Christopher Luxon’s budget speech gets a round of applause (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Christopher Luxon’s budget speech gets a round of applause (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

PoliticsMay 30, 2024

Giant hands and Jamaican reggae: The budget debate goes off the rails

Christopher Luxon’s budget speech gets a round of applause (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Christopher Luxon’s budget speech gets a round of applause (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Over the course of three hours of budget speeches, parliament turned into an unruly, overtired detention hall, where MPs forgot all about tax cuts and started yelling random words from the dictionary. Joel MacManus was there.

Nicola Willis tried so hard to make the budget boring. The white cover page, the sans serif font without a hint of personality. It screamed restraint and responsibility. There was no flashy budget-day tie for the finance minister this year, just a royal blue pantsuit, the colour of the National Party logo. “This is a budget for the squeezed middle,” she said as she revealed her budget to the house. It was for the people doing it tough, the average family, the people whose lives would be changed by a $20-a-week tax cut.

The opposition MPs weren’t listening. Their heads were still buried in the budget documents. The government benches weren’t much better. A mention of the previous government’s spending-to-debt ratio drew some halfhearted boos. She tried again, referencing the operating allowance of the last budget. Like a distracted chorus in a school production, the National backbenchers suddenly remembered they’re supposed to complain about that.

“It’s not enough to open our hearts to those in need. Truly meeting the challenges of those in need requires we use our heads as well,” Willis said. Everyone on the government benches clapped, except Paul Goldsmith, who puckered his lips like he was considering having a second dessert. National MP Simon Watts clapped his hands peculiarly high, as if a fly was buzzing in front of his nose. Watts has enormous hands. As he brought them back down, they draped over the edge of his armrests, his extended phalanges embracing the supple green leather. 

Actually, it’s not just his hands. It’s his wingspan too. His unruly limbs made his claps look even less coordinated. At no point did he seem totally confident his hands would strike one another. His right pinky finger crashed awkwardly into his left index finger. 

A round of applause for Luxon after his budget speech. Simon Watts, sadly, is out of shot (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

“This year’s budget is the cleanup job New Zealand needs,” Willis said. She was proud of that line. Chris Luxon shook his head, as if to say he wasn’t mad at Labour, just disappointed. Simon Watts moved his claps even higher. Both hands were above his head, like an aerobics instructor trying to rally an unmotivated class. “New Zealanders can look forward with confidence, knowing this government backs them,” Willis concluded. Chris Bishop leapt to his feet to embrace her; he was so fast he got in before the prime minister. Once Luxon had his turn, Bishop went in for hug number two. Simon Watts looked at his own hands, focusing really hard on his claps. On every beat, his palms made full contact with each other. Good job Simon.

Chris Hipkins tried to prove Willis had broken her promise not to borrow money for tax cuts, which Willis strongly insisted she did not do. His argument seemed mostly based on semantics; there is borrowing and there are tax cuts, ergo…? “This government is fuelling inflation.” His cheer squad of fellow Labour MPs was distracted reading the budget documents and didn’t give him the response he wanted. Except, that is, for Tangi Utikere, who was extremely aware that by sitting behind the party leader he was on TV the whole time. He was very focused, sitting up, nodding, pulling faces, and jeering exactly when he was supposed to. 

Chris Hipkins lands a blow (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Hipkins landed his best blow by pointing out the tiny tax cuts for superannuitants; less than $2.50 a week. “Not even enough for a pack of chewing gum.” He accused the government of trickle-down economics. “Hogwash,” someone yelled from the government benches. Who still says hogwash? Oh, it was Simon Watts again, looking very proud of himself while he rested his chin on his giant skeleton hands. Hipkins’ speech was far too long, and was made weaker by the half-hearted support from the Labour benches. 

