Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Kiwibuild is beginning to look more and more like no more than one of Edmund Blackadder’s cunning plans. While this week’s controversy about the couple getting the first Kiwibuild home is nothing like the drama National is making it out to be, it is nevertheless just another example of the policy’s shifting sands.

It is worth recalling that in its election policy just one year ago Labour promised that it would “build 100,000 high quality affordable homes over 10 years”. The policy went on to talk about curbing homelessness through building affordable homes in the $350-450,000 price range. The implication was unambiguous - Labour’s approach was going to be far more activist than National, and Kiwibuild would be Its primary policy to deal with homelessness and the housing crisis.

The not unreasonable belief consequently emerged that Labour would get on top of the housing crisis, in a way that National never could. Given the general view of the time that National had let the housing crisis get well away from them, without too many ideas of how to resolve it, Kiwibuild began to look as though it might just be the fresh approach needed.

How different things look one year later. So far, just 18 Kiwibuild homes have been built, and another 447 are on track for completion by July 2019, leaving a shortfall of 535 on its first year 1,000 homes target. Put another way, a first year achievement rate of just under 47%. And there has been a subtle but clear rewrite of the Kiwibuild objective. According to the Kiwibuild website, the objective is now the much more passive one to “deliver 100,000 homes for first home buyers over the next decade”.

So, no longer will the government build “100,000 high quality affordable homes”. And no longer does “affordable” mean $350-450,000, but $650,000. Moreover, now the plan is merely to “deliver” 100,000 homes, which, in the best Blackadder fashion, means accumulating all the new homes already being built over the next ten years by the private sector anyway, and dressing them up as Kiwibuild homes. And by introducing the new qualifier of “homes for first home buyers” the government can better tailor its plans to fit with what the building companies are currently doing anyway, and market it all under the Kiwibuild label. Any suggestion that Kiwibuild will mean 100,000 more houses being built than might otherwise be the case has long since vanished. All that is happening is that existing plans are being branded under the Kiwibuild label, which is win-win for both the government and the industry.

Therefore, in reality Kiwibuild is a very clever strategy of the government doing very little, but making it look like a lot, and all the while being able to milk many photo opportunities for Ministers as the still uncommon achievement of each house being completed happens.

Meanwhile, the homeless Labour was so concerned about in the lead up to last year’s election remain homeless, with not much apparently being done to meet their needs. A specific initiative is the Sweat Equity programme, but it is only available for 6,400 homes, and is unlikely to be sufficient to house the many homeless families Labour used to focus its attention on. In addition, over the next four years the government is planning to increase the public housing stock by a net 1,000 over the total projected under the previous government last year, likely to still be less than the total number currently on housing waiting lists.

Mind you, given its own record on housing is hardly one to crow about, National is not going to be taken seriously on this issue for a while yet, making some of its current criticisms a little hard to take. The public memory is not that short. So, despite the criticisms, the benefit of the credibility doubt still lies with Labour - just.

Nevertheless, when the marketing awards are next given out Kiwibuild deserves first prize as a cunning plan, well marketed, but delivering very little and changing not very much, while all the time leaving people feeling good about the government’s warmth and kindness. Not even Blackadder and Baldrick in their heyday could ever have been as devious.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

It would be unwise to read to too much into this week's TVNZ Colmar Brunton political poll. Polls, after all, are but a snapshot in time, and the timing of the poll coincided with one of the most unusual weeks in New Zealand politics in a very long while. It actually showed very little movement - Labour up three points and National down two (quite remarkable in itself given the Nats' last week), while there was barely any movement for the other parties. And it certainly is no guide - either way - to the outcome of the next election in two years' time.

A better guide might be what appears to be an emerging behaviour pattern within the three government parties, and how that will play out over time. Over recent weeks, the government has started to appear a little more organised and focused than it has over the last six to nine chaotic months, although it still has a very long way to go to show genuine progress on its policy agenda. For their parts, both New Zealand First and the Greens have started to focus on promoting some of their own core policies, rather than just focus on being good supportive members of the governing coalition.

