The joint announcement of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Labour and the Greens last week took many by surprise. To be clear, the announcement was a surprise, the contents of the Memorandum, not so much. Several commenters have pointed out that three of the six points announced in the MoU have been common practice between Labour and the Greens for a good long while already, and the remaining points don’t really bind either party to do anything new either.
Andrew Little and Metiria Turei appeared to agree when doing the morning show rounds the next day, acknowledging that the MoU was confirming a lot of the work that had already been done to bring the two parties together over the last year. The clear message from both Little and Turei? The MoU demonstrates that both parties are totally committed to getting National out of power, or “changing the government” in 2017.
Of course one could argue that changing the government is the core business of any opposition party—but I think there’s a chance this MoU could be a promising first step towards a serious “government-in-waiting.” This bodes well for New Zealanders at the polls next year, as the system we have presently makes it difficult for voters to piece together a clear, coherent vision of an alternative government.
The incumbent Government has an advantage going into any election. They have a track record of governing they can be judged on, and crucially, they produce a Budget each year. In this way, the voting public has seen them translate their election promises into policy that has to be costed and paid for somehow, three years running. Opposition parties don’t have this recent track record to run on, and the election promises that parties often use to get the public’s attention can get expensive, particularly when there are two parties on the same side making different promises.
In 2014, the National Party announced that the combined Labour and Green election promises added up to $28 billion of extra spending. Now this combined number is unfair: simply adding the costs of two sets of policies together doesn’t show how a Labour-Green coalition would have actually compromised to create their Budget. But if Labour and the Greens want to be seen as a credible “government-in-waiting,” it would behove them to present voters with a dynamic combined vision, along with robust financials backing it up. This is because the Greens are no one-person-party. Their relatively significant size means they would have much more of a say in a combined Cabinet than any of the other power-sharing arrangements in recent political history.
In making their relationship and intentions official, Labour and the Greens may actually be giving themselves room and time to create a “shadow government” policy and budget framework they can take into the 2017 campaign. Indeed, this sort of “real-world” financial reporting would be in line with Metiria Turei’s call earlier this year for an independent “policy costings unit within Treasury” that would report impartially on the projected cost of the policy suggestions from parties across the spectrum, and “cut through the noise of political party promises.”
One could argue that it should be up to parties themselves to fund and front up with the honest financial data that forms the foundation of their policy platform. Unfortunately, our current political environment consists largely of reporting on poll projections, gaffes, and political personalities, with not much room given to reporting on the facts behind a party’s proposals of how they would manage the business of running the country. There simply hasn’t been enough pressure from voters or many media figures to coerce parties to make a decent go of explaining how they would balance their promises with particulars.
In this context, I hope that Labour and the Greens will remain committed to presenting a thorough and credible alternative government to voters in 2017. A committed opposition—prepared to challenge the incumbent on the details of governing—would force all parties to work harder to prove they are ready to lead, and make it easier for voters to make well-informed choices at the polling booth.