Chris Luxon spent his entire speech facing back towards his own side, revelling in their praise. He offered a review of Hipkins’ speech. “It should have been a much, much shorter speech”. (He’s not wrong about that). “It should have been two words: thank you coalition government and thank you Nicola Willis”. (That’s nine words.) Labour’s Rachel Brooking attempted to jeer, but she kept yelling entire paragraphs, and no one could hear them. (Pick your keywords, Rachel!). Luxon made a dig about Hipkins’ previous role as education minister. “Don’t bother,” yelled Simon Watts, performatively facepalming. His fingers almost wrapped around his entire skull. As Luxon wrapped up (about 10 minutes later than he should have) he banged the desk three times, apparently a cue for his lieutenants. “We are going to get New Zealand…” he began. The National caucus echoed: “Back on track.” 

Simon Watts and his hands (Screenshot: Parliament TV)

Marama Davidson was up next and labelled it “a mean and nasty budget.” Her speech was constantly interrupted by Shane Jones yelling random words plucked from dictionary. “Coal”, “carpark”, “victimhood”, “mining”, “forestry”, “hot water”. She pointed out the child poverty report in this year’s budget was only four pages long. “Oh, is that right, is it?” Winston Peters jeered. (Yes, it was right.) She continued, “This government has slashed and burned almost all climate and environmental-minded policy while pouring coal and gas over the roaring climate crisis fire.” “Coal,” Shane Jones echoed back. “Coal, coal… Carpark”. 

David Seymour began by having a go at Davidson. “Someone should call the physics department, because the last five minutes of her speech felt like 15.” He’s not wrong, but that line could apply to literally every speaker. “We need to spend less time tied up in rules and regulations and more time being productive.” We need to spend less time letting politicians talk about the budget. “We believe New Zealanders are human beings… with human dignity,” he said, a line that filled the room with human emotions. 

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson shakes hands with finance minister Nicola Willis in the house (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The mighty kaumatua of the house, Winston Peters, spent his allotted 20 minutes throwing barbs at random MPs and completely forgot about the budget. Rachel Brooking tried another multi-sentence jeer. “Not many people could eat a banana sideways, but you could,” Peters said. He responded to an earlier claim by Hipkins about the budget resembling 80s-era trickle-down economics: “He forgot to say it was Labour who brought it in,” a stinging attack against the vast numbers of current Labour MPs who served under David Lange and Roger Douglas. Accusing Labour of ignoring their spending while in government, he said it was “like the American rapper Shaggy: It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me, it wasn’t me”. Peters told the house he was trying to be “a bit modern” with his references. (Shaggy is a Jamaican reggae artist, not an American rapper, and ‘It Wasn’t Me’ came out in 2000.)

Several Labour  MPs yelled at Peters to “talk about the budget”, which he ignored. He started going at 21-year-old Te Pāti Māori MP Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke for no apparent reason. “You’re not the youngest member of parliament, you never were,” he said. (Twenty-year-old James Stuart-Wortley was elected in 1853.) Maipi-Clarke mimed some boxing moves back at him, then made a heart shape with her hands.

After spending the day leading nationwide protests, Te Pāti Māori returned to the house just in time to make the last speeches. Co-leader Rawiri Waititi was fired up, but first he ceded half his time to his youngest colleague. “I’m not here to talk about the budget, because there’s nothing in it for us,” Maipi-Clark said. Instead, she went right at Peters. “Why are you so triggered by me, so intimidated by me?” she asked the NZ First leader. She spoke about the rising tide of activism and the kōhanga reo generation taking te ao Māori forward. “A kuia and koro will always hold their grandchild’s hand. Well now, we have to hold the hands of our kaumātua, and I’ll hold Winston’s hand.” Waititi took the reins and made his big announcement: Te Pāti Māori had signed a declaration intending to establish a separate Māori parliament. “We allowed you 150 years to establish a parliament. Today, we started a conversation to start our own,” he told the house. “We’ve honoured kawanatanga, but we’ve allowed you to assume you have one over us, and you do not.” 

Over the course of three hours, the jeers got louder and made less and less sense. The debate shifted from a chewing gum tax cut to the core constitutional foundations of our country. Simon Watts came and went, taking breaks to rest his precious hands from the arduous labour of clapping. The second Waititi ended his speech, Chris Bishop bounced out of his seat to move for the debate to be adjourned. Anything to end this torture. 

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