That helps explain New Zealand First initiatives like the proposed  "Kiwi Values" legislation to test whether new migrants fit into our country, and the plan to restrict access to New Zealand Superannuation to people with 20 years' residency. Both are consistent with New Zealand First's anti-foreigner stance, and will play well with the party faithful, even if the support of other parties is unlikely.

Similarly, with the Greens. Labour's fumbling over what to do with the Green's recreational cannabis referendum has left the field open for the Greens to take up the drug reform mantra in the way they have always wanted to. Also, the Greens have been able to burnish their anti-free trade credentials by being the only party in Parliament to vote against the Trans Pacific Partnership legislation when it came before the House. 

Both parties have obviously come to realise that just being a good government partner will not be enough for them, come the next election. As well as achieving specific policy wins, they have to give their respective supporters a fresh reason to vote for them next time. So it is not unhelpful for either to be seen to be pursuing policies that no-one else is, while still ensuring stable government carries on.

But it is also not an entirely risk free strategy. In the short term, putting up policies which other parties reject is good branding, but over the next two years, party supporters are likely to tire of seeing their party's pet policies being put up and either ignored or knocked over, and will start to put pressure on both parties to extract more from Labour to be more sympathetic. In turn, that will become a problem for Labour, already clearly struggling to get most of its agenda through before the election, if it is now expected to be even more accommodating to their wants, than it is  already. Labour cannot afford to surrender too much of its brand space to its partners.

The next year will be critical in this regard. The election die is likely to be largely cast by the end of next year, with 2020 being the year of consolidation and battening down the electoral hatches. 

In the grand scheme of things, this week's opinion poll will probably not amount to all that much. More likely to be of lasting impact are the moves by New Zealand First and the Greens to promote their brands a little more vigorously. In the same way Labour cannot be seen to give too much away to its partners, New Zealand First and the Greens cannot either be seen to be too unreasonable in their demands, while not being too acquiescent at the same time. It will be a delicate balancing game for all to play, and will be fascinating to observe. 

Either way, the next twelve months, not one opinion poll, will determine the government's fate.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Just a year ago, as the pixie dust gently fluttered down, and the smiles flashed, there was nothing the new government could not do. With kindness and relentless positivity, everything was suddenly possible, inspired by the clarion call, “Let’s do this!” Nine years of apparent stolid inaction had given way to an exciting new vision and enthusiasm that would suddenly melt away all the country’s problems.

Public servants like teachers and nurses who had been so oppressed under the previous government would be fairly and substantially remunerated without the need to resort to strike action. But a year later there have been more strikes in the last few months than in the previous two decades, and more lie ahead. A year ago, people’s living costs would be reduced by better economic management - today inflation is rising and energy prices are at record levels. Homelessness would cease to be - today Kiwibuild is bogged down and homelessness has never been higher. The only thing that has happened has been that the “smile and wave” politics Labour accused Sir John Key of have given way to “smile and Neve”.

For its part, the National Opposition has now ditched unity, strength and purpose, and the opportunity to present a clear and attainable alternative to maintain economic growth and enhance long term prosperity in favour of internecine bloodletting.

One of the most obvious areas of this government’s failings has been that of drug reform. A year ago, a compassionate government was, as a priority, going to move swiftly make more cannabis based medicines available to more people, more rapidly, and more cheaply. Today, despite a muddled, poorly drafted Bill being introduced early in this Parliament’s life, nothing has actually changed. The Bill has not yet passed into law, nor is likely to do for up to another six months, and the government now says it will be mid 2020 at the earliest before there are any changes.

