Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rodney's pork problem

The other day, I noted that National's confidence and supply agreement with ACT [PDF] had a rather unusual clause:

To enable ACT to make a substantive contribution to the government's programme, it will have adequate access to funding, in a bulk form or for specific projects, to enable it to commission contract research or other consultancy assistance. The terms of such funding will be a matter for the Leadership Council to decide.
Why is this necessary? Won't ACT already be receiving money through Parliamentary Services for this sort of work?

The answer is yes. Parliamentary Services provides funding for MPs and parties not just to allow them to perform their duties, communicate with constituents, and function as legislators, but also explicitly for the purposes of research and policy development (the exact rules are here [PDF]; the purposes this funding can be used for are laid out in s4.12). However, parts of that funding (the leader's office budget and the entitlement to office support staff) are effectively reduced because ACT will have two MPs as part of the executive. In practical terms, that reduction will be more than offset by the greater resources provided by Ministerial Services, but those resources come with a catch: they can only be used for assisting those MPs to discharge their duties as Ministers and develop policy within their portfolios. They explicitly cannot be used for electioneering or "any work directly related to the administration or management of a political party" (full rules here [PDF]). And Ministerial Services staff are reportedly quite picky about that. For a party which has historically relied on its Parliamentary Services allocation to keep it running, that will be a real problem.

ACT's answer is special pork, a backdoor public funding scheme which applies only to them. But this is going to pose some problems. The money has to come from somewhere. It can't come from Ministerial Services, because then it would be subject to the same rules that limit it at present (unless the new Minister - John Key - changes those rules. But that would be public). It can't come from Parliamentary Services, unless the rules are changed to either favour parties in government (currently they don't), to allow inter-party transfers (fat chance), or to award more money to small parties across the board (which wouldn't be a bad thing at all, but I can't see them doing that either). It can't come from any other government department, such as DPMC, because the usual public service rules would apply. And if it comes from any organ of the government, it will be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny through the annual appropriations review process, and public scrutiny through the OIA - plus the possible review of the Auditor-General (and I'm sure there will be people just waiting to hoist Rodney by his own petard with that weapon). While the exact details will likely be kept secret, we will at least be able to find out how much, and the terms on which it may be used - and whether those terms are adhered to. Which may be rather more than National or ACT want us to learn.

Unless they go completely private, and get National to pay ACT with its own rather than public money - something which smacks of outright bribery - ACT has just created a rod for its own back. And I think a lot of people will be looking forward to using it.