National’s secrecy about its policies

By Gordon Campbell
What does this sound like? A tiny group of politicians develop policy and hide it from the rest of their colleagues – all the better to unveil these policies in a way that will give the voting public the least possible time and opportunity to understand the full implications of what is being proposed. Roger Douglas may not be in the next National Cabinet in person, but clearly, he will be there in spirit.

The Kiwisaver fiasco has revealed all this, and more. It has underlined that the National Party under John Key are replicating the most secretive and un-democratic qualities of the Lange/Douglas team of the mid 1980s. Policy will not be exposed to daylight until it is about to be enacted. Caucus colleagues cannot be trusted, and need to be kept out of the loop. The outcome of this secrecy ? The party figureheads screw up.

Thus, National’s own industrial relations spokesperson Kate Wilkinson told a forum of human resource managers that National would scrap the compulsory employer contributions to the Kiwisaver scheme.

When this hit the media a few hours later, Wilkinson frantically back-tracked and claimed not to have understood what she had been asked. Key’s subsequent explanation and ‘correction’ of Wilkinson’s statement was that she had not been part of the policy design. So much for her credibility – the party’s own industrial relations spokesperson is being kept out of the loop on core matters concerning employers ! Grudgingly, Key revealed that the National Party policy, while not yet ‘ finalised’ would involve compulsory employer contributions.

Ah, but at what rate ? At the current levy, with its $20 a week tax credit offset ? Or at the level the scheme will entail in four years – whereby someone on $45,000 would be looking at an $1800 a year employer contribution, offset by a $1040 annual tax credit? Key wasn’t saying. Nor is he saying whether National prefers to use those funds to finance even bigger tax cuts ( than those in the Budget ) that he hints about delivering, but which has also not confirmed.

So much for the need for business “ certainty’ that National bangs on about in almost every other forum. In this case, it is happy to leave employers uncertain while – wink wink, nudge nudge – dropping clues they may not need to plan for the higher levels of compulsory contributions further down the track. Meanwhile, the 600,000 New Zealanders currently enrolled in the Kiwisaver scheme are being left in the dark about National’s true intentions.

So much for transparency, and fully informed electoral choice. The public is being required to buy a pig in a poke. National is proceeding on a deliberate course to hide from public scrutiny and debate – for as long as it possibly can – what it intends to do on tax, on Kiwisaver and much else besides. When taken together with its intention to re-open the case for FPP, it is a reminder of the party’s fundamentally undemocratic instincts.

In fact, in its mode of operation and stance towards the economy the National Party appears to have learned nothing – and changed very little – since the early 1990s. All that has changed has been its ability to better hide its intentions from the public. This too, isn’t all that novel. During the 1980s, Labour had a similar changeling as its popular figurehead.