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The BulletinMay 29, 2023

National u-turn overshadows low-key Labour congress


It was supposed to be Hipkins’ moment in the spotlight, but all anyone was talking about was a backtrack by Luxon, writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

A policy-light Labour conference

Labour’s 2023 congress was on this weekend, and you could be forgiven for missing that it happened at all. The annual conference – Chris Hipkins’ first as leader – was a low-key affair that produced little in the way of news. The Apprenticeship Boost scheme will be made permanent, and the super age will stay at 65. That’s about it, as far as policy goes. Instead, the focus was on highlighting the differences between a Labour and a National-Act government – and arguing that the latter would represent a “coalition of cuts”. Noted Marc Daalder in Newsroom, “The cuts line is clearly doing well in focus groups, with the word ‘cuts’ appearing 25 times across the three speeches from ministers on Saturday.” Hipkins’ keynote speech on Sunday “was not so much about fresh sparkly policy than about the rebrand – to the Hipkins Labour Party”, writes Newshub’s Jenna Lynch. “Hipkins is willing to go where Ardern wouldn’t: on the attack.” To the NZ Herald’s Claire Trevett (paywalled), the policy-light congress “was a lost opportunity – especially for Hipkins’ first outing as leader at a Labour conference. It led to the inevitable question: has Labour run out of ideas?”

Confirmed: National is out of the housing accord

As Trevett notes, Sunday “became all about the housing announcement” – the confirmation that National is pulling out of the bipartisan accord on medium density residential standards (MDRS) that deputy leader Nicola Willis helped develop. National will allow councils to opt out of the standards, which are designed to encourage townhouse construction in most urban areas, and will instead require urban councils to zone land for 30 years’ worth of housing demand immediately. “The law currently says you have to allow essentially the three by three [up to three dwellings of three storeys] across vast swathes of suburban New Zealand. We’re saying to councils: you can pick and choose where,” housing spokesperson Chris Bishop told Q&A’s Jack Tame. Act deputy leader Brooke van Velden called National’s proposal “a complicated version” of Act’s own policy, while PM Hipkins said the MDRS might need to be changed to ensure “certainty” for developers. He also took a swipe at the Opposition: “If Nicola Willis can’t trust Christopher Luxon to stand by commitments the National Party has made, why should any New Zealander?”

Questions about the wisdom of courting the nimbys

On Businessdesk (paywalled), Dileep Foneska says Act’s strong showing in the polls may be behind Luxon’s u-turn. Some in National, he surmises, are apparently longing for “the days when it was a vote-winning machine regularly hoarding more than 40% of the vote” and “support for Act barely cracked 1%”. The result is a desire to “compete on the right even if it provides no net benefit for a future centre-right coalition”. For commentator Janet Wilson, the MDRS decision shows Luxon’s limitations as a political strategist. “Rather [than] seeking new voters who would live in those three-storey townhouses, he’s more concerned about the nimbys, who’d vote for him anyway,” she writes. Worse, allowing councils to reimpose restrictions suggests National is “happy to kill off its founding philosophy of less government, less regulation, if it means more votes”. Stuff political editor Luke Malpass agrees the incident is a worrying sign for National. “Luxon has a formidable work ethic and is getting media training, but with the election only months away, the question of whether he is up to it is starting to loom,” Malpass writes.

Does super at 65 still make sense?

Back to what was supposed to be Labour’s big weekend – and its superannuation non-announcement, designed to highlight a contrast with National which backs raising the age of eligibility from 65 to 67 in phases starting on July 1, 2037. Labour’s commitment might be good politics, but Sunday Star-Times editor Tracy Watkins (paywalled) says the government is continuing to duck the “difficult conversations” that need to be had. “In the current economic environment, a policy that pays MPs and judges the universal pension on top of their already generous taxpayer-funded retirement savings schemes no longer stacks up.”

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