SocietyDecember 2, 2020

Live updates, December 2: Climate emergency declared; National rejects ‘virtue signalling’


Welcome to The Spinoff’s live updates for December 2. Get in touch at stewart@thespinoff.co.nz

7.00pm: The day in sum

Parliament formally declared a climate emergency, and the government announced it would be going carbon neutral.

The auditor general issued a damning assessment of the University of Auckland purchase of a Parnell home for its vice chancellor.

There was one new case of Covid-19 in managed isolation, a member of the Pakistan cricket squad.

The Greens signalled they would abstain from voting for a bill that puts a new top tax rate in place.

Minister Phil Twyford is on leave for the foreseeable future, after his wife was diagnosed with cancer.

A new report from the Child Poverty Monitor revealed one in five children are living in income poverty.

3.55pm: Climate emergency formally declared by NZ parliament

The climate emergency motion has passed in the House of Representatives. The Labour Party voted for it, along with the Green and Māori parties. All members of National and Act opposed the motion.

Read the text of the motion here.

3.05pm: Ardern commits to carbon neutral government in five years

The New Zealand government is going carbon neutral. As part of the prime minister’s call for a climate emergency, the new Labour government has directed the public sector to make itself carbon neutral within five years. The ambitious initiative will require the entire government to start looking at how it can slash emissions. Some of the instructions from the prime minister will be easier to accomplish, for others, this will be a decades-long project.

Departments that can’t meet carbon neutrality will be asked to buy offsets. Ripping out old coal boilers and buying EVs won’t be too taxing for some departments. Most will look to shrink the size of their vehicle fleets and move into energy-efficient buildings when their leases are up. For some parts of the public sector, like the defence force or the police, offsets could be required for some time.

“This policy, alongside today’s declaration of a climate emergency, serves as a message to the public sector to get our own house in order. It’s also a call to action for the private sector,” Jacinda Ardern said in a statement.

Speaking in parliament in the last few minutes, Ardern said the declaration would require “ongoing, continual action and activity”. To a standing ovation from the Labour and Green benches, she urged the opposition to vote in support of the declaration and “be on the right side of history”.

Responding in the house for the National Party, climate change spokesperson Stuart Smith dismissed the declaration as “virtue signalling”, saying that while his party was committed to tackling climate change, “symbolic gestures just don’t cut it.”

2.25pm: Auditor general releases damning Auckland University property purchase report

The Office of the Auditor General has issued a damning assessment of the University of Auckland purchase of a Parnell home for its vice chancellor. Here’s their release, and some quotes from it:

“In November 2019, the University of Auckland purchased a house in Parnell in Auckland. The University said the house would be used for accommodation, business-related operations, and functions. The house cost about $5 million, and the University entered into a tenancy agreement with the incoming Vice-Chancellor from the start of her five-year term of employment.

We were interested in this matter, because it seemed an unusual purchase for the University to make. It raised questions about the University’s use of public resources and how it manages sensitive expenditure. The focus of our work was on the University’s actions and decision-making processes.

Overall, it was not clear that the University recognised, at any stage of the process, that the purchase involved sensitive expenditure or gave proper consideration to this when making decisions.

The University has not been able to show that this sensitive expenditure was appropriate in all respects. This is because the University has not been able to demonstrate that it has met key principles of managing sensitive expenditure well. For example, the University has not been able to show a justifiable business purpose for purchasing the house.

It is hard to accept that purchasing a house to provide accommodation for the incoming Vice-Chancellor, and to host an anticipated 14 events in two years, justifies the $5 million expenditure. The University was unable to show that the expenditure was moderate and conservative.

It did not consider whether if could have effectively achieved the purposes it says it bought the house for – accommodation and hosting – for less cost. The University did not follow its policy on sensitive expenditure nor its processes for approving capital expenditure. Where sensitive expenditure is concerned, we expect all public organisations to consider each situation carefully to ensure that they can justify the expenditure.”

1.40pm: US Justice Department investigating presidential pardon bribery allegation

Unsealed court documents show the US Justice Department is currently investigating an alleged attempt to funnel money to the White House, or a related political committee, in exchange for a presidential pardon, reports CNN.

Presidents have the power to issue pardons, and it is common for a range to happen in the final days of a president’s tenure.

No timeline of events was given in the report, nor any names. Nor does anyone appear to have been publicly charged with anything at this stage.

In all, Donald Trump has issued 29 pardons throughout his solitary term in office. It began with former sheriff Joe Arpaio on a contempt of court conviction, and more recently there has been speculation around whether Trump might try and issue himself with a pre-emptive pardon.

