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OPINIONPoliticsJuly 14, 2020

Seven ideas to make the 2020 election a true contest of ideas

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If there’s any time for ambitious, agenda-setting policy ideas, it’s now, write Max Harris and Laura O’Connell Rapira. Here are seven suggestions that might just transform New Zealand for the better.

In a pre-budget speech, finance minister Grant Robertson said it was time to “address long-term issues”, but then when the budget was released, it was criticised for failing to tackle problems crying out for solutions. So as the country’s attention turns towards the September election and the parties finalise their manifestos, what are the ideas that need to be debated in this campaign cycle?

For the Labour Party, this is an opportunity to put forward a second-term manifesto that turns the rhetoric of “transformative government” into a reality. The major positive legacies of the last Labour-led government were the creation or restoration of public institutions that would endure beyond a single term, including Kiwibank and KiwiRail. This is a moment when Jacinda Ardern’s government can decide what it wants to be remembered for, beyond well-deserved plaudits for effective crisis management.

But it’s important for all parties that this election is a contest of ideas. National leader Todd Muller has been challenged for failing to detail a plan for economic recovery, having promised “a suite of policies” before the election. The Green Party, whose polling has hovered around the 5% threshold, will need to differentiate itself from Labour to return to parliament. As we finished this article, the Greens had made a good start on social security, income tax, and ACC reform, prompting meaningful debate about the state of our tax and welfare system. Other small parties seeking to gain a foothold in a post-Covid Parliament will need to offer programmes or perspectives that aren’t getting discussed at the moment.

Here are seven areas of ambitious action we’d like to see on the 2020 election agenda.

Members of the public hold flags as Navy ships sail into the Waitematā Harbour as part of the fleet entry to celebrate the Royal New Zealand Navy’s 75th Birthday in Auckland on November 16, 2016. (Image: Michael Bradley/AFP/Getty Images)

Constitutional transformation 

The chaotic passing of the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act under urgency, containing significant police powers, exposed a constitutional framework that is not working as it should be. And this is nothing new. In recent years, New Zealand governments have taken action that has over-reached or endangered rights, with few safeguards in the way. Think the Foreshore and Seabed Act, or Canterbury earthquake legislation, or the Urewera raids.

Constitutional change doesn’t have to be just a dry legalistic activity. It can also be a positive opportunity. It can be a chance to put in place institutions and processes that reflect New Zealand’s identities, cultures, and commitments. The report of Matike Mai Aotearoa, coordinated by Moana Jackson and Margaret Mutu, represents the most exciting proposals we have seen. It sets out concrete ways to give effect to He Whakaputanga (the 1835 Declaration of Independence) and the 1840 Tiriti o Waitangi, based on over 250 hui from around the country. It proposes three spheres of authority in a new constitutional model: a kawanatanga (government) sphere involving the Crown, a rangatiratanga sphere recognising ongoing Māori sovereignty, and a relational sphere. Published in 2016, it called for a Tiriti Convention in 2021, led by Māori. A political party going into the 2020 election could say it is committed to engaging with this convention, on the foundations set by the Matike Mai Aotearoa report.

A Ministry of Secure Green Jobs and a green investment bank

The economy will also be central in election debates, as dozens of countries enter a recession in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis. How can New Zealand respond to the inevitable hit to sectors like tourism and higher education, while keeping an eye on the long-term? It will require strategic investment, going beyond the more ad hoc approach of the Provincial Growth Fund. It requires creative thinking about where New Zealand wants its digital sector, or manufacturing, or renewable energy to be by 2030, and careful planning about how we get there, including an awareness of how past trade agreements might get in the way of that investment. A dual mission could be built into strategic investment: job creation and decarbonisation, to support getting people into work in the coming months and to contribute to the global imperative of reducing fossil fuel emissions. This could be New Zealand’s Green New Deal, building on the work of the Sunrise Movement in America and The Leap’s global-focused People’s Bailout.

Māori food producer Wakatū uses technology to make high value products, but it also helps the company take care of the environment. (Image: supplied)

A new ministry could focus on green infrastructure that is publicly owned, including renewable energy, full-fibre broadband, and public transport. Rather than harking back to the past by calling it a Ministry of Works, this could be a Ministry of Secure Green Jobs for the 21st century, employing people on good wages and conditions. The ministry could model a different approach to power-sharing and the constitution. The government could partner with hapū and iwi to deliver appropriate projects, learning from past wrongs done by the Ministry of Works on and to Māori land. This would result in better decisions and projects for all of us. As well, in the tino rangatiratanga sphere (or sphere of Māori sovereignty) parallel funding and authority could be provided to hapū and iwi as part of giving effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Setting up a new department in this way would be a way of valuing construction and trades work.

