Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during the opening of New Zealand's 53rd Parliament on November 26, 2020 in Wellington (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Get set, go: Labour plans big sprint of new laws before Christmas

New Zealand will see some last-minute governing as Labour plans to rush through a legislative agenda before the summer break.

Jacinda Ardern’s government is about to undertake a parliamentary sprint before Christmas, with plans to legislate a number of campaign promises and declare a climate emergency in only a few sitting days.

The list of challenges facing New Zealand’s government is significant and growing against the backdrop of dual global health and economic crises. There’s also climate change, a new American president and growing tension in the Pacific. But the government will focus its energies domestically for now.

The country’s housing market is overheated and threatens a generation of renters and first-time buyers. A schism has opened between parliament and the Reserve Bank on housing policy. Local governments are struggling and the competence of a number of mayors is being questioned. The head of Oranga Tamariki is under fire and Labour’s Māori caucus is divided on whether to fire Grainne Moss immediately or, perhaps, later. Poverty and homelessness are also growing.

But first, the prime minister is expected to put forward a motion next week declaring a climate emergency, something the Labour Party wanted to do last term.

“We’ve always considered climate change to be a huge threat to our region and something that we must take immediate action on. Unfortunately, we were unable to progress a motion around a climate emergency in Parliament in the last term,” Ardern told reporters yesterday.

The prime minister wouldn’t confirm that she’d been stymied by former coalition partner New Zealand First, as was widely understood at the time. Asked about the symbolism of the move, she said “a declaration is just that” and ongoing actions from the government are required to meet the challenges of climate change.

Along with the goal of producing 100% renewable electricity by 2030, the government is now planning to only allow the purchase of zero emission buses by 2025.

New Zealand First and leader Winston Peters are missing after being voted out of parliament. The former deputy prime minister has warned that Labour would forge ahead without the “handbrake” provided by his party. That warning will now be tested.

Parliament was back and debating yesterday for the first time since the election that brought Labour to a majority government. Delivering the speech from the throne, the governor general reiterated Labour’s campaign promises: A minimum wage of $20 next year, the end of single-use plastics, more sick days and Matariki as a public holiday. There were some new promises, including a free Covid-19 vaccine.

Some of those promises will need to wait until next year. Parliament now has only four full sitting days planned before the Christmas break, although that number could increase if legislation gets bogged down.

Leader of the house Chris Hipkins announced yesterday he will move for urgency to pass legislation – in effect, Parliament will go into over-time and some of the brakes slowing the passage of laws will be removed. Urgency allows the house to sit longer and allows a bill to fly through all its stages in a single sitting, instead of the slower pace of debate normally used.

Along with a climate change declaration, Hipkins said the house intends to pass bills changing the tax code next week. Labour had promised a new, higher tax bracket for the country’s top earners. There will also be changes to the act governing the Reserve Bank and an amendment to the social security bill to provide assistance for caregivers.

Lacking from the throne speech was any mention of light rail in Auckland or changes to the government’s housing strategy. Despite finance minister Grant Robertson’s announcement of a “reset” in the approach to housing earlier this week, the throne speech said no substantive change should be expected. “The government has set out the parameters of what it is prepared to consider during the election campaign. This will not change,” read governor general Dame Patsy Reddy. By convention, the speech reflects the government’s views.

The government did move to knock one item off its check list early. The government announced this morning that it will allow 2,000 seasonal workers from the Pacific to arrive in the New Year. Agricultural industries across the country have said they need the workers or produce will rot on the vine.

The employers must cover the cost of managed isolation and pay at least $22.10 per hour.

‘While the timing of the government’s decision means that spring and early summer crops have missed out, growers across the country are relieved that some of the essential workers needed from low Covid risk Pacific countries are being let in,” Horticulture NZ chief executive Mike Chapman said in a statement.

National leader Judith Collins made it clear during a half-hour speech in Parliament  yesterday that the opposition will now hammer Labour on the party’s biggest failures over the past three years: its lack of progress on key issues, including infrastructure, housing and reducing poverty. With New Zealand First gone, Collins said there’s no one left that Labour can blame for failings.

“Every day, we will hold the government to account for its failure to deliver on housing, and every day, we will hold the government to account for its failure to deliver on its promises,” said Collins.

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