A bunch of policy plans, we count 14, have had their names called by the reprioritiser-in-chief over the last few months. Toby Manhire puts them all on one page.
Bonfires. Guillotines. Purges. It’s hard enough to keep up with the metaphors, let alone the full suite of policies impacted by Chris Hipkins’ bread and butter revolution. The process, remember, was begun in the twilight of 2022, when Jacinda Ardern announced in a series of interviews a summer of reprioritsation – “to just pause, stand back and say, in the next 12 months what are the things we really need to prioritise, and by prioritising does it mean there are things that you then just say we don’t have the capacity within government to pursue, [that] they’re just not the most important things for us.”
Little did we know then, but it was the twilight of Ardern’s premiership, too, and in the middle of January she revealed she was reprioritising herself out of office. A blink of the eye later, it was Chris Hipkins standing in the Beehive theatrette. But the policy reprioritisation lived on. If anything, it was amplified. It came in two major tranches – or three, if you count the reinvention of Three Waters as whatever it is they’re calling it now. The government resisted calling that part-three of the reprioritisation, however. Which is just as well because it would have only have inspired someone to accordingly rebrand the reprioritisation as Three Slaughters.
Reprioritisation is an eternal task, of course, and Hipkins says to expect more in the budget next month. But will that include turfing out more work already under way? “It will be more of a business-as-usual reprioritisation process,” says Hipkins.
As good a time as any, then, to review the policies that had their names called during that process of reprioritisation. The government says they collectively will save more than a billion dollars, “for reallocation to support New Zealanders with the cost of living”, as well as saving on the more nebulous “bandwidth”. Below, they’re sorted into three categories. There’s the purged, for ideas that have been dragged onto the trash icon. There’s the punted, in which the government has essentially said: not this term, but we’ll get back into it next time, should we be re-elected. Oh, and the pruned, protracted and upholstered, for good measure. Hang in there.
Purged – the merger of TVNZ and RNZ
The sixth Labour government has been variously brilliant and terrible at doing communications. Just under Three Waters in the terrible column is the media merger. What should have been a proud banner policy cementing public service journalism and rich, local programming ended up an albatross. Somehow, no one managed to give it a McAnulty “here’s the guts”.
And so as soon as Ardern volunteered in December that it wasn’t top of the priority, the last rites were being read. It was the top of the list when Hipkins played grim policy reaper on February 8. The project, intended to take form in the middle of this year, has cost just about $20 million, but the reversal means saving just shy of $365 million across four years, said minister Willie Jackson. RNZ will receive $25.7 million more a year, while NZ On Air gets a $10 million one-off top-up.
Jackson at first indicated the merger was still an ambition, but quickly clarified that it was off the table and in the sea. He has not given up on reforms, however. Alongside the extra funding for RNZ, he is looking at the reintroduction of a TVNZ charter, a fresh board intake at the broadcaster and a broad culture change. Simon Power has announced his resignation as CEO of the broadcaster after just over a year in the role.
Purged – the biofuels mandate
Under a scheme set to have come in at the start of this month, a proportion of fuel sold in Aotearoa would have been required to be biofuel in the cause of reducing emissions. That went out the window in February. “Introducing a biofuels mandate will increase the price of fuel and, given the pressure on households, that’s not something that I’m prepared to do at this time,” said Hipkins. As to the impact on the emissions budget, he said: “We’ve got work to do to identify how we fill the hole that’s created by the decision around biofuels, and we’ll do that with haste.”
The plan had encountered various practical problems and was not expected to have a massive impact on emissions. The Greens, who had claimed the policy as a victory in 2021, didn’t raise objection to its demise, but that was before the next round of policy purges, with its unmistakable green shadow.
Purged – the clean-car upgrade scheme
Not to be confused with the clean-car discount, the upgrade scheme – aka “cash for clunkers” – was designed to get lower- and middle-income earners out of gas guzzlers and into more environmentally friendly vehicles. It was hailed at the 2022 budget by ministers Michael Wood and James Shaw as “a critical part of the Emissions Reduction Plan that will put Aotearoa on the path to net zero”.
“Trials of the scheme have already proven to be difficult, and it’s not clear that this is the most effective way to increase the uptake of low-emissions vehicles,” said Hipkins on March 13. Sending the plan to the wreckers produced by some measure the biggest saving of the purge: $568 million. It also produced more questions about the government’s commitment to its emissions budgets. Climate minister James Shaw said he and his Greens co-leader Marama Davidson had been called for a “really positive” conversation with Hipkins a few hours before the announcement was made. But was he not pissed off? “Yes,” he said. “I’ve been pissed off for a while now. It’s just exasperating and disappointing that we keep making short-term decisions at the expense of the future. It drives me nuts.”
Purged – vehicle social leasing scheme
Unveiled at the same time as the upgrade programme, a social leasing scheme had been trialled with a view to “support low-income families to lease a safe, low-emission vehicle from a community organisation”, said Shaw in 2022. “This will provide a leg up to those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to shift to a low-emission vehicle, helping them reduce their living costs and get ahead.”
No dice, said Hipkins last month. “It was proving difficult to implement, and several of the communities where it was due to be trialled have been affected by the recent weather.” It meant $19 million of the $20 million assigned would be saved, he said.
