Saturday, April 08, 2006

John Armstrong: Labour's little helpers

The Auditor-General is probably not Labour's favourite person right now. When it is finished, Kevin Brady's inquiry into political parties' use of parliamentary money to pay for election advertising is unlikely to make for pretty reading in Labour's case.

However, the financial watchdog did Labour a favour this week even though he would not have set out to do so.

In a separate inquiry, the Auditor-General ruled it acceptable for Labour to use Government funds to pay for three special advisers to work out of the Greens' parliamentary office.

Prime Minister Helen Clark was quick to seize on the ruling as giving the constitutional thumbs-up to her unconventional co-operation agreement with the Greens.

That arrangement designates two Green MPs, Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Bradford, as "Government spokespersons" in a couple of minor policy areas - part of the deal which, in return, has the Greens abstaining on confidence motions.

Fitzsimons now speaks on behalf of the Government on energy efficiency and conservation, while Bradford is working up a Government-sponsored "Buy Kiwi Made" campaign. Small beer. However, National sees a fundamental constitutional principle at stake. Fitzsimons and Bradford are spending public money. The Opposition should be able to question them in Parliament to ensure accountability.

They will not have to front because Labour argues that the two MPs report to Labour ministers who retain overall responsibility to Parliament for the work Fitzsimons and Bradford do for the Government.

National sees it all as a further blurring of the lines of accountability on top of the separate arrangements covering Labour's other support partners, NZ First and United Future.

Those agreements allow Winston Peters and Peter Dunne to criticise Government policy even though they are ministers and would normally have to bite their tongues.

It is not the role of the Auditor-General to sort out constitutional arguments. His job is to check that money voted by Parliament for a specific purpose is spent accordingly.

National asked him to determine whether money voted to provide Labour ministers with sufficient staff should have gone to the Greens.

Brady had misgivings about some of the things the special advisers were doing. But he accepted they had a policy function.

That was enough for Clark. The Auditor-General had agreed that "appropriate steps" were in place to ensure stable government. He hadn't gone that far. However, he did not question Labour's wider arrangement with the Greens. Thus does constitutional innovation quickly become the constitutional norm.

Brady had made it harder for National to unpick the innovation. However, if such innovation is to permanently rewrite the unwritten constitution, then it has to do the job that was expected of it - enhancing Government stability.

As the Government nears the six-month mark, the verdict is: so far, so good.

Clark's third-term administration began life as a Heath Robinson-looking contraption which had NZ First, United Future and the Greens joined to a Labour-Progressives core in clip-on arrangements. It was considered inherently unstable. The all-too-pervasive question was, "How long will it last?"

No longer. Lingering fears about the Government's stability are of Labour's own making - not its support partners. It is true that their voting against Labour in Parliament has meant Labour has at times lost control of the House and thus made it look weak.

On the other hand, the looser agreements those parties now have with Labour may actually make the overall governing arrangement more robust. Minor parties no longer feel they are being treated as doormats.

In the previous Parliament, Labour could turn to the Greens to pass legislation when United Future did not support it. Dunne now admits that hurt more than he let on at the time.

Now Labour has to get both his and Peters' backing for bills or turn to the Greens and the Maori Party.

Although Labour still twists arms to get its way, it has necessarily become more accommodating to its support partners, giving them more space to brandish their policy victories.

Dunne also believes the atmospherics have been helped by support parties no longer feeling they undermine the Government every time they vote against Labour.

Another factor aiding cohesiveness is that Peters and Dunne are ministers. But although they are ministers outside the Cabinet - a contrivance to enable them to claim they are not part of the Government - they have more influence than they would if they sat outside the Government.

It is understood that Clark frequently seeks the advice of two MPs who have been in Parliament almost as long as she has been. By doing so, she is drawing them into the Government's embrace.

One unexpected development has been improved relations between NZ First and United Future. Both need one another's backing to get the items in their support agreements through Parliament and it is in their interest to talk to one another so they are not played off against one another by Labour.

That has reduced the temptation to trip one another one up - thereby not tripping up the Government as a whole.

The big question is how Peters and Dunne use their freedom to criticise Labour. While they must echo Labour's line in their own portfolios they are otherwise free to contradict Labour policy.

This should not be damaging if disagreement simply reflects ideological differences and is not motivated by a desire to make headlines at Labour's expense.

Both Peters and Dunne know that too much criticism and Labour won't help them get what they want policy-wise. That applies to the Greens as well.

When United Future has been critical of Labour, the criticism has often come from one of United Future's other MPs, rather than Dunne.

And it was Ron Mark who made a speech in Parliament this week emphasising how much NZ First was squeezing out of its deal with Labour.

Peters, who sat through it smiling broadly, is the unknown factor. So far he has been a stabilising force, bending over backwards to help Labour. This may reflect his desire to punish National rather than any love for Labour.

At this early stage of the electoral cycle, he has no need to distance his party from Labour.

Labour MPs revelling in Peters' flaying of National should remember that not so long ago Peters was describing them as "gender-bending control freaks". He may have become Labour's little helper, but is capable just as swiftly of becoming Labour's big headache.

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