Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Not good enough

We're about to have the most important Budget in a generation. There's no question that Grant Robertson has inherited one of the most difficult challenges - probably the greatest - in living memory. What he does, or doesn't do, will define how, at a minimum, we cope in the near-term with covid, and, in all probability, will have longer-term repercussions on how our economy behaves and evolves. I wish him well. I doubt if there's anyone, from any end of the political spectra, who'd disagree.

So there's obviously an enormous public interest in what he's going to do on Budget day, May 14.

Normally, the people most interested in fiscal policy sign up for the 'lock up' - a vetted group of people, mostly the media but also the likes of bank economists and sectoral lobbyists - who on Budget day get access (usually mid-morning) to the Budget documents ahead of their release, subject to a time embargo. The deal is, if you've got a strong interest in fiscal policy, and Treasury agrees you're a player in that space, you get to see the stuff in a controlled environment, and with the advantage of the preparation time, you will be able to provide informed commentary, but (because of the agreed embargo) not before the Minister of Finance does his thing in the House. Works for everyone. I've been in lots of them.

But not this year. I won't be there: neither will the bank economists, the trade unions, the farming organisations, the investment managers. Here's what's happened.

Earlier this week I asked Treasury what this year's arrangements were going to be, given that the usual physical gathering in the Beehive was obviously out of the question.

Back came the answer that "the Minister and the Speaker of the House have arranged for a Restricted Budget Briefing to be held at Parliament for accredited members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery only".

I pushed back. I mentioned, for example, that the Fed has managed highly market sensitive press conferences over video conference, as you can see for yourself here. In response to the suggestion that video conferences are supposedly not secure enough for Budget-sensitive information, I mentioned things like Zoom's 'waiting room' and password protected access, and the fact that Cabinet apparently has met over video with no issues. And I also said that Treasury has been able to rely for many years on an honour system where lock-up attendees, in good Kiwi fashion, can be trusted to do the right thing. And don't give me grief over the (one, isolated) abuse of the honour system at the equivalent RBNZ lockups. We're generally a high-trust society, and I like that, and I'd like to see it continue.

Got me nowhere. Everyone involved was very nice about it, but where we've apparently ended is that the most important Budget in our lifetime is going to get immediate scrutiny only from a very small group of political insiders. New Zealand deserves better: we don't need this highly important event filtered through this small-mesh sieve.

This is not right. I'm perfectly happy to accept that I've got an interest here: being able to make an on-the-spot quick assessment of the Budget is a plus for me, as it is for everyone else in the usual lock-up. But my wider point stands: civil society is better served by wider access, not less.

Along the way I also made the point that these days, it's easy enough to acknowledge that a decision can be revisited, or as I put it to them, "there's only upside in saying 'we thought we had to tightly corral it, but now that we've thought about it, we can do this'". That fell flat, too.

Of all the Budgets in all the world, this is the one that should be most open to immediate analysis. The powers that be can, and should, rethink.

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