The issue of recreational cannabis was going to be addressed, with the public to be given their say in a referendum. Today, no one seems to know when the referendum will be held, what form it will take, and whether its result will even be binding on the government. Indeed, the only certainty appears to be that the issue will remain unresolved when the country next goes to the polls in 2020. The 1975 Misuse of Drugs was slated a year ago as old fashioned and out of date. Today, the Act remains unchanged, and it is not even certain whether the review of the Act the previous government had foreshadowed for 2018 has even got underway, let alone been completed and new legislation developed.

Another issue stated to require a fresh approach was psychoactive substances. But today, apart from an as yet unimplemented and likely unworkable proposal to reclassify a couple of substances, the promised bold new approach is completely missing in action. And more people are dying than ever before.

While the Prime Minister waxed eloquently, if somewhat deceptively, at the UN General Assembly about New Zealand’s bold new approach (which was in reality nothing more than a restatement of the existing National Drug Policy presented to the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs just over two years ago, New Zealand showed its real commitment to change by not even bothering to send a Minister to this year’s annual meeting of the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs, for the first time in almost a decade.

There are many other areas of government activity like this, where the achievements to date have fallen far short of the pixie dust and flashy smiles promises of just a year ago. They should have galvanised the largest Opposition ever into clinically exposing, as a first step towards  deposing, the government. Instead, National, for now, has embarked on a bitter, internal struggle from which there will be no winners. It owes the country far better than that.

Meanwhile, petrol prices and household costs will continue to rise; unlawful psychoactive substances will continue to kill those using them; and, there will be still be those sleeping out at night. Expressions of profound concern and compassion, alongside the smiles, will not stay enough to overcome these.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

In the wake of its greatest triumph to date, the Coalition Government is about to face its greatest challenge. And one will have been the cause of the other.

The far better than expected Budget surplus figures certainly came as a surprise, but may well be short-lived and more a product of the previous Government’s stewardship, rather than anything the current administration has done. Be that as it may, there is nonetheless little doubt that they come as huge fillip to a Government whose economic management has been under so much criticism. While the Government will understandably seek to milk every ounce of political advantage it can from this happy situation, as it should, Ministers will be well aware of the need to manage and downplay wider expectations of what this might mean.

Even as affable and laid back a Finance Minister as the current one knows that igniting public expectations of a new spending spree would be both economically disastrous and near certainly unattainable, and consequently a monumental political blunder. Especially so, since this self-proclaimed “Government of kindness” has already increased substantially its spending, with the promise of even more to come, while ongoing decisions about how it all is to be paid for are left dangling. After all, ultimately, there is nothing kind about a Government that outspends its capability, and leaves its people struggling to cope when the inevitable retrenchment occurs. So, Mr Robertson and his more economically literate colleagues, although by no means all members of the Coalition one suspects, will, while smiling quietly and just a little smugly, want to let down public expectations, albeit calmly and gently, as befits the “kindness” label.

Ironically, they have been helped considerably, and rather unintentionally, in their efforts to do so by the raw crudity and selfishness of their allies in the teachers’ unions, immediately and loudly laying claim to a fair chunk of the new surplus to settle their current salary claims. Now, this is not to dispute the legitimacy of their claims and their rights to pursue them through the already established channels, but more to make the point that leaping in so quickly to put their fingers on the money, as they did, was a mighty strategic error that has three impacts. First, it makes it much easier for the Government to now push back, as they already have done, citing the “no new lolly scramble” argument to send a wider signal of restraint. Second, it makes it actually a little more difficult for the Government to be seen to be too generous when a settlement with the teachers is eventually reached; and third, it runs a risk of alienating some of the considerable public support the teachers currently enjoy, if they are now seen to have become too pushy.

Beyond the teachers, there are of course many other groups who will be eyeing up a part of the surplus for their interests, and the Government will be well aware of this. So it will be equally determined to send them a "kind" but firm message that its purse strings are not for additional loosening. None of this will be an easy sell, especially if the surplus figures hold up longer than expected, so it will require nerves of steel from the top downwards to continue the line currently embarked upon, and that will impose its own challenges.