1.30pm: One new case in managed isolation

There is one new case of Covid-19 in managed isolation to report. The person is a member of the Pakistan cricket squad, and was one of the three suspected cases reported yesterday.

The team is not allowed to train until the Canterbury DHB medical officer of health determines they are satisfied that any training activities are unlikely to transmit COVID-19.

The number of confirmed cases is now 1,704, and the number of active cases is 72. 7,076 tests for Covid-19 were processed yesterday.

All contacts of the November quarantine cluster have now completed their testing, and have returned negative results. In all, there were six cases within that cluster.

It’s still not clear how one of the people in the cluster got it. In a release, the health ministry said “extensive investigations to determine an epidemiological connection between Case A and Case D have occurred. These efforts, which have included a review of CCTV footage, have been unable to identify any significant contact between Cases A and D.”

1.05pm: New Zealand’s climate emergency

The text of Jacinda Ardern’s climate emergency motion has been released by Parliament. The prime minister will be tabling the motion in the house later this afternoon.

The first paragraph of the two page document reads:

“That this house declare a climate emergency, following the finding of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that, to avoid a more than 1.5C rise in global warming, global emissions would need to fall by around 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero by around 2050.”

In the prime minister’s motion, Ardern pledges that the New Zealand government itself will become carbon-neutral by 2025. More details on how the government intends to do that are expected later this afternoon.

Last week, the government pledged to ban single-use plastics and ban the purchase of non-electric buses by 2025.

11.50am: Terms of trade fall, massive international travel spending drop: Stats NZ

Two new sets of numbers have been released by Stats NZ, both referring to economic matters.

On the terms of trade, lower export prices for primary products fell, leading to an overall drop in the effective purchasing power of the country. Over the September quarter, export prices were down 8.3 percent, but that was down from a record level in the quarter before.

However, spending on international travel by New Zealanders has dropped massively compared to this time last year – down 84% compared to the September quarter of 2019. In raw number terms, that was a drop of $1.7 billion. The border being effectively closed probably had something to do with it.

11.30am: Greens refuse to vote for tax bill

The Greens have signalled their first abstention under the new arrangement with the governing Labour party, signalling that they will not vote for a bill that puts a new top tax rate in place.

Under their arrangement, the Greens are not allowed to vote against anything that constitutes ‘confidence and supply’, however they are not obliged to vote in favour.

Co-leader James Shaw said it wasn’t because the party is opposed to a new top tax rate – rather his party’s opposition is because the change will likely result in high income earners shuffling more money into property.

“The last time the top tax rate was increased to 39 cents without also taxing wealth or capital gains, we saw house prices increase 17 percent because people channelled income into trusts instead, and those trusts invested in property,” said Shaw.

“Increases in income tax, even at the top, with no taxes on asset wealth or capital gains just encourage people who own their own businesses and set their own high salaries, to arrange their finances in ways that reduce their income tax. This bill will just increase the distortion between income that is earned through work, and income that is earned through property investment and wealth accumulation.”

The Greens campaigned heavily on a wealth tax during the election, a policy that was firmly ruled out by Labour.

Meanwhile, Act leader David Seymour has criticised the government’s parliamentary competence, accusing them of putting the house into urgency without also providing them a copy of the legislation to scrutinise and debate.

10.15am: On The Spinoff – Inside the Stuff apology

Stuff’s Pou Tiaki editor Carmen Parahi rallied her troops for what would become the ‘Our Truth, Tā Mātou Pono’ project on a Saturday, and pitched the idea to Stuff’s CEO the very next day. She told Leonie Hayden about what happened next. Here’s an excerpt:

Carmen Parahi admits it cost a lot. As well as the time spent on creating all the content, she says the newspapers used advertising pages to carry the apology and features, not to mention the potential loss of advertisers and subscribers in response. But she says the cost of doing nothing would have been far greater.

“All of these papers were established by settlers, for settlers. That whakapapa has continued right up until this point, and we have maintained that perspective of always protecting the interests of settlers, and now their mokopuna,” Parahi tells me over the phone from her home. She’s tired after a long day of fielding calls about Tā Mātou Pono, an even longer few months getting the project ready, and longer still the decades spent fighting for Māori in the media.

7.50am: Term-defining agenda for Jacinda Ardern today

Today Jacinda Ardern will have three things on her plate: Climate change, child poverty and global leadership. As Justin Giovannetti writes, these are the topics that will largely define her next three years. Here’s an excerpt from his piece this morning.