A flagship project for this Ministry of Secure Green Jobs could be mass state housing-building, going beyond the 8000 announced at the budget to a goal of at least 18,000 to address the current waitlist, designed in partnership with cutting-edge New Zealand architects and in an energy efficient way. To support businesses, a green investment bank could be set up with government putting in initial funding. This could have a focus on creating employment and decarbonising the economy. The German National Investment Bank, KfW, was key in boosting solar energy innovation. It could provide much-needed funding to innovative New Zealand projects and enterprises.

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Strengthening our social infrastructure

There is a risk that investment in shovel-ready physical infrastructure benefits occupations over-represented by men, and neglects care work and our social infrastructure. Political parties could commit to addressing longstanding issues of pay and conditions in elderly care work, including through promised Fair Pay Agreements. Workers in care environments have to show enormous patience, emotional intelligence, and skill, often under difficult conditions. Arguably any party can show kindness in governing by committing to lift pay for those doing this vital care work. Caring work is typically low-carbon work: caring jobs are green jobs.

Perhaps we need bolder conversations, too – about integrating the care sector and health sector, to ensure there aren’t holes in our health service towards the end of people’s lives. Another neglected area of our health service is dentistry: this could be made part of our public health service through a commitment to restoring free dentistry. There are associations between dental care and rheumatic fever, still a major problem in New Zealand, after a spike in cases in May. Guaranteeing free dentistry could demonstrate a commitment to expand the public services available to all in New Zealand free-at-the-point-of-use. A recent ActionStation survey of over 1,000 low-waged workers and people on benefits revealed free dentistry as the number one policy that would help respondents most financially.

Widening access to public services must also include a commitment to disability justice. Lockdown has taught us all that a stronger commitment to disability justice might have made our cities and communities more liveable for everyone before Covid-19; there is no excuse now not to build this into every aspect of thinking about designing public services for the future. The prime minister said she wanted to lead a government “that brings back manaakitanga”. If manaakitanga underpinned the systems that govern our lives, disabled people would not have to wait for a pandemic to get changes that many have been demanding over decades, including increased access to working and learning remotely, as well as reliable food delivery services.

If the government had listened to disabled people and built a physically inclusive and accessible society, we also would have been better prepared for living in Covid-19 lockdown. For example, if gaps between store aisles were wider, as they are meant to be for wheelchair users and others, everyone would have found physical distancing easier. The same goes for footpaths.

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Rethinking social security

With unemployment likely to rise significantly, there is also an urgent need for an agenda for those not in work. There is widespread agreement that the $250-a-week Jobseeker Support payment is not enough to live on, with many arguing that the government’s new higher income support payment for those losing jobs because of Covid-19 is a sign that it recognises the inadequacy of Jobseeker Support levels.

Jobseeker Support was boosted by $25 a week at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, but the Welfare Expert Advisory Group – hardly a set of wide-eyed radicals – recommended a $100 a week increase for the Jobseeker Support single rate. Implementing that recommendation could be a chance for the Labour Party to redress what it left out of the 2020 Budget. For the National Party, which did lift benefits in government, this could be an opportunity to demonstrate that it acknowledges the needs of people living in poverty. National leader Todd Muller has said he would continue to increase investment in the welfare safety net. Individualising all benefits would be a sensible reform alongside this commitment, which matches Muller’s commitment to self-determination for individuals.

The Green Party has acted already, promising a $325 a week guaranteed minimum income, which still may not be enough for many to live on in a country like ours with high housing and food costs, but seems to be a move in the right direction. Any changes need to be accompanied by reforms to housing policy, so that increased benefits are not simply passed on to landlords.

Other asks in social security have been given prominence by advocates such as Auckland Action Against Poverty, Susan St John, and Chloe-Ann King. The social security system should be brought into the 21st century by ending the current penalisation of people on benefits. Access to benefits should be open to migrants, who contribute to society and should not be allowed to fall into destitution because of their citizenship. Finally, we should call the system what it is: “social security” or “income support” – a form of support that society should be proud to give to assist those in need.

The Māori Language Petition of more than 30,000 signatures calling for the teaching of te reo in schools is brought to Parliament, 1972.

Universal te reo Māori

Training and retraining opportunities must be available as New Zealand navigates its way through the fallout from Covid-19, but there is also a need for educational investment that reflects our country’s unique position in the world. Integrating te reo Māori into the national curriculum and making it available to everyone would be an example of that investment. We know that learning te reo Māori makes people more adept at learning other languages, and it would help to deepen understanding of New Zealand history, which is to be increasingly taught in New Zealand schools. Many high schools are already implementing te reo Māori curriculums; a government commitment to te reo Māori in all schools at all levels would ensure consistent learning for everyone.

To ensure it is not just younger generations benefitting, the government could fund adult education in te reo Māori, through iwi, local councils, community groups, trade unions. Te reo Māori should be taught in context, with an understanding of its links to colonisation and decolonisation. This would support ongoing debates about relocating or removing statues of imperialist figures, and adding public holidays like Matariki that recognise New Zealand’s history and values. It would also avoid rifts growing between a younger generation that may learn te reo Māori and New Zealand history, and an older generation that has not had access to that same education.

