National party leader Simon Bridges at the party's 2019 conference (Radio NZ/Craig McCulloch)

The Bulletin: National closes year with policy blitz

Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: National closes year with policy blitz, fund announced for small businesses affected by tourism disasters, and a record worker exploitation fine handed down.

Perhaps it’s meant to be a counterpoint to the government’s year of delivery. The National party promised eight policy discussion documents this year, and have now managed to get them all out. It might have taken two being rushed out at the same time in the final week of work, but nevertheless, they did it.

The top line of the transport and infrastructure document is an idea to phase out fuel taxes in favour of other methods of funding roads, analysed here by Stuff’s Thomas Coughlan. It is more a tax switch than a cut – motorists would still have to pay, but the idea is that with the changing fuel efficiency of the vehicle fleet, another way of pricing makes more sense. Coughlan writes that the effect would be to remove a tax that is effectively regressive, in that those with older and less efficient cars often end up paying more. It could also be argued that as the current system incentivises fuel efficiency, it is worth persevering with to encourage emissions reductions.

The NZ Herald’s Goergina Campbell has reported on another idea in the document – an AT like-authority for cities outside of Auckland like Wellington and Christchurch. That would be of particular note to Wellingtonians, where the newly elected GWRC faces a difficult battle to prove it can competently manage transport chaos. It’s by no means the only or even the most pressing problem, but having responsibilities split across different Councils doesn’t exactly help with delivering services.

There was also a discussion document on housing and RMA reform. They’ve potentially found a solution to the quagmire-like battles over reforming the planning legislation – just scrap the whole thing altogether, reports Radio NZ, and replace it with more pro-development legislation, with a period of transitional legislation in place in the meantime to fill an exceptionally complex void. That complexity – with 80 amendments passed since 1991 – is cast by National as evidence of it being an overly burdensome piece of legislation, and incapable of further modification. It’s fashionable at the moment to compare things to Brexit, but I wonder if this could be that for us – a massive backlash against a seemingly restrictive set of laws and institutions, only to discover later in the piece that it’s all a bit trickier to put something new in place.

There are also long sections in the document concerning environmental stewardship under new RMA equivalent laws. In part, they bounce off ideas in work undertaken by the Environmental Defense Society. Much is made of use of environmental bottom lines, which would set mandatory targets to be hit. Later in the document, it also asks for feedback on the question of “should compliance with the environmental bottom lines be enough?” Coupled with the wider pro-development slant of the document, that could call into question whether such bottom lines would become targets, rather than minimums.

On housing, the party has continued with hard line stances against some state house tenants, with tougher penalties for anti-social behaviour – Newshub has a report going into that aspect. There is also a passage in the document pointing out how much the social housing wait list has grown under the current government, and a plan to reprioritise the list so that those most in need are housed first. That is accompanied by exploration of a rent to own scheme, and perhaps predictably, all traces of Kiwibuild would be expunged forever.

If I may diverge into a bit of political commentary here, I’ve found National’s discussion documents incredibly useful this year. They form a vital insight into the policy thinking of the major party of opposition, which is essential for an informed democracy. And at their best, they’ve grappled with big and important problems, and been thoughtful in the ways they might be addressed. The solutions might not necessarily be those that everyone will agree with, but that’s why we have political debates, to sort out what the best way forward is.

On the other hand, the discussion documents have often been accompanied by something that seems purely designed to whip up attention. Think about the ludicrous ‘Strike Force Raptor’ around the law and order document, or the risible recent idea that cyclists who ride on the road rather than a dedicated cycle path should be fined. There may be an idea here that in politics you have to cook up some red meat to get voters to eat their vegetables, but I’m not convinced by that, given a whole lot of stories end up just being about the meat and nothing else.

There’s an election coming up. And it would be much better for the country as a whole if that election was informed by the bigger picture, rather than trivialities and diversions. Media have a role to play here of course, and there are some excellent journalists doing real work to inform and explain these debates – even if the algorithm often favours nonsense. But politicians – both government and opposition – also have choices to make, about whether they want to genuinely try and lead important debates, or just be trolls.


A $5 million fund will be established to assist small businesses impacted by both the Whakaari eruption, and the flooding in Westland, reports Newshub. The wider tourism economy in both places has been hit hard by the events, and visitor numbers are not expected to recover for a long time. The Whakaari disaster has also raised a lot of questions about responsibility, and whether it could have been prevented – we’ve republished a piece by Radio NZ’s Jo Moir analysing that.