Purged – lowering general election voting age
This was hardly inked in the government programme, but Hipkins did announce as part of the reprioritisation that any legislation to lower the voting age to 16 for general elections is off the table. It will, however, respond as required to the Supreme Court decision in favour of Make It 16, and it would be introducing legislation by the end of the term to lower the voting age for local elections. So, a purge and a pledge, really.
Punted – social insurance scheme
“With families and businesses under pressure, it’s not the time to pursue this change and put additional costs on them,” said Hipkins, kicking the social insurance scheme championed by finance minister Grant Robertson into a hypothetical third term. The proposal, also known as income insurance, also known as unemployment insurance, would cushion the impact of a job loss, providing a freshly unemployed person with 80% of their income for six months, funded by a new ACC-esque levy of around 1.4% on incomes. It’s off the table for this term, and “until we see significant improvement in economic conditions”, said the PM.
Around $60 million had been set aside to develop the scheme.
Punted – hate speech laws
The Human Rights (Incitement on the Ground of Religious Belief) Amendment Bill had emerged out of the recommendations from the Royal Commission into the Christchurch mosque attacks. It had a bumpy ride, got diluted, and as of January was punted to the Law Commission for consideration alongside other “issues around hate speech and discrimination”, which “allows them the opportunity to consider a difficult and a highly contested area of the law in its totality”.
How would that decision save money? “Well, one of the things is that it consumes time and energy and, at the moment, we need to have our time and energy focused on those issues that I’ve set out as priorities for the government,” said Hipkins. They had not walked away from the commitment, he insisted.
Punted – alcohol reforms part two
Changes to address the imbalance communities faced in challenging licensing decisions are ongoing, but a second, bigger chunk of alcohol reforms, covering sponsorship, advertising, and pricing, has been pushed back, the government deferring receipt of advice by a year to April 2024. “These are areas that we do need to take the time to investigate properly so that we can ensure that there aren’t unintended consequences,” said Hipkins.
The Greens’ Chlöe Swarbrick, whose member’s bill containing similar measures was voted down this month, said the government decision had been “an absolute slap in the face”.
Punted – container return scheme
In 2019, then associate minister for the environment Eugenie Sage launched work on a container return scheme that would require small refunds for returned beverage containers. Hipkins said last month: “The evidence overseas shows that this does help to reduce waste. However, it’s also estimated to add small additional costs to households, and we don’t want to be imposing those additional costs right at the moment. This policy does remain on the agenda, and we will look to assess it again in the future when the time is right to do so.”
Sage was not impressed by a “rubbish decision”. She said: “[I’m] gutted for all the work that Ministry for the Environment staff and stakeholders have done … Deferring the container return scheme is just kicking the can down the road on ending plastic pollution.”
Punted – contractor/employee status work
Following a landmark Employment Court ruling that Uber drivers should be classed as employees rather than contractors, the government said it would launch a consultation on how to assess such employment classification. Given an appeal is under way, said the prime minister, “rather than pushing ahead with our proposed consultation on changes, we’ll be putting that work on hold until the appeals in that case have been heard”.
Pruned – public transport booster plans
The clear-car upgrade had been announced with other climate measures including initiatives to boost public transport use, with “vehicle kilometres travelled targets” introduced as part of the Emissions Reduction Plan dropped for tier two councils, meaning they are required only in Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch, where, said Hipkins, “where there is the scale for decent public transport alternatives”. He said: “We need to focus our efforts on the areas where we can achieve the greatest reductions.”
Pruned – the speed reduction programme
The speed reduction programme will be narrowed “to focus on the most dangerous 1% of state highways”. Hipkins said: “Speed limits will reduce in the places where there have been the highest numbers of deaths and injuries. We’ll continue to make targeted reductions in the areas immediately around schools and marae and in small townships that state highways run through.”
The refocus here, which follows pressure from the opposition and some lobby groups, throws into question how the Road to Zero targets can conceivably be achieved.
Protracted – Auckland light rail
It might hardly have seemed as if anyone was getting the speed wobbles with the much delayed process towards light rail for Auckland, but Hipkins nevertheless announced a slowing, or as he put it, staging, with “the first stage expected to be confirmed by the middle of this year”.
Upholstered – Three Waters
In a field in the Wairarapa, Hipkins and his local government minister, Kieran “this is the guts of it” McAnulty, buried “Three Waters”, and from the soils did spring a shoot called “Affordable Water Reforms” or was it “Water Services Reform Programme”? Honestly, if you’re feeling a little sleepy at this point, it probably worked, but in truth that new shoot looked substantially like Three Waters.
The big difference is that the four entities that had been set up under legislation to run tap water, wastewater and stormwater will now be 10. That’s designed to assuage concerns from councils that felt they were losing local control. It means some of the economies of scale will be lost, but the shift in the balance sheet is still there, so the entities can borrow in a way that councils, the smaller ones especially, simply couldn’t. National remains committed to repeal.
The co-governance element remains, though the government is now insisting that what it once very clearly called co-governance is not and never was co-governance. As before, the regional representation groups that set the broad direction and appoint the boards of the entities will be comprised 50-50 by council appointments and mana whenua. The start date was also kicked out a couple of years to 2026, by which point, well, who can say where priorities might be.
This post was updated to remove an erroneous reference to the Transport Choices package, which remains intact.