Māori could determine collectively how funding is allocated for universal te reo Māori to ensure the language thrives. If there are concerns about sufficient teachers, universal te reo Māori could be phased in over time, with access for Māori prioritised, so that teaching is high quality. What is important is that a commitment is made and a plan adopted.

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Public transport for all 

As a result of the pandemic, New Zealanders have had a taste of free public transport. Greater Wellington Regional Council made all trains and buses free until the end of June. In Auckland, no charges were imposed for buses, trains, and ferries, although passenger use was monitored with the expectation that only essential workers would use it. Even though this was a time of reduced demand, this experiment showed that a world of free public transport is not an impossible fantasy. It could be feasible, with political will and proper funding. That was confirmed when Luxembourg committed to free public transport for its population in late 2018, which it said would save money on collecting fares and policing ticket purchases. Luxembourg is smaller than New Zealand, with a population of around 600,000 (though more commute through Luxembourg daily because of its shared borders with Belgium, Germany, and France). But it shows that a country can make universal public transport its mission.

In New Zealand, making public transport free would be easier to deliver with council-administered bus companies alongside public rail and ferries. It would also, clearly, come at a cost to government, which we discuss further below. But it would reduce emissions, save people money in petrol bills, support people getting to work or to job interviews, and improve air quality and pollution. It could be a flagship commitment – a new universal basic service of which all New Zealanders could be proud.

Striking teachers wait for a bus to take them to a rally on August 15, 2018 in Auckland. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

Supporting rights at work

Covid-19 has reminded us that it is workers (including unpaid care workers) that sustain our lives in a community. Essential workers have kept supermarkets open, transport running, public services operating. It’s time now to put an end to offensive distinctions between “low-skilled” and “high-skilled” work and to do what we can to give people the security at work they need. During this crisis many workers have rediscovered the importance of trade unions, which are able to represent members in difficult moments and provide collective strength so no one is left alone to fight their corner. One way to elevate rights across the board would be for political parties in the lead-up to the 2020 election to commit to boosting unions.

A nudge in favour of trade unions would be to make union enrolment a default part of any employment contract, which people could opt out of if they wanted. Nearly two-thirds of New Zealanders support this move, according to a Law Foundation study. The study suggested that New Zealanders in all walks of life supported the move, including 60% of managers and 62% of employers. There is evidence that higher union membership can improve productivity, and help to secure stronger protections for workers – such as more sick leave, a priority under the spotlight in the wake of Covid-19.

Black Lives Matter March For Solidarity in Auckland on June 1, 2020 (Photo: Jihee Junn)

We haven’t discussed every area of possible policy action. In the realm of criminal justice, the Black Lives Matter uprisings have shone a light on institutional racism in New Zealand, and should prompt an ongoing rethink about the role of police (including in activities that require more dedicated mental health expertise). Many of Moana Jackson’s recommendations from his 1988 He Whaipaanga Hou report are still relevant and continue to be ignored. They should be revisited.

This is no time just to muddle through. Covid-19 has forced societies to pause and reflect all around the world on inequalities exposed by the pandemic. In ours, the pandemic has shone a light, again, on the damage done by capitalism and colonisation. It is right and democratic that political parties set out in advance of an election what they plan to do about the problems that have been exposed.

But at a time of insecurity and risk, we all need to be reassured that bold policy ideas can be delivered in a way that isn’t going to make people worse off. It is important, for example, for political parties to identify how each of the above proposals might be paid for. Some of them, such as a commitment to constitutional transformation or opt-out union membership, can be delivered at little cost. Others, such as public or social infrastructure investment, can be funded through borrowing – since it is generally acknowledged by economists that we can borrow to invest, with certain investments paying for themselves over time through increased incomes and tax revenues. But others still, including universal te reo Māori, or transformed social security, or free public transport, may need tax changes to be paid for.

Political parties should be willing to have a conversation about tax justice. The longer governments hold off on shifting our tax settings, the harder any change will ever be – and our view is that our tax system is not as progressive as it could be. Those with the broadest shoulders can afford to chip in a little more to pay for our public services, whether through slightly higher rates of income tax for those who earn higher amounts and/or a net wealth tax for the super-rich (both proposed by the Greens in their recent announcement).

These ideas are not just a wish list. They are suggestions we think could deepen our public political debate and ultimately make us better as a country. Getting political parties to commit to them, much less implement them, will not be easy. It will require challenging vested interests, including those opposed to expanding trade union rights, those who might be initially resistant to wider te reo Māori teaching, and embedded ideas about social security and the role of government. It will require organising to make the positive case for these changes, as well as holding politicians to account. It’ll be up to us in the weeks and months ahead.

Thanks to Anna Sturman, Anne Waapu, and Natalie Jones for comments on this piece.

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