The prime minister’s day will end in the Beehive Theatrette. Standing behind the pulpit she wielded during lockdown, Ardern will face a problem that has intensified under her watch. Dealing with child poverty is one of reasons she says she entered politics. Ardern has given herself the child poverty portfolio in cabinet. National argues that child poverty has worsened under the prime minister. Ardern says under some metrics it has become better. Regardless of the which numbers you choose, it remains a grim situation.

On Monday, the Child Poverty Action Group said progress has been “unjustifiably slow” and none of the 42 key recommendations made by a welfare expert advisory group two years ago have been fully implemented. Just over half haven’t been touched at all. The rest have seen some work.

7.35am: Twyford to take leave after wife’s diagnosis

Minister Phil Twyford is on leave for the foreseeable future, after his wife was diagnosed with cancer.

He is yet to be sworn in as an MP for the term, but a spokesperson told Radio NZ that he has been working remotely in Auckland.

“[Twyford] has been fulfilling his ministerial and electorate duties remotely with the full support of the prime minister and his parliamentary colleagues.”

7.30am: New report details child poverty damage

One in five children are living in income poverty, and without significantly increased government intervention that is likely to get worse.

That comes from a new report from the Child Poverty Monitor, which will be launched today at parliament.

Speaking ahead of the launch, Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft said most people held a vision of New Zealand as a place where anyone could thrive, regardless of their background.

“But for the past 30 years New Zealand has knowingly excluded a large group of tamariki from that vision. Large numbers of tamariki are still being denied what they need to thrive, a situation that Covid-19 could make worse – if we let it.”

Around 13% of children live in households facing a more extreme form of poverty, in which many are not able to access essentials, like warm clothing or healthy food.

Becroft said this will be worsened by Covid-19, and has three solutions that he wants to see implemented:

  • Raise family incomes by increasing benefits, enabling people to live with dignity
  • Increase the supply of state and social housing and bring in new ways to manage rental costs and quality
  • Help families meet their immediate needs, for example by expanding the food in schools programme and extending free medical care to everyone under the age of 18.

7.30am: Key updates from today’s edition of The Bulletin:

In today’s edition: Council considers rates hit to cover Covid, revenue minister fires warning shot over trusts, and some common sense on drug law reform.

Auckland Council is set to lose a billion dollars in revenue, and they’re planning on asking ratepayers to pay a bit more to cover it. Radio NZ reports the proposed 10 year budget was released yesterday, including a one-off 5% rates hit. Mayor Phil Goff said it will amount to an average of $36 per affected household, and will allow the council to continue with a multi-billion dollar capital infrastructure programme.

Some options that were initially considered haven’t in the end been included. Stuff’s Todd Niall has a story which includes some of them – one of the now-shelved revenue raisers would have been a targeted rate to fund climate change related action. However, as environment chair Richard Hills put it, the preferred option is to have climate action be part of the ‘business as usual’ funding and spending of the council. An additional $150 million over 10 years has been proposed here, and it will include measures like phasing out diesel buses.

With Covid-19 blowing a massive hole in Auckland Council’s budget, none of the potential solutions would have been painless. Austerity was one potential approach – I wrote about that back in June, particularly the contrast between central government’s big spending and local government’s comparative squeeze. And borrowing wasn’t necessarily an option, particularly in a time of lower revenue – this piece from Stuff’s Todd Niall from several weeks ago goes into the council’s self-imposed borrowing limits and why they exist. Auckland Council was particularly vulnerable to Covid, because less than half of their funding comes from rates – events and dividends from the ownership share in the airport are among the other sources.

Not everyone is okay with the rates bump. The Auckland Ratepayers Alliance put out a release challenging the numbers put forward by Goff, while also describing the rise as “aggressive”. They also called for a bit more of a “slash and burn” approach to council spending. The NZ Herald’s Bernard Orsman reports that across both rates and water bills, the average household will be facing additional costs of more like $230.

Read the full edition here:

7.30am: Yesterday’s headlines

There were three new cases of Covid-19 in managed isolation, and the Ministry of Health issued a warning to be vigilant during the Christmas party season

Auckland mayor Phil Goff released a proposal for a rates rise of 5% next year.

The free-to-air television properties formerly owned by Mediaworks, including Three and Newshub, became the official property of US network Discovery.

The government will rush through legislation before Christmas to allow for pill testing at festivals this summer, it was announced.

Sky TV’s chief executive Martin Stewart quit his job and was replaced by the company’s chief commercial officer Sophie Moloney, with immediate effect.

The government confirmed its business debt scheme, first launched in the early weeks of Covid-19, will be extended until October 2021.

Read all the key stories in yesterday’s live updates

Keep going!