14 May 2020

Self-destructing motions: confidence and budgets

From The House , 6:55 pm on 14 May 2020

It’s National Numeracy Day today. A day when politicians shower us all in a cascade of numbers. A day when balance sheets are sexy enough to lead the news, and every journalist pretends to be good at math (some actually are).

Mostly we call it budget day.

In this article though there isn’t a single mention of fiscal updates, largest ever increases, or appropriations spread across four years (except those ones).

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - MAY 14: L to R: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Greens leader James Shaw walk to the house during Budget 2020 delivery day at Parliament May 14, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand.

Photo: Pool / Getty Images

Instead of the numbers we note something else that budget day includes:

“I move that the Appropriations 2020 Bill be now read a second time…” - Grant Robertson.

Ultimately the budget is just a bill, a piece of legislation like anything else the House passes. Yes, it’s a very long bill and one that needs multiple volumes of hefty accompanying data, but a bill nevertheless. 

So it’s journey through Parliament begins with a suggestion (a motion) to read it by the minister in charge; in this case the Minister of Finance Grant Robertson. 

It is not just any bill though, it is a ‘supply’ bill, as in ‘please give me a supply of cash’ bill. Because all government’s need cash. Without the cash that a budget provides a government ends.

Because of this crown-toppling capacity the first opposition speech in a budget debate traditionally starts like this:

“Mr Speaker, I move that everything after ‘that’ be removed and replaced with ‘this house has no confidence in this government because…”  

That’s what Simon Bridges did last year. It’s what every Leader of the Opposition does every year. They put forward an alternative motion, a ‘no confidence motion’, that says the House no longer trusts the government or its budget.

Which brings us to this year. This year Simon Bridges began thus:

“Nothing in recent history has brought about such global disruption as the COVID-19 pandemic. Kiwis have sacrificed much through the restrictions of lockdown, but we can all be proud that the collective efforts of everyone have so far worked well. Today is not just about the Budget but about the direction of New Zealand more generally…”

This year, in a pretty unusual move, the Leader of the Opposition omitted that traditional alternative motion - the no-confidence motion.

Simon Bridges has ‘form’ with these kind of motions. Particularly at the other annual debate where a no-confidence motion is usual - the Debate on the Prime Minister’s Statement.

National Party Leader Simon Bridges during the debate on the Prime Minister's Statement

National Party Leader Simon Bridges during the debate on the Prime Minister's Statement Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

In 2019, he gave an alternative motion, delivered an impassioned speech, then sat down in the glow of his colleagues’ hearty applause. But he had forgotten to pass a copy of the motion to a whip to give to a clerk to table during the speech. And so the House patiently waited while he hurriedly jotted one out.

The alternative motion has to be ‘tabled’ so the House can refer to what it is debating, and immediately so the Speaker can read it out before the next speech.

“The motion is ‘that this House has no confidence…’.”

Then in 2020 at the same year-beginning debate he did exactly the same thing, and got into verbal fisticuffs with the Speaker over whether he ought to have to (you can’t win a fight with a Speaker, especially over the rules). It rather took the wind out of his speech’s sails.

Observers may have wondered whether Simon Bridges had forgotten a different part of the formula this time. Or whether he was cautiously circumnavigating a hazard he had stumbled over previously.  

The Prime Minister certainly noticed and mentioned it in her own speech which came immediately afterwards.

“I see that Mr Bridges did not move a motion of no confidence in this Budget, and I take that as an assumption that the Opposition will vote for this Budget today. I hope so, because this is a period in our history that is a global crisis, and to see this Budget for what it is, a response to the rainy day we have planned for. Now is the time to come together as politicians to say that a rainy day demands of us that we shelter and protect New Zealand to weather the storm. Rather than argue about who gets to hold the umbrella, I hope the Opposition steps away from business as usual and does vote for a Budget that delivers jobs.”

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Paula Bennett tweeted in defence of her boss, noting that he had not forgotten (as one journalist had posited), but instead he had “decided, in exceptional times not to.”

The speech was still pretty oppositional. 

“Having gone hard and early on lockdown, we've gone soft and slow on the economy. While lockdown was justified, we should have opened up the economy sooner to get New Zealand working again. Having flattened the curve, we must not flatten the economy. We must unlock New Zealand and get New Zealand working again….

“Sadly, a $50 billion slush fund is a not a plan for jobs and growth. Spending money is the easy part, but Grant Robertson doesn't even today know how he will spend it all. It's not a plan. Much isn't allocated, leaving over $20 billion to spray prior to election 2020….

“Vote Labour and—you mark my words—this time next year, the kindness will be gone, and because of wasteful spending, you'll get more taxes and less money in your pocket. Higher taxes are the last thing New Zealanders need right now, but they are a certainty under a Labour-led Government.”

No-one was putting all their differences aside to sing kumbaya in this debate. 

Exactly why the no-confidence motion vanished is not important here. 

At the House our aim is to try to make Parliament’s complexities plainer, and today is a good excuse to explain the effect of a ‘no confidence’ motion on a budget.

When it comes to it, it’s not the actual motion that makes the Appropriations Bill a life or death vote for governments, it’s the nature of the bill.

As we said, the budget is a supply bill, and governments must have supply. Its failure would ensure the end of any administration, regardless of whether or not there is an alternative no confidence motion to vote on. 

The ultimate vote on the budget will still be a confidence vote. 

The opposition leader’s usual motion is not essential, even if traditional. 

It is more of a free hit for a good soundbyte. Something to rally the troops, something for the other opposition speakers to build off.