Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for April 1, brought to you by Stewart, Alex and Josie. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
3.25pm: Process to strip Ron Brierley of his knighthood initiated
Following today’s news that New Zealand corporate raider Sir Ron Brierley has plead guilty to three counts of possession of child sexual abuse material, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has begun the process of removing his knighthood. A spokesperson for the prime minister said “there is a process for forfeiture, and the prime minister has asked for this to be initiated.”
There are several reasons an honour can be removed, one of which includes “disgraceful conduct such that public opinion would consider it wrong for the offender to hold a Royal honour (bringing the honours system into disrepute)”. Several prominent public figures, including National MP Simon Bridges, have called for the removal of Brierley’s knighthood.
If Ardern proceeds with recommending forfeiture she will need to advise the Queen, who has final approval.
2.30pm: The economy is bouncing back fast as the Beehive finalises its next budget
Justin Giovannetti reports:
Another updated forecast from the Treasury shows that New Zealand’s economy, once again, is doing better than expected. That might start turning into a problem soon for finance minister Grant Robertson.
Treasury’s updates have shown a nearly unanimously improving economic picture since the country left the first Covid-19 lockdown. Consumers immediately went back to shopping and made confident by soaring house prices, the country’s homeowners opened their wallets. As a result, New Zealand’s economy is bouncing back like a Queenstown bungy.
What was expected to be an economy-crushing downturn instead has just been the worst recession in the country’s history. Unemployment only went up to 4%, not the double digits once expected and seen overseas. Projections of $30 billion annual deficits from economists have instead ended up only about one-tenth of that size.
Today’s new figures, showing the crown accounts for the eight months to the end of February 2021, indicate that government revenues are up 4% from a forecast released in December, while spending has barely budged. Corporate taxes are up nearly 12% above projections, while the country’s debt levels are below what was expected, currently at 32.6% of GDP.
Next month, Robertson is going to release the first budget under the Labour-dominated parliament. He’ll be facing demands for help from the country’s councils, some of which are currently proposing the highest rates increases in decades to rebuild decrepit infrastructure.
Groups across society who need the government to do more, will also be looking to Robertson. The country’s child poverty rates are some of the highest amongst wealthy nations while rheumatic fever cases are spiking despite increasing rents.
While he’ll have far more cash than he expected a few months ago, Robertson has so far shown little inclination to spend. Instead, the government is focused on reducing debt levels to about 30% of GDP, a target based more on politics than any law of economics.
1.40pm: Five new Covid-19 cases in MIQ
The Ministry of Health has reported five new cases of Covid-19 in managed isolation, and none in the community. Nine people in MIQ have now recovered.
The ministry also reports that one case previously reported positive is now being reclassified following further testing. The case is now being assessed as a historical infection. “They have been assessed as an historical infection which has been recorded in their home country, and therefore has been removed from New Zealand’s case numbers,” said the release.
For those curious about the Covid-19 vaccine’s short-term effects Dr Nikki Turner, director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre, has been doing a daily vlog on her vaccine journey.
1.15pm: Prominent corporate raider Sir Ron Brierley has plead guilty to possessing child sexual abuse material
Brierley was arrested at Sydney airport in December 2019 on multiple counts of possession of child abuse material, after border security allegedly found more than 200,000 images and 512 videos on his laptop and other electronic storage.
This morning he plead guilty to three out of 17 charges at Sydney’s Downing Centre Local Court, with some other charges being withdrawn. Brierley’s lawyers dispute the number of images that were in his possession.
The NBR rich list-er is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, with a fortune built based on finding companies with untapped value, and then stripping them. His personal life also raised red flags about the now-proven criminal conduct, with a 1990 biography noting that he undertook frequent visits to teenage sex workers in Thailand.
Sentencing will take place at the end of the month.
12.15pm: Covid-19 immigration powers to be extended
Temporary powers held by the immigration minister due to Covid-19 will be extended to May 2023.
In a release, minister Kris Faafoi said over the past year “we have had to make rapid decisions to vary visa conditions, extend expiry dates, and waive some application requirements across entire visa categories.”
“These decisions have provided more flexibility and certainty to visa holders and employers in New Zealand, and made more migrants available for industries facing labour shortages in a time when New Zealand’s Covid-19 health response needed our borders to be closed,” said Faafoi.
The powers were granted in the first place under the Immigration (COVID-19 Response) Amendment Bill, but were due to expire in May of this year. A new bill has been introduced, which is expected to be passed in May.
The powers don’t necessarily give the minister carte blanche to make decisions – rather, the scenarios have to specifically relate to Covid-19.
11.55am: New on The Spinoff: How Dr Siouxsie Wiles became the ‘Covid-lady’
Last night the microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles was named Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year – Te Pou Whakarae o Aotearoa in front of a packed crowd at the Cordis hotel in Auckland.
It came for her achievements in science communication, and the way she has shrugged off gendered critiques of her style and substance to become synonymous with calm, clear, compassionate communication which has achieved huge resonance with the New Zealand public.
Read Duncan Greive’s full piece about her remarkable twelve months here.
10.05am: Emergency managed isolation allocation criteria widened
The criteria for emergency places in managed isolation has been widened, in line with the typical applications being received.
Joint Head of Managed Isolation and Quarantine Megan Main said it is part of an effort to continuously improve the system, which has been criticised in some quarters for their emergency decisions.
“Over the last few months we’ve received applications from people who were terminally ill and wanting to return home to see loved ones, from people who were in countries where they were unsafe and from citizens from Pacific island countries who need to receive urgent medical care in New Zealand. So we have created categories for these situations so that we can more easily accommodate future applications of this nature.”
