Negotiating a coalition in secret is not consistent with open government.
When business interests and public servants are summoned to appear before a parliamentary select committee, they are generally expected to lay bare their secrets before the press and the public. Parliamentary privilege, which protects a politician’s right to say virtually anything in the House and its committee rooms, means that an MP who wishes to do so may air your private affairs before the public and the media.
That, the politicians will tell you, is what democracy is all about. Yet the coalition negotiations, one of the most important parts of our democracy, were conducted behind closed doors.
We were allowed glimpses of the participants, usually struggling with lift doors, saying little and brushing past journalists. We voted them into Parliament and they then discussed their wants and needs in private.
We have no real idea what was offered, what promises were made and what deals were done to form a new government.
Typically, after an administration is formed, its leaders emerge, burble some clichés and shake hands as they heartily assure us they will provide “strong and stable government”.
But the formation of a government should not be a private matter. If the rest of parliamentary business is open to public scrutiny, why should coalition discussions, which inevitably have implications for how our taxes will be spent, be conducted in secrecy? If the various leaders have nothing to hide, why should their dealings not be open to the public? What are they doing and saying that requires such secrecy?
All those involved in coalition negotiations would trumpet the concept of open government except where the formation of that government is concerned. Those discussions should have been conducted in a committee room, open to the public and media, so that we could know what policies were traded, what jobs were gifted, what promises made.
As I write, the shape of the new government has not been made public, so I can’t be accused of political bias because I don’t like the outcome of the negotiations. I happen to believe New Zealanders, having given their votes to a party, also need to watch and hear what is done in their name.
It’s hard to avoid the feeling that we are being treated like children, kept in the dark while the adults figure out what to do next. They promised big on the hustings: we should have been able to see and hear how committed they are to those promises now they’ve been elected. Or is it, really, all just about how they can get their feet under the Cabinet table, whatever the price?
Of course, there is little chance the politicians will ever open up those negotiations to such scrutiny. They rely on retaining our trust, and having the public know what trade-offs were made, what deals were struck, what winks and nods were exchanged, could jeopardise that. This is sad, because making a deal under the full gaze of the public would be likely to ensure that decisions reached would be of much higher quality than if they were concocted in some windowless room.
I know that, because of Winston Peters’ brittle temperament, the main party leaders walked around on eggshells, saying little or nothing, for fear of alienating their only hope of taking power, but almost three weeks of radio silence from them is really quite undemocratic.
Having voted for them, surely we deserve to know how they went on to form the new government – and what it cost us.
We should know what policies were traded, what jobs were gifted, what promises made.
“How cool! There’s a gender pay gap levy!”