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PoliticsJanuary 20, 2021

The 10 political stories that will dominate NZ headlines this year

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The issues political editor Justin Giovannetti will be keeping an eye on in 2021 (that have nothing to do with Covid-19).

New Zealand will be busy in 2021. The border will remain closed to nearly all travellers and Covid-19 will continue to lead the news, but the country has a packed domestic agenda of issues to ponder and fix. Beyond Covid-19, which we’ll deal with in a separate story, this is a checklist for readers and leaders about what the next year holds.

Climate change: A wake-up call for Aotearoa

In the subdued language of diplomacy, the UK’s high commissioner dropped a bombshell in Wellington last year, declaring in a moment of candour that a credibility gap exists between New Zealand’s rhetoric and its action on the climate. The government’s carbon foot dragging will be unmistakably public this year.

Expect fireworks in February when the Climate Change Commission releases the first draft of the country’s emissions budgets for the next 15 years. By one government analysis, New Zealand is using more than six times its global share of carbon emissions.

Parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency in the waning days of 2020 will do nothing to make the coming debate easier. Emissions will need to come down sharply. Whether those cuts come from industry, agriculture, your home or your car, some group in society will be left with a happiness gap.

Housing: An affordable place to live

If you don’t already own a house in this country, you probably won’t any time soon. This is now one of Labour’s most pressing – and least solvable – problems.

Rents in Wellington and Auckland are approaching Manhattan levels, without the high-paying jobs to support them. Any politician who talks about the promise of a rentership society isn’t serious, unless they also want strict rent controls and a complete rethink of renter protections.

Labour has painted itself into a corner on the housing file. The prime minister has pledged to protect house prices from falling, so there won’t be a shift towards affordability this decade. She’s also turned down taxes on capital gains, so there won’t be a substantial move to favour first time buyers over investors. Kiwibuild is still a punchline. The government’s announcement of a “housing reset” is expected within weeks.

The RMA has been widely criticised as a barrier to building quality apartments in New Zealand (this one, in Point Chevalier, Auckland, was built)

The RMA: Changing how we plan and build

The Resource Management Act will be dead soon. It’s a sprawling piece of legislation that controls how New Zealanders plan and build their homes and communities, as well as protect the environment. The act has doubled in size over the past 30 years as subsequent governments have tinkered and added to it.

The RMA has been blamed for so much of what’s gone wrong in recent years: high home prices, falling productivity, rivers that aren’t fit for swimming. There’s cross-parliament agreement that a once-in-a-generation opportunity is here to completely rethink how we plan.

After a significant cabinet overhaul following the election, David Parker was left as attorney-general and in charge of the environmental portfolio. He’s now the conductor in charge of overhauling the RMA.

Managed retreat: Pulling back from sometimes angry nature

At the intersection of the RMA and climate change is something called managed retreat. The government is considering legislation that would allow some communities to wave the white flag in a warming world. The law would empower local government to project flood risks from climate change and begin planning where to stop building and where to pull back, in places where people already live in future danger.

Most governments around the world wait for disasters to strike before they think about whether to pull back. Where they don’t build taller walls to hold back the waves, one-time buyouts, court cases and long negotiations with landowners are the norm.

A law that allows for planning before homes are destroyed will be a source of serious debate and potential anger in low-lying communities that might feel abandoned, but it could also mean less death and chaos in decades to come.

Making the state more equitable for Māori

With a strong Māori presence across senior cabinet roles, Labour faces a real expectation that it will restructure a series of government agencies that have struggled to serve Māori and Pasifika communities. The riot that ended at Waikeria Prison during the first days of the year is only the tip of the iceberg.

Oranga Tamariki, the police service, corrections and the health ministry will continue to face questions about whether they can improve and create more equitable outcomes, or whether an alternative is necessary to get the state out of areas where failure is now pretty expected.

The way New Zealand’s health service is delivered is set for the biggest shakeup in decades

DHBs: Blowing up the health care system

In the midst of a global pandemic the government is moving forward with the largest health care reform in a generation. Implementing the Simpson report into the health and disability sector won’t be easy. It calls for slashing the number of DHBs by half or more, ending DHB elections, centralising much of the system under a new Health NZ authority, and creating a new Māori health service.  

Health care is one of the main things government does and rebuilding a centralised health system will take years. There will be challenges of increasingly digital records, making different systems work together, continued drug delivery and bias and racism in delivery. It’ll require a juggling act, keeping local communities happy as health governance is moved to Wellington.

Getting better local government

The country’s local councils ended the last year on a low note. Tauranga Council was sacked by the government and replaced by a commissioner after scenes of deep dysfunction. Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt was found to be struggling in an independent review while concerns were raised about all of council. Wellington’s mayor was slammed by his colleagues for helping put up a tent at Shelly Bay in protest of his own council’s decision. He later said he didn’t realise he was at a protest.

Put bluntly, code of conduct complaints are rife across the country’s councils. Those same councils are struggling to replace ageing infrastructure and serve their residents when faced with today’s problems, let alone building for a low-carbon future that is affordable and climate resilient.

Water: The Beehive is taking back the pipes  

One of the most basic things government provides is water. You turn the tap, it comes out clean and drinkable. Except for when it doesn’t. Worried about taps going dry, the Beehive is preparing for a massive shake-up.

The central government is planning to take water away from the country’s councils and turn it over to a handful of new publicly-owned agencies. After Wellington’s ‘turd taxi’, Auckland’s droughts and councils failing to plan for the future, water will be yanked free of local government. It’ll be one of the biggest changes in a generation (that word again) and will leave some councils unhappy. The bill to fix the country’s water system could be $50 billion.

Curtailing hate speech in New Zealand

Following a conclusion from the royal commission into the Christchurch terror attack, the prime minister has said she’s looking at creating new hate speech legislation. The inquiry said it should be a crime to intentionally stir up hatred against a racial or religious group.

Jacinda Ardern admitted the move will be “contentious”. National has raised an eyebrow at the idea while Act is deeply, deeply opposed. According to David Seymour, the British laws cited by the inquiry don’t allow for free or fair debate about difficult topics.

While Labour has a parliamentary majority and could easily push this through, a new law curtailing what you can say is sure to cause deep divisions if legislated along strictly partisan lines.

The biggest elephant in the Pacific: China

The foreign ministers of the US, Canada, the UK and Australia condemned China last week for using a new national security law to arrest 50 activists in Hong Kong in an attempt to squash the city’s democratic movement. New Zealand didn’t sign onto the statement from the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. The omission wasn’t missed in Washington, Ottawa, London or Canberra.

The four other members of the Five Eyes have faced repeated economic threats, the arrest of citizens and ongoing diplomatic skirmishes with China in recent years. Once a partisan issue in the US, a strong stand against China is now one of the few issues that unites Republicans and Democrats.

In response to Australian criticism last year, the Chinese blocked wine and coal imports as economic punishment. The Chinese foreign affairs spokesman then released a fake image of an Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to the throat of an Afghan child.

Foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta offered to act as an intermediary between Australia and China. The Chinese criticised New Zealand as western stooges while the Australians noted the lack of support from across the Tasman. If New Zealand sticks with a policy of being a neutral Switzerland of the South Pacific it might find itself with few friends.

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