100 additional spaces will be made available each fortnight, from 250 to 350.
“Demand for space in Managed Isolation facilities is always high. The reality is that while the New Zealand border remains closed, there is finite capacity within the MIQ system to accommodate returning New Zealanders and others with immigration border exemptions. We want to get everyone home that wants to come home. But we need to do this in a safe way. For New Zealand that safe number is around 12,000 people per month,” said Main.
9.45am: House price rises slow slightly
According to the latest data from CoreLogic, the rate of house price inflation is slightly slower than what it was before – though prices are still going up at ridiculous rates.
The average nationwide dwelling price is now up to $845,491 for the last three months, up a bit under $20k from when it was last assessed in February.
However, according to Interest, “the three month increase dropped from 7.6% in February to 7.2% in March, suggesting the rate at which property values around the country are increasing has started to slow.”
Average price rises in Wellington were ahead of the national average, while in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin the price rises have been below the national average.
Interestingly, Tauranga City had the second lowest increase in the country (behind Waitomo District) with inflation of just 2.4%. However, the 12-month price rise for Tauranga was 16.2%, roughly in line with the national average.
The full data from CoreLogic can be read here.
7.55am: Mixed response to new minimum wage and benefit package
Critics of today’s minimum wage and benefits increase are being accused of scaremongering.
The minimum wage has risen to $20 an hour from today, fulfilling a key promise of the Labour-led government under Jacinda Ardern. Today also sees main benefit and superannuation levels rise, as well as the amount people can earn before their benefit reduces.
The package has received a positive response from those most likely to benefit – low income workers – but is facing criticism from some business groups and opposition politicians.
Employers and Manufacturers Association policy director Alan McDonald told RNZ the increase in the minimum wage will be an extra burden for businesses. “When you look at the cumulative effects, you’ve got the minimum wage, you’ve got the Matariki public holiday, you’ve got five days [extra] sick leave, fair pay agreements – it’s quite a burden on employers at probably precisely the wrong time.”
He added: “A lot of businesses are on the brink, you know, there’s not much left in the finger nail department, and I just think just pause, draw breath give business time.”
Act’s David Seymour agreed, saying those most targeted by the package will suffer as a result. “It will affect decision making by employers. They will decide to employ fewer people than they otherwise would have, to invest less, and to raise prices for their customers,” he said.
However, those who will directly benefit from the extra money are praising the decision and asking critics to walk a mile in their shoes. Minimum wage worker Rose, speaking to RNZ’s Morning Report programme, said that she loves to work despite being on the minimum wage – but the extra money will make sure she can pay for things like rent.
Richard Wagstaff from the Council of Trade Unions also criticised those opposing the package for scaremongering. “The evidence doesn’t support that. Minimum wage increases in New Zealand haven’t resulted in less jobs, in fact the reverse is the experience,” Wagstaff told RNZ.
“It’s not a simple equation but we do know that people on the minimum wage spend the money they get and they’ll put it back into the economy, and the money will go round and benefit employers.”
A note from me
Hello, Stewart here – reporting from a foggy McDonald’s carpark in Tokoroa. The live updates are a bit of a group effort today as I’m on the road but we’ll still be on top of all the biggest stories. Got feedback or anything to say? Flick us an email to email@example.com. Have a great Easter weekend!
7.30am: Top stories from The Bulletin
Perhaps it feels like we’ve been here before – like Auckland light rail is just on a circular route that endlessly loops around. But in any case, a brand new working group has been announced to spend the next six months working out how light rail will fit into Auckland’s wider transport network, where the routes will go, how it could be funded – basically all the questions that appeared to be being answered during the entire last term of government. The history of that has been covered by the NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Bernard Orsman. I asked at the press conference how much the whole exercise had cost to go nowhere – alas, no figure was forthcoming.
Transport minister Michael Wood justified the whole new process on the grounds that the previous process had “shut out” too many people in Auckland. “Today I’m drawing a line under that and involving Aucklanders from the get-go,” Wood said. As our live updates reports, any certainty on cost and timeframe will have to wait until the end of the year, when the yet to be announced members of the working group report back. And I say certainty here, but given the history of this issue I think ‘generous estimate’ might be a more accurate description. Wood also talked at length about the wider benefits of getting light rail going, which we already knew, because we’ve been talking about it for years.
Is all of this too harsh? Perhaps. Wood made the argument that previous efforts had been stymied by coalition politics – and if you want to talk about difficult stakeholder engagement getting three parties on the same page certainly fits that bill. As the NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Simon Wilson writes, this reset has the potential to finally put momentum behind it all again, with a huge potential upside for the city. And for Wood personally, this is a make or break moment. And as Wilson points out, this is a make or break moment for Wood personally – his career basically depends on getting real progress made by the next election.
In reaction to the announcement, Auckland mayor Phil Goff has welcomed the new working group as long overdue, reports Stuff. The Greens are also pleased, though their release focused much more on the benefits of light rail, rather than the process. National, by contrast, hit out at the government for wasting years and “millions of dollars” over the course of the project, reports Newshub. And Generation Zero made a call for light rail progress to be accelerated, through the diversion of funds currently earmarked for roading projects. As a youth-focused group, the members of Gen Zero might one day get to ride the trains, if they’re ever actually built.
A wide range of legislative changes are coming into effect today that could have an impact on your pocket. Jihee Junn has covered them off – they include a rise in the minimum wage to $20 an hour, a small increase to core benefits and a potentially more significant change to how much beneficiaries can earn before they see deductions. The top tax rate is also going up – for those lucky souls on $180,000 a year or more, the marginal tax rate will now be 39% for income above that threshold.