Message delivered - the left can do fiscal responsibility

Round table discussions over breakfast for Turei, Shaw and Little as the launch their fiscal policy. Photo: Tim Murphy

Even before it had started, Labour and the Greens' big announcement on being fiscally responsible had been a PR triumph.

The glee around the top table at the Kensington Swan-hosted breakfast event at Auckland's Viaduct Harbour could not be suppressed.

The reason? A banner headline in the pages of the New Zealand Herald's Friday Business liftout which examined the fiscal deal screamed: 'Red, Green and Responsible".

The pre-launch PR had worked. The Herald's business audience, always in need of reassurance on the intentions of the centre-left, had been given the message.

Had the audience of lawyers, accountants, business people and media not already turned up, it might have been tempting to cancel the event and bask in that PR glory.

The business section sat, open at the double page spread featuring Labour and Green colours, on the top table of the two parties' leaders throughout the launch speeches.

Certainly Labour leader Andrew Little and the Greens' co leaders Metiria Turei and James Shaw seemed highly comfortable in each others' company. Their Helen Clark-Jim Anderton style detente formed last year might well have the same effect of eliminating memories of division.

The rules promise a Labour-Greens government will keep the books in surplus 'across an economic cycle'; will reduce net government debt to under 20 percent of GDP by 2022; resume payments to the Cullen superannuation fund; keep core government spending to around 30 percent of GDP; and establish a working group on improvements to the tax system.

Crucially, the parties pledge to create a new government agency, independent of ministers, to ensure the fiscal rules are adhered to and to cost the policy promises of parties before the election.

Both parties' speakers were intent on dispelling any view that being fiscally responsible was a character trait of the centre-right.

Labour's finance spokesman Grant Robertson, noting the Clark government achieved budget surpluses year after year, said: "Sometimes when I hear people discuss fiscal responsibility it is as if it was invented by this [National] government."

Shaw echoed the sentiment: "Any government worth its salt has to be responsible, no matter what it is. Fiscal responsibility and fiscal conservatism are not the same thing. There are times when fiscal conservatism is irresponsible."

Sustainable public finances were one part of a three-legged Green policy stool - ecology, economy and society. "If you take away one of those legs it is not much of a stool any more."

Robertson praised Shaw and the Greens' "constructive, pragmatic approach to producing the fiscal rules".

Shaw returned the compliment: "Grant Robertson and the team from Labour have been a delight to work with."

A questioner from the floor asked if the rules would bind any other - unnamed but obvious - party in a coalition with Labour and the Greens. "Who wouldn't want to be signing up to them?" Robertson asked. "Some parties who do not want to do pre-nuptials" would be able to see them in advance and consider signing up.

Shaw was more direct: "We would anticipate any other party that joins us in coalition would sign up to that."