Former Finance Minister Sir Michael Cullen correctly and somewhat ruefully observed a number of years ago that managing Budget surpluses was a far more difficult task than managing deficits. When the Budget is in deficit, it is much easier for the Finance Minister just to say no to everything, however meritorious, because the money is simply not there. But in surplus times, the focus comes much more onto the quality and overall value of the new spending being proposed, and that requires Ministers to make some very strong judgements. In such circumstances, the admirable virtue of "kindness" is often not enough.

A tough reality this Government is about to find out. 

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Over the last few weeks there have been three subtle but deliberate moves from New Zealand First which, while on the face of it are apparently unrelated, nonetheless, when taken together amount to a significant attempt to limit diversity and debate in New Zealand. In their own way, each is consistent with that Party's long held, unstated  ambition of returning New Zealand to the type of insular, homogeneous, conformist society it was in the days when Rob's Mob held sway.

The so-called "waka jumping" legislation came first. Ostensibly, this legislation is about  upholding the electoral will of the people by preventing MPs who leave their parties during the Parliamentary term from remaining in the House, and so preserving the electoral status quo. In reality, the initiative has two real objectives: first, straightjacketing New Zealand First MPs from rebelling and splitting from the party, as an earlier bunch did when the 1996-98 coalition with National blew asunder; and, second, preventing National from establishing a new support partner by mandating one or more of its current MPs to split off to establish such a party.

But it also has a more sinister aspect. It makes the party leader all powerful in terms of a party's MPs. As the New Zealand First leader is now the dominant leader of the government, it effectively makes all government MPs responsible to him, not their own parties and most certainly not the electorate which elected them. The chilling consequence of this is that it effectively stamps out all prospect of serious internal dissent, or even debate, and the expression of alternative political views. MPs will therefore be reduced to the status of mere ciphers, pallidly toeing the party line, and eschewing any independence or diversity.

Yet our Parliament is not called the House of Ciphers, nor the House of Delegates. It is properly and deliberately titled the House of Representatives, where MPs are expected to debate fearlessly and without prejudice the issues of the day. (Indeed, one of the first steps every new Speaker takes is to symbolically lay claim to the rights and privileges of Members to do  so.) The "waka jumping" legislation is a clear constraint on the ability of MPs to do their job and represent their constituents effectively, as well as on the conscience of MPs to leave their party if they feel it has moved in a direction they can no longer support, and to leave it to the electorate to judge them at the next election.

Then, at their party conference at the weekend, New Zealand First members supported a proposed Bill to require new migrants to sign up to a set of pre-determined New Zealand values, and presumably be required to leave the country or forfeit their residence status if they will not do so, or breach them subsequently. This has eerie overtones of dark, earlier times when countries have attempted to impose national values on a population and exclude those who failed to comply, and is a direct affront to modern, diverse, tolerant New Zealand. In fact, the only requirement we should impose on new residents is the one we impose on ourselves - to abide at all times by the rule of law. In a democratic society, there is no place for the state attempting to define or legislate the values of that society, save for the universal right to freedom of belief and expression.

Now, this week, New Zealand First is speculating about changing the electoral system by "reviewing" (in reality, tightening) some of the threshold requirements in particular. That immediately raises the point that changes to electoral law should come at the behest of the public, not be driven by any particular political party. So people should be extremely wary of the real motives of politicians abruptly and arbitrarily promoting changes to the way MPs are elected. Moreover, any changes should err on the side of extending the opportunities for the representation of diverse political views, rather than limiting them. 

Taken together, limiting the ability of MPs to speak out and challenge their party leaders if they feel they are wrong; tightening up the electoral system to make the representation of minority views more difficult; and, then defining the values new residents are expected to uphold are a comprehensive assault on the underpinnings of the tolerant, diverse, liberal society we take for granted. They should be rejected, completely, loudly and immediately.