New Zealand will not fall apart while we wait for a government to be negotiated. But that does not mean we have to just accept a lack of respect for transparency and shouldn't expect better

Well, I hate to say 'I told you so'. But, this. As frustration builds over the way our new government is being built - amidst casual abuse, secrecy and over-reach - we really only have ourselves to blame, for the way this administration is being born in darkness, at least. Its mother is our own complacency.

I can still hear the voices now and see the comments beneath the stories. Only a few weeks ago, many were bemoaning journalists asking party leaders what their bottomlines were, which might be given away in negotiation and how they might try to form a government. The politicians often replied with scorn, insisting they could not negotiate without seeing the hands dealt to them by voters.

As I said a month ago, that's bunkum. 

"This is no game and policitians 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'...

"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."

Yet many New Zealanders fell in behind the parties' spin, complaining that journalists were wasting time asking coalition questions and pushing for answers the poor party leaders couldn't possibly give. 'Focus on the issues,' they cried.

I wonder, how many of them are now amongst those bemoaning the lack of transparency in these negotiations and the deals being done behind closed doors. Well, we have reaped what we sowed. 

We are left with little idea of which policies are being traded for which and have next to no notion about the priorities of whichever government might emerge because we failed as a public to demand answers before the election.

It's not that I have any problem with these negotiations being conducted in confidence. I don't mind New Zealand First shuttling back and forth between parties and them being able to handle this process in secret. This is a time for a veil, of sorts.

But we should know from reportage and interviews pre-election that parameters of what's being traded. We should know more about what the parties see as dispensible and which things they are dying in a ditch for. We should have been able to vote for that, in full knowledge of a party's priorities, not been fobbed off with tlak of hands not being dealt.

For me, this is one of the few main lessons from Election 17 and, more specifically, how we handle the caretaker days while we wait for a new government. 

The second is related. The lack of transparency gives all the parties more power and the public less, than they might. But the lack of cooperation between National and Labour gives New Zealand First more power again.

No, I'm not talking about a grand coalition. People saying the major parties should do more to find common ground don't appreciate the importance of a strong opposition. Imagine how hard it would be to challenge and probe a grand coalition with over 80 percent of the vote and how dominant it would be in the House.

It's much better that we have a party of substance and means helping hold the govenment to account.  

But that doesn't mean they have to be patsies when it comes to coalition talks. But it seems that fear - "respect" - of Winston Peters have made them so. 

Again, I've no problem with a party with the balance of power maximising that power. But the major parties could easily have laid out some bottomlines of their own - before or after the election - as to what as on and off the table. Why not have some agreed budget limits, some set deadlines, some requirements for transparency in this process?

We should learn for next time and expect more from the majors in setting the terms of these negotiations. It suits them to keep their options open to bid anything they want for power, but it does a disservice to voters.

Finally, in the past 24 hours, the announcement by Winston Peters that he won't announce the government on Thursday as expected, but rather will ait until it suits him is an insult to our democracy. And to Labour and National.

Who is he to dictate the timelime? Who is he to announce his decision? In 1996 Jim bolger only learnt he had been chosen about the same time as Peters said so publicly. Tau Henare had been dispactched with the letter but had been delayed.

Surely the major parties should have at least as much say in both the timing and the announcement itself.

I could add that Peters as one of the lead negotiators shouldn't enter and exit negotiations each day firing a volley of insults at journalists and acting as their editor-in-chief, critiquing their reportage as if its lack of substance was not down to his own lack of transparency. But what's the point?

There's nothing wrong with MMP that a nip and tuck wouldn't fix. A coat-tail here, a threshold there. There's nothing wrong with waiting for special votes or considered and even protracted negotiations. There's nothing wrong with a level of confidentiality in these talks.

Much of the whining now is really about issues that in the big scheme of things, don't really matter. But transparency, power imbalance and respect for that power do matter. This waiting is fine. But we should still expect better next time.

Comments (6)

by Kat on October 11, 2017
Kat

Vernon: Look Tracey here comes Winston....

Tracey: Lets ask him the time.......

Vernon: Winston time do you have?

Winston: time enough....

Tracey: No, what is the time?

Winston: Are you telling me you don't know the time of day?

Tracey: Yes but we want to check that you do.....

Winston: Please don't ask questions that you either know the answer to or are stupid...

Vernon: Why is it stupid to ask what the time is?

Winston: Don't you have a watch?

Tracey: Yes, but why can't you answer a simple question with a simple answer?

Winston: I am not wearing at watch at the moment.....

Tracey: So you don't know what the time is then?

Winston: Yes I do......

Vernon: But how?

Winston: I have it written on a piece of paper I keep in my pocket.....

by barry on October 11, 2017
barry

I said before that you were wrong and now it is even more clear.

Imagine that National had followed your advice and said that they were prepared to give the Greens a Nitrogen Pollution tax.  Would they have got away with the same "let's tax it" line in their advertising? Would the farmers have been out in Morrinsville?

It is clear that you have to go into the campaign with policies that you are prepared to give up in coalition, but that doesn't mean you aren't comitted to them.  By announcing bottom lines, then all other promises become meaningless.

People seem to be prepared to understand and forgive later.

by william blake on October 12, 2017
william blake

I agree Barry, that's what policy is, however given the fit, or lack of it, in policies between the parties, the negotiations should have been over in a day

by Tim Watkin on October 13, 2017
Tim Watkin

barry, I agree people understand that compromises are inevitable and indeed welcome in negotiations. But what you are giving away is any accountability in this negotiation period, and that's too high a price for me.

Imagine if National had been prepared to give some understanding into how open they were to some Green policies. And what they were not open to. Wouldn't that have been helpful to you as a voter to further understand what they stood for and what sort of government you might get?

They can announce policy, but also talk about their openness to other parties' policies, which of their own they could see alternatives to, which they utterly stand for as a point of principle...

by BeShakey on October 13, 2017
BeShakey

This makes no sense to me. How could any party announce how open they might be to other parties policies before they know the result of the election without undermining their negotiating position?

If NZ First had somehow gotten to 15% and held the balance of power they should (rightly) expect to get a lot more concessions. But if National or Labour had announced what they would concede before the election they would (most likely) have ruled things out on the assumption of a worse NZ First result the media would have hauled them across the coals. On the other hand, if they'd announced pre-election the most they'd be willing to concede to NZ First, NZ First would have demanded those concessions regardless of their actual result.

As soon as we accept that this is a negotiation I can't see how anyone could expect the parties to undermine their ability to negotiate. The public seems to understand this, but the media either don't or continue to make unreasonable demands so they can write some easy stories pre-election and cry hypocrisy after.

by Fentex on October 15, 2017
Fentex

The only people I see complain about this matter are media pundits. They seem to be the only ones who can't hold their water and pounce upon it as an excuse for material to write and take oh such high minded positions.

We voted, let the people who won seats deal with what we gave them. If it turns to custard we'll have another election some day. There is no drama, to, get yaaawwwnn ups... zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

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