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National is cloning Labour’s identity and other lessons from its weekend conference

Sure, Alfred Ngaro screwed up royally – but there was a lot more to the National party conference this weekend. Steven Joyce let a budget secret slip, Paula Bennett stole the show, and the party revealed its 10 point plan to shut down Labour, writes Simon Wilson. 

“I can’t tell you how proud I am,” Bill English told the northern regional conference of the National Party over the weekend, “about the pay rise that 55,000 care workers are going to get.” It’s the biggest pay rise in New Zealand history, it will go to a low-paid and overwhelmingly female workforce, and English was stoked.

“We worked on that for two-and-a-half years,” he said, as if equal pay had always been the government’s goal and the case had taken so long only because they’d had to persuade everyone else to agree.

I imagine that if any of those 55,000 women or their union negotiators had been in the room, that would have been the point where they started throwing things.

No doubt Bill English is proud of the achievement. Now. But the reason the agreement took so long is that his government – while he was minister of finance and then prime minister – resisted every step of the way.

Steven Joyce was asked to give Paula Bennett advice on which shoes to buy (Photo: Simon Wilson)

It was one of a number of revealing moments which are being obscured by the fallout from Alfred Ngaro’s foolish comments – all of which deserve more scrutiny than they’re currently getting. One such came from Steven Joyce, addressing the conference as minister of finance for the first time. Asked from the floor why the government didn’t introduce a commuter rail link from Hamilton to Auckland, he said he didn’t think there was a case for it. The last time he’d looked at it, he said, when he was minister of transport (that is, before 2011), it would have been cheaper to fly the passengers by helicopter.

Which is funny, but it wasn’t true then and it certainly isn’t true now. Besides, what an idiotic thing for a minister of finance to say when he’s just finished a speech boasting about his government’s commitment to good infrastructure.

But then he seemed to reveal a budget item. He said he was more interested in extending the electrification of the rail line into Hunua, by which he meant the National-held Hunua electorate that stretches around the Bombay Hills. In other words, Pukekohe. Joyce doesn’t say things like that randomly. Electrification to Pukekohe is already on the government’s 10-year plan. Hot tip: watch for an early date and financial commitment in the budget on May 25.

But maybe the most interesting thing to happen in politics this weekend was this list, presented to a major party political conference by a high-ranking MP:

  1. People living in warmer, drier homes.
  2. Grants for first-home buyers.
  3. Better healthcare.
  4. More paid parental leave.
  5. More jobs and higher incomes.
  6. Benefits raised to help children and others in hardship.
  7. More police to keep communities safer.
  8. Putting more money in your pockets.
  9. Breakfasts in schools.
  10. Better education for our children.

Over the weekend, while National’s northern region was meeting in Auckland, the Labour Party was also holding its election-year congress in Wellington. The above list was presented to one of those conferences by a senior party member.

It wasn’t aired in Wellington. The list was reeled off by education minister Nikki Kaye. It’s her 10-point list of accomplishments by the government.

English watches the action from the wings (Photo: Simon Wilson)

There’s just so much to say about this.

To start, that’s a Labour agenda, isn’t it? A government with a special focus on the least well off, social policy that makes a difference, the state actively engaged in improving people’s lives because it ain’t gonna happen any other way? Isn’t that Labour?

Well, National begs to differ. At that convention they barely talked about the economy. Take finance minister Steven Joyce’s speech making the case for a strong economy out of it, and every other presentation and discussion was focused on social policy. The issues in the spotlight all weekend were health, housing and crime – particularly in relation to aggravated robbery of retail outlets in the poorer suburbs of Auckland. Even prime minister Bill English, when it came time for his speech, used social policy achievements rather than financial ones to make his points.

Mark this. National’s strategy to win the election this year is to mount an offensive aimed straight at the heart of Labour. The old idea was: National = safe economic management; Labour = cares about people; Greens = cares about the environment and the planet.

National wants that “cares about people” brand now. Actually, it may want the clean and green brand too. Science and innovation minister Paul Goldsmith told the convention he didn’t think the party talked enough about what he calls “the New Zealand experience”, which meant several things, first and foremost being our wonderful environment.

Coming in the same week as yet another damning report on water quality, this was another of those comments that would have had a different audience throwing things. But you can’t say they’re not brazen and you can’t deny that if you say something often enough in politics, a lot of people will start to believe it.

(This rebranding process has a parallel on the other side, too: the Budget Responsibility Rules agreed on by Labour and the Greens are designed to promote their credentials as safe economic managers.)

