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Ne­go­ti­at­ing a coali­tion in se­cret is not con­sis­tent with open gov­ern­ment.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - Bill Ral­ston

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!”

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