A record fine has been handed down to the owners of a rural Rotorua District holiday park, over a shocking case of worker exploitation, reports Newshub. The Chinese workers were here on visitor visas, and were effectively treated like slave labour. They described their living conditions as like a prison, and had to work seven days a week. The subsequent fine was about $680k, with each worker receiving $100k along with unpaid wages and compensation.


Light rail down Dominion Road in Auckland is still a long way away from being a reality, reports Dileepa Fonsecka for Newsroom. In fact, in some ways it appears to have gone backwards, with the news that the current bids being considered are merely to administer the project, rather than questions of routes and modes. There also isn’t any sort of timeline for when the public might see what the designs are, with transport minister Phil Twyford saying it was better to go slowly and get every aspect right, rather than rush through to that stage.


A union is accusing NZ Bus of hiring migrant workers rather than address wages and conditions for their shrinking workforce, reports Radio NZ. The allegation from FIRST Union stems from the fact that 28 Filipino bus drivers have been hired this year, 16 of whom are working in Auckland and 12 in Wellington, and both cities where disputes have taken place between company and union. The union says such moves increase the chance of both local and migrant workers being exploited.


If you can afford it, try and give generously to an organisation that addresses poverty this Christmas. That’s one of the takeaways from this remarkable piece to camera from Breakfast’s John Campbell, about the reality of poverty in New Zealand. And above that, consider asking a question. In a country where the wealthy are constantly getting wealthier, how is it fair that the number of people struggling is growing?


Say Something Nice about a Journo 2019: Today’s one is about some of the journos who have made a real impact at Radio NZ this year. And there have actually been a few different nominations, which I’ll bundle together here:

From Claire: “Just wanted to chuck in my noms for the top notch women in RNZ’s In Depth team – Susan Strongman’s piece on Kelly Savage was incredibly affecting, and Kate Newton learned how to code so she could call out Auckland Council on how their consultation system favours white voices.”

From Kate, about reporter Phil Pennington: “His stories, generally shining light in corners which those in charge would prefer to  be kept dark, are well researched and thorough. He broke and covered in depth stories like the NZTA (lack of) inspection scandal, the abuse survivors’ Advisory Group contretemps, and the bullying of nurses in Middlemore’s neo- natal unit. I’d go so far as to say that Phil Pennington deserves recognition in the Honours list for services to journalism.”

And from Lou: “I’m voting for Guyon Espiner because he’s fearless in covering the Pharmac debacle. He’s digging in places they don’t want him to. He’s got his facts and priorities in line, talks straight and calls them out. Guyon for Prime Minister.”


Got some feedback about The Bulletin, or anything in the news? Drop us a line at thebulletin@thespinoff.co.nz

A large faux bunny (left) and Boris Johnson. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Right now on The Spinoff: Carys Goodwin writes about what Boris Johnson’s win will mean for the environment in Britain, where the concept is deeply tied into resource extraction and colonialism. Leonie Hayden writes about the ways life has got a little bit better for Māori over the past decade. Richard Macmanus writes about 5G, Auckland, and the creation of a smarter city. The Spinoff Review of Books has come out with the best ten works of fiction of the year. And you can hear one of my pieces in The Spinoff Book read aloud here, as part of our podcast series of essays.


For a feature today, a piece of travel writing about Las Vegas. Now normally that might not quite make the cut for this esteemed publication, but this piece is something else. It’s by Hawke’s Bay Today’s Anendra Singh (also an excellent cricket writer) and is both insightful and honest about a place that normally gets hyped beyond all recognition. Here’s an excerpt:

That night I stepped outside my comfort zone, slipping $10 into a Buffalo penny machine at Caesar’s Palace. It helped that my wife had dropped a message on social media: “Hope you win millions so we can give up our jobs.” I got back $18.65 and I decided that was all the flutter I could handle.

I was content to simply watch mostly middle-aged people perched around black jack tables. An elderly woman at a poker machine was raking in close to $1000 as several others watched enviously from a distance, waiting for the chance to occupy her seat the second she had vacated it. Two did in succession but found luck was not a given.

Like ghost stories, there are countless accounts of people having heard others rake in thousands but few have actually witnessed it.


In sport today, a reflection on coaching a New Zealand rep team in the words of the coach. At this point I’d just note that I don’t necessarily include pieces in The Bulletin because I agree with them – rather they get in for being interesting. So it is with this Coaches Voice column from former All Whites manager Anthony Hudson, who has reflected on bringing pride and passion back to the national team. I’m slightly dubious about whether he can claim such achievements, but fully support his right to put his side of the story across.


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