National leader Simon Bridges and deputy leader Paula Bennett (Getty Images)

The Bulletin: National cries foul over political referee idea

Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: National cries foul over parliamentary costing unit idea, Ngawha Prison heavily criticised in report, and fuel market study confirms prices are high.

The government have announced a recommendation to create an official, independent parliamentary costing unit, reports the NZ Herald. The aim is to take policies of parties vying for government, and run them through an assessment that is impartial and fair. The theory goes that from there, there would be “fewer political games played” during election campaigns. A commonly used example of this is when former National finance spokesperson Steven Joyce invented the $11 billion hole in Labour’s budget, during the heat of the 2017 campaign.

It wouldn’t be set up until 2021, but in the meantime Treasury will be setting up a unit to do the work for parties currently in parliament. Unlikely allies for the government in the form of the Taxpayers Union have come out in favour of it, as they see it as a way to build popular support against “low-value spending.”

It was part of the Labour-Green confidence and supply agreement, and announced by ministers of both parties. On twitter, the Greens put out an image showing a tiny green pin pricking an inflated blue balloon marked ‘political hot air’. It’s political symbolism with the subtlety of El Lissitzky. National have immediately responded by saying they’ll oppose the creation of the unit, with leader Simon Bridges describing it as “an opportunity they [government] see to illegitimately, undemocratically screw the scrum on the Opposition.”

And in fairness, he might have a point. On a grand scale, it feels similar to one of those political fact-checking units at media organisations in the USA. The idea reminds me of this argument put forth on The Outline, which critiqued the premise of official fact-checking being purely objective, in that certain facts are genuinely contested, and that’s even more the case with economic theories. Obviously the resources available to an office of parliament would be more significant than those available to a newspaper. But what mechanism would be in place to prevent the facts being decided in a way that ended up suiting one party or another?

Moreover, we live in a world where such pronouncements from independent bodies are almost immediately politicised anyway. Why would this be different? Thomas Coughlan at Stuff has dug into the politics around it all, and while supportive, sees concerning signs in the fact that the idea itself was immediately politicised.

One answer to the above questions is in the mechanisms around the independence of the scrutineer. There would be a person holding the rank of Officer of Parliament, which means they’d be on a level of independence with the Auditor General and Ombudsman. But regardless, with National indicating such immediate opposition, it is unlikely that the creation of such an office will be possible.


Ngawha Prison in Northland has been heavily criticised in a report by ombudsman Peter Boshier, reports Radio NZ. In short, it wasn’t achieving what it set out to do culturally, facilities and staff were badly stretched, and prisoners were being treated in counter-productive ways. The report was based off a surprise visit to the prison in February.


Many papers this morning have gone with the fuel market study’s finding on their front page. In some ways, it told us what we already knew – petrol prices are artificially high by a lack of competition among retailers. This NZ Herald story has a handy graph of where exactly in the country prices are highest.


The numbers are in on how Wellingtonians feel about the bus system changes, and wow they’re looking bad. Stuff reports confidence has plummeted, down 16% in the space of a year, amid major and ongoing network disruption. Amid that, the number of trips taken on public transport has increased. But as the blogger behind Inside Wellington asked on twitter, is the increase in trips simply a result of more transfers being required by the new system?


Prospective business owners in Te Aroha are concerned that rents for shop spaces are unrealistic, despite some premises sitting empty, reports Sharnae Hope for Stuff. For a relatively small town, more than 20 empty shops were counted on the main street, which is a pretty serious state of affairs. Strangely enough, some of the empty shops still have paying tenants, and in one case a person is believed to be living in an old gift shop, which suggests the possibility of housing issues too.


The agriculture minister is calling bull on a National party campaign around whitebaiting, reports One News. The party has accused the government of trying to ban whitebaiting. But minister Damien O’Connor says nothing of the sort is happening, and in fact the new law would just allow authorities to manage or close fishing on a river, if the fishery was close to collapsing. Which, by the way, many whitebait fisheries are at risk of.


There’s a pretty cool new set of journalism jobs going right now. Here’s a list of Local Democracy Reporter jobs that have just come up, for a new programme that will basically be about civic duty style reporting on publicly funded organisations. The roles will be based around the country, with local papers partnering with RNZ to make it all work. I for one am a strong supporter of this sort of work, and I’m excited to see what comes out of it.


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Phillip Mills, CEO of Les Mills and founder of Pure Advantage

Right now on The Spinoff: Josie Adams has filed a fascinating report on self-described green entrepreneur Philip Mills building a massive new carpark in central Auckland. Christine L Ammunson writes about Dwayne Johnson and Samoan representation. Russell Brown speaks to Te Aroha Grace about the Iwi Algorithm, aimed at putting Te Ao Māori at the centre of tech.

And another episode of the remarkable show Scratched, about lost Kiwi sporting legends, is out now. This one profiles Brett Fairweather, the effervescent former world aerobics champion and inventor of the Jump Jam craze.


For a feature today, a strong look at the online gambling market, and how more money is being poured into it by New Zealanders. Radio NZ’s Max Towle has looked into the industry, and in particular the regulations around it. In the online space, there are real risks that harm could get out of control, as this excerpt shows.

Internal affairs minister Tracey Martin has a matter-of-fact opinion of gambling. “My personal view is that humans have done it since time immemorial. We’re never going to stop it, so therefore we have to manage it.”

She, like the Problem Gambling Foundation, believes online gambling is a bigger issue than what’s being reported. “I do think it’s a hidden problem, and with all due respect to the Ministry of Health, we’re basically waiting for people to get harmed before we decide it’s a problem. Right now, we’re not able to see those people who are drifting towards harm.”

Online gambling “could be far more dangerous to New Zealanders than [gaming machines] have ever been because it is unregulated”, she says.


Good news for the Silver Ferns, with cup-winning coach Noeline Taurua confirming she’ll stay until at least January next year. However as Radio NZ reports, there are no guarantees after that. It means she will be in place for the Constellation Cup, as well as the Northern Quad series next year. It’s highly likely Netball NZ will continue to try and lock her into a longer term deal.

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Football wunderkind Sarpreet Singh’s chances of regular first team appearances at Bayern Munich have taken a hit. The club have signed Philippe Coutinho, who plays in a similar role, and is really rather good. Even so, Singh likely hasn’t done his cause any harm with his showings in pre-season friendlies, getting some good minutes under his belt and scoring in a penalty shootout.


From our partners: With several high profile government objectives in the spotlight, a single ministry could drive better outcomes across them all. Robyn Holdaway, senior policy advisor at Vector, makes the case for a Ministry for Energy.


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