Politics

The critical questions raised by Steven Joyce’s missing billions fiasco

What was Steven Joyce really up to when he said Labour’s budget plan was missing almost $12 billion? Simon Wilson considers the possibilities. 

On Monday morning the minister of finance said the opposition finance spokesperson was so incompetent, he had produced a fiscal statement that overlooked nearly $12 billion worth of spending they should have accounted for.

He said it on the day of a crucial televised leaders’ debate. At a time when the polls showed his party was declining and the opposition party was rising fast. If he had been right, it would have been a king hit: a single blow that destroyed his opponents.

But he was not right. The expert opinion has piled up against him and, to date, not a single independent analyst has supported his central claim. What’s really going on?

There are several possibilities.

  1. The minister of finance, Steven Joyce, is right, and everybody else is wrong. It’s possible, at least in theory, although you might think by now they would have found someone trustworthy to say it for them.
  2. He’s lying. On the fact of it, this scarcely seems credible. To mislead the public deliberately on such a big and fundamental matter, during an election campaign, would be grossly unethical. And surely to tell a lie like this is to run a very big risk of destroying both you and your party’s entire election campaign.
  3. He himself is incompetent. He simply did not know how to read Labour’s version of the budget. But Joyce does not seem to be incompetent. Of all the things his political opponents have ever said about him, that’s not one of them.
  4. Joyce isn’t incompetent but this is a complex issue and he simply made a mistake. Seems unlikely. It might be too complicated for most of us to understand, but not him. As he says himself, he was associate finance minister for eight years before he became finance minister last year. “I know these numbers,” he insisted several times to John Campbell on RNZ’s Checkpoint last night. He himself has ruled out a simple mistake.
  5. Steven Joyce is also the National Party’s campaign manager. Did he do this on his own? That would make him a rogue element, unshackled by the discipline of party, campaign, loyalty to his boss and simple common sense. The National Party does not seem to be a party where that happens, certainly not at the top level. If Joyce did act on his own, that means his boss, prime minister Bill English, will now know he is dangerously untrustworthy.
  6. If he didn’t make the claims on his own, who did he consult? It’s reasonable to assume the prime minister, Bill English, was party to the decision. (If you were English, a vastly experienced former finance minister, you’d be absolutely furious if this, of all things, was done behind your back, wouldn’t you?) And everyone else in the inner circle of the party’s campaign. It is hard to see how English is not complicit in this attack on the opposition.
  7. Perhaps they hoped for a king hit. This would require that both English and Joyce misunderstood the Labour budget plan or decided to lie about it. Is that credible?
  8. Perhaps they did not expect a king hit. Perhaps they knew that when this story broke, it would cause confusion, and claim and counterclaim, and for a day or two it would get very messy, and then a general scepticism would settle over everything and the public would be tired of it all. As Jacinda Ardern herself said during the leaders’ debate on Monday night, all the public would hear was the two of them squabbling. And when all that was over, there Steven Joyce would be, smiling and speaking in a reasonable tone and looking solid, all of which he is very good at. While Labour would have had a suspicion raised against their credibility that will never entirely go away. Because it’s too complicated to explain, because you can’t ever explain that you’re innocent, because explaining is losing. Because when it comes to a showdown on competence, we don’t decide on the facts, we go with our gut. Steven Joyce, Bill English and their campaign team know that.
  9. The decision to attack Labour in this way was, inherently, a decision not to attack them on the facts. As several of those independent critical commentators have noted, there actually are questions to ask about Labour’s budget plan. It’s light on some details and it requires real confidence about the party’s ability to keep tight controls on new expenditure. Joyce shifted his argument late on Tuesday, playing up that aspect of the issue. But it wasn’t what he claimed when he “broke the news”. The analysts’ comments have not been offered in support of his position, but by way of saying that he has misunderstood the nature of the problem. But he’s been hard at work to blur that distinction.
  10. Perhaps Joyce was never interested in the facts. He went with the smear. Facts don’t win elections, feelings do. To win an argument is merely to win an argument, but to stir the hearts of voters is to win the prize. Steve Joyce smeared their opponents in a way intended to put the dispute beyond the reach of facts. He was trading in fear. Fear of what? Of Labour’s big bogey: the party that is too incompetent to run the country. Because look, it can’t even write a budget.
  11. National has brought us here before. A vote for Labour is a vote for Kim Dotcom. Iwi/Kiwi. Dancing Cossacks. It was disgraceful then. It’s disgraceful now.

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