Just wait till you see the budget: Steven Joyce will go to town on social policy initiatives.

Does Nikki Kaye’s list stack up? In some ways it does. It’s true that National has announced funding for more police, for example, and it did extend paid parental leave. It did also roll out a programme for warmer, drier homes. And so on. But do those simple facts disguise a larger story? National cut police numbers when it came to power and its new policy coat-tails on Labour’s, which was announced earlier and is for a larger increase. National was dragged reluctantly to the parental leave agreement, as it was for the care workers’ agreement, by skilful negotiators at unions and others. The warmer, drier homes programme is a Green Party initiative adopted by the government.

It is unequivocally true that there are more jobs. English and Joyce both spoke of New Zealand’s “outstanding job figures”: 10,000 new jobs created every month for the last 18 months. Joyce said we have the highest rate of employment among the adult population in the OECD, and 78.9 percent of the jobs are fulltime. In Australia, it’s 68.3 percent.

But they didn’t mention the other part of Kaye’s claim: higher wages. New Zealand does not have a high wage economy and we’re not heading there anytime soon. Across great swathes of the economy the minimum wage is now the inescapable norm; meanwhile, over the last 20 years CEO salaries have grown from 11 times the average wage to 19 times. The New Zealand economy is structured to avoid it becoming high-wage, and your boss probably gets a bonus to help keep it that way.

Alfred Ngaro stole the show – but behind his comments there were many more storylines (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Never mind, National has a message and we’re going to hear it a lot: they are the party with a heart. English himself used three examples at the core of his speech: higher rates of achievement in schools; Māori immunisation rates which are now as high as Pakeha; slashed waiting times in hospital emergency departments. All three are true.

Social housing minister Alfred Ngaro got into trouble for making a speech in which he seemed to threaten Mangere marae leader (and Labour candidate) Willie Jackson, and Alan Johnson from the Salvation Army, with funding cuts if they didn’t stop criticising the government.

In addition to the obvious problem of a cabinet minister making statements like that, Ngaro said something else about Johnson that was also a worry. He was “surprised” to discover Johnson “didn’t even know about half the things the government is doing”. This isn’t credible: Johnson is one of the most knowledgeable experts in the sector and is likely to know more about government programmes than the newbie minister. I suspect Ngaro had naïvely misread Johnson’s politeness (“Oh no minister, do tell me more.”), and that comment, along with the “threat”, suggests he is patronising the sector rather than taking it seriously.

This was the northern region conference. That’s Auckand and Northland. Did they produce an Auckland strategy? Nope. A major urban policy of any kind? Nope. That was astonishing.

English said it was now conceivable to think of a four-lane motorway from Whangarei to Matamata: as his sole contribution on transport, in this city, it was staggeringly irrelevant.

Steven Joyce defended the current high immigration settings as being essential to economic growth and, by implication, beyond debate. His list of key infrastructure was, in order: roads, ultra-fast broadband, railways, electricity transmission and rebuilding hospitals.

The whole convention was the Paula Bennett show, at which English and Joyce seemed to be making guest appearances. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Paula Bennett talked in the session on crime about how worried she was about P. There were several Indian businesspeople in attendance, but the moderator, Pakuranga candidate Simeon Brown, was apparently unable to see them. The questions he took from the floor were almost entirely from the white folk in the room.

Another hot budget tip: there will not be a rethink for Auckland.

But they are very pleased with the leader. There were ritualised mentions of the name John Key, but English is their guy now. He has a warm personality when he’s among friends, he’s not afraid of making jokes and he impresses with sincerity. He’s a personable leader and it won’t be long before he works out how to present that on TV.

Mind you, he’s not a patch on his deputy. The whole convention was the Paula Bennett show, at which English and Joyce seemed to be making guest appearances. It’s effortless for her now, the way her personality dominates a crowd. She laughs at English because his jokes are dad jokes. On the Saturday she even called him “adorable”, although he wasn’t there at the time.

She’s the good time girl you want at your party , but she lets you know she’ll cut you down in a flash if you get on her bad side. At the end of Steven Joyce’s speech she got up and asked a question.

“I’m having trouble deciding which shoes to buy,” she told him. “The dark blue or the light blue?”

The options, with a $950 price tag, flashed up on the screen behind him. Then she flashed up the sales docket, which suggested she’d bought the shoes using his credit card.

If politics aren’t going your way, in election year, you don’t go anywhere near jokes like that. Way too dangerous. But Paula Bennett wasn’t worried about that, and nor was Steven Joyce, and nor was National.


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