to Whangarei, the Reserve Bank Act or 1800 more police officers?

Equally, we don't know which of New Zealand First's many bottom lines are 'bottom bottom lines'. Are they all negotiable or are some deal-breakers? Let's not forget, if New Zealand First decides, we could end up with very different governments. Time to talk about that.

With 11 days to go, voters have plenty of party policy to ingest, but they need feeding up on just what a future government might look like.

Tim Watkin is RNZ's Series and Podcasts executive producer, and a former executive producer at The Nation. An earlier version of this piece was originally published at pundit.co.nz.

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