I’ve never seen such tumult in NZ politics, writes National Party cabinet minister Wayne Mapp, but what matters most remains policy – how are the alternative governments likely to proceed in five key areas?
I cannot recall a time in New Zealand politics of such change and turmoil. Perhaps the closest would be Sir Robert Muldoon’s decision to have an early election in 1984. His whisky fuelled announcement still remains one of the most memorable moments in our country’s electoral history.
In a matter of weeks the left has been revolutionised. Labour is energised at a level not seem for many years, with new leaders evoking more than a hint of charisma, and offering the prospect of New Zealand’s youngest Prime Minister in living memory. The Green crisis meanwhile deepens. One of their more respected members of parliament, Dr Kennedy Graham, resigned in despair. Yesterday’s Colmar Brunton poll would see them missing out on parliament altogether.
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Amid such a welter of change there are actual policies to be discussed. Maybe policy will after all become the most important factor in this election, maybe it won’t. But either way, policy is what governments actually do.
So what will the two likeliest governments actually do? If you believe that Winston Peters will be the lynchpin to any coalition, then what he thinks will affect either alternative. This suggests the comparison is National-plus-New-Zealand-First against Labour-plus-NZ-First-plus-Green. As a result of their recent nightmarish spell, the Green element is likely to be weakened, and the prospect of a Labour-NZ-First arrangement without the Greens is now a possibility, but a three-party deal remains, for now, a likelier outcome.
Of course governments do many things, but not all of them influence the decisions of voters. So let’s look at five big five policy areas: taxes, welfare, immigration, infrastructure and climate change.
The comparison is made easier by the Labour/Green Fiscal Responsibility Rules. They limit what a centre-left government can do. Jacinda Ardern has made it clear she will essentially stick by the rules, which perhaps forms part of her pragmatic idealism.
On taxes, it is pretty clear what a National-NZF government would do. Essentially it will be the tax package of the 2017 budget. So a tax cut for everyone from 1 April 2018. Plus an increase in Accommodation Supplement and Working for Families. Will there be further tax cuts, perhaps in the year before the 2020 election? The surplus is likely to be large enough to permit a significant tax cut.
A centre-left government may not be that much different. Both NZ First and the Greens voted for the government’s tax and Working for Families package. They will be unwilling to unwind that. But a further tax cut is highly unlikely. All the predicted surpluses will be spent on new government programmes. That is a difference of several billion dollars, about 6 billion in 2020 alone.
How big a difference will there be in welfare? National has managed to surprise us in the past. It is quite possible that a National-NZ-First coalition could increase basic benefits perhaps by as much as $50 per week in the next three years. A centre-left alternative government would be expected to do more, especially in social housing. All three parties would readily buy into that. But one thing will not happen. The Green aspiration of an accountability free welfare system is dead on arrival. Neither Labour nor NZ First would agree to such a policy. The events of recent days guarantee that.
Immigration is easy. Under either alternative government there will be less of it, though almost certainly that reduction will be more pronounced in a centre-left government.
The choices in infrastructure are interesting. In fact, apart from the dramatic personality choice for prime minister, this could be the infrastructure election. While there is some similarity between the two choices, the major difference is rail, especially in urban centres.
On the National-NZF side there will be a dual track strategy, with a substantial regional roading programme, coupled with a commitment to rail to Marsden Point and perhaps Gisborne. National’s programme for Auckland would happen virtually unchanged, with the Northwest busway, a third rail track and various roading projects in South Auckland.
The centre-left alternative would have influences from all three parties. As NZ First would require of National, it will expect a firm commitment to the existing motorway plans to Wellsford, along with rail to Marsden Point. There is an opportunity, potentially open to both alternate governments, for the Auckland container port to be shifted to Marsden Point. The Greens would have to accept that this means major improvements to SH1 to Northland. Labour and the Greens will be able to bank their commitments to urban rail. NZ First may be more road friendly, but they have little heft in the main centres.
Climate change presents interesting choices. So far, National has been cautious about making too many commitments that would materially affect the farming and industrial sectors. Will this change?
NZ First is also reliant on provincial and rural support. Anything done about farm emissions will have to be a carrot, not a stick policy. NZ First will be much more enthusiastic about a state lead and funded afforestation policy, especially if it involves iwi. National would have no reason to resist this. If the scale is large enough, it could result in New Zealand becoming carbon neutral.
Expect more ambitious climate change goals from a centre-left governing bloc. The Greens would be indifferent if this seriously harms the farming sector. But Labour, and especially New Zealand First, will not be so prosaic at such a prospect. The result will be massive taxpayer funding to both accelerate a move to carbon neutrality, and to alleviate the disruptive economic effects.
The interesting aspect of climate change policy, including fresh water, is the extent to which the traditional ideological divide will prevail. There could be a real prospect, as advocated by Derek Handley, that National could see this as an arena where it has to be more competitive, and therefore would spend enough money to make this possible.
Despite all this discussion about policy, will this even matter?
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Will the Jacinda factor be so great that policy issues are relegated? Certainly at the moment voters are focused on the interviews of Ardern on television and radio. That is less about the actual policy discussion and more about her confidence and authority. Will this pattern continue for the next few weeks?
For Bill English to combat that, he will want to remind people that policy matters, because that is what governments actually do. This message will only get through if he convinces the voters that he has new and interesting things to do, while also conveying an aura of safety and stability.
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