Election bribes: When will we ever learn?

00:47, Feb 01 2014

If election bribes really worked, it shouldn't be too hard to win elections.

It works in places like Venezuala and Thailand, where the uneducated poor far exceed what we would call the middle classes.

Good politics can be lousy economics.

In places like New Zealand, bribes work for some people but not enough of them.

Labour and National have this week given us a peek of what they could offer us if we put them in Government.

Labour leader David Cunliffe announced a meaner version of the old family benefit - have a baby and we'll give you $60 a week.


Prime Minister John Key offered us a steady-as-she-goes approach with a bit more money for teachers as long as they are better than average.

Both parties dressed up these measures as ways to alleviate poverty and close the wealth gap.

Cunliffe has been accused of offering a naked election bribe but if it's a bribe it's a pretty modest one.

I've always wondered why a credible party, ruthlessly seeking power, doesn't simply promise beneficiaries and the lowest 80 per cent of income earners huge benefits while taxing the top 20 per cent in various ways to pay for it.

The rich could, for instance, be taxed on capital gains, income, expenditure (through GST) and massive death duties while the so-called battlers would receive lots of free things and tax breaks.

The vote of the poor should be guaranteed, you would think. Unfortunately for our ruthless party, there aren't quite enough of them and a lot of them don't bother to vote anyway.

The great irony of being a Left-wing party is that if your policies work and you improve the lot of those at the bottom you start losing their votes.

So the bribe has to look good to those in the middle as well, and this is where it gets tricky. Remember the line "it's the economy, stupid". Those in the middle worry more about the economy than those at either end of the income scale.

They realise an over-generous government could jeopardise the economy and in the long run be disastrous for them.

They don't like to see success be penalised too much because they aspire to success themselves, however unrealistically.

So a bribe that looks too much like a sop to a certain group, even a large one, will make a party seem less credible and less suitable for government.

The bribes have to be subtle. All political policies, especially if they are designed to help or benefit certain groups and not others, are a form of bribe. Some are just more blatant than others.

Think, for instance, of the scandalous but effective Gold Card which Winston Peters used to entice elderly voters over to the NZ First camp. Welfare for the well-off is also a fairly blatant bribe.

Making families with incomes right up to $150,000 eligible for the $60 baby benefit makes it a potential vote winner across a wide spectrum but giving money to people who don't need it is, let's face it, a bribe.

Of course, there's no guarantee babies will see any benefit from the money.

If Labour really wanted to alleviate hardship among the poor it could have directed the money to a whole host of programmes targeted at the most vulnerable.

But hang on. They don't vote or would have voted for Labour or one of its affiliates anyway.

It's election year and with the local and global economy improving, political parties seem to feel they can be more generous.

It's said voters are sick of all the belt tightening of the last five years and are less concerned about prudence and playing it safe.

But what has really changed? I thought the lesson from the global financial crisis was that governments should spend big in the bad times and rein in spending in the good.

New Zealand's so-called recovery is mainly due to good but vulnerable commodity prices and a Canterbury rebuild fuelled by insurance money.

The issues of governments living beyond their tax takes, increasing health costs, ageing populations and engrained poverty haven't gone away.

You would think we would have learned.

While excesses may have been curbed in the last five years, the losses haven't simply evaporated.

Most people understand this and the appetite for election bribes by the major parties should still be minimal.

This still leaves us with parties like NZ First, which can offer an outrageous bribe, get enough votes to hold the balance of power and then wrangle a deal out of the party most desperate for power.

This is one of the most intractable problems with MMP. A party having no chance at all of forming a government can, with a bribe pandering to a small group, wield enormous power.

The Press