Gordon Campbell on childcare as an election bribe

bb121902f316feb1546eDown the years, centre-right parties have always found male voters to be receptive to a mix of hard-line economic politics and harsh stances on welfare. But women voters? Not so much. Therefore, with a possible National/ACT government now bidding to be one of the most extreme right wing governments in living memory, it was not surprising that Christopher Luxon’s big speech yesterday featured an early childcare tax rebate pitched at women voters.

National’s “Family Boost” programme will be in addition to Labour’s extended childcare subsidy announced last year, decried by National at the time as “ band aid economics.” National will now retain that subsidy and add to it:

Our plan will specifically target lower and middle-income families, to make their lives a bit easier….National’s Family Boost childcare tax rebate will help 130,000 low-and-middle-income families keep more of what they earn, with up to $75 more in their after-tax pay each week. That’s $3,900 every year, depending on their income.

“Families will receive a 25 percent rebate on their early childhood education expenses, up to the maximum of $3,900 per year.

“It is a targeted programme that will be available to families earning up to $180,000, with the full $75 a week rebate available to those families earning up to $140,000.”

National’s estimate is that at current childcare participation rates, this scheme would cost $250 million annually. Yet if past experience with childcare support is anything to go by, the availability of the rebate will cause the demand for childcare to rise. Costs will then blow out, by maybe as much as $70 million a year. That’s assuming the sector has the resources to cope with the expected rise in demand. Pointedly, the National plan does not direct any additional support to the workers and firms providing the service.

Given the current economic outlook, there could also be contradictory forces at work. if and when the expected recession finally arrives. As the recession causes unemployment to rise, fewer people will be eligible for either the Labour subsidy or for National’s Family Boost, since both schemes require the applicant to be in paid employment.

Paying for it

That aside, how does National propose to pay for its generous Family Boost programme? This is where things veer off into ideological fantasy:

The policy would be funded by reducing the number of consultants in the public sector. National’s spokesperson for the public service Simeon Brown said the amount spent on contractors and consultants had significantly increased under Labour.

Since consultants are doing the work formerly done by permanent staff, this is political code for a significant cut in public services, in both range and quality. BTW, I just hope no-one tells the guy who used to run an airline, and who used to hire external consultants because… That was seen by Air NZ to be the best way to reduce the airline’s fixed overhead costs and gain the breathing space to grow its business, amidst a worrying rise in operational costs:

Air New Zealand is bringing in outside consultants to look at ways of carving an extra 5 per cent from its overhead costs…. An internal document to senior leaders from chief financial officer Jeff McDowall [explained]:

”Our aim is to deliver meaningful, sustainable reductions in our overhead cost base. We’re targeting a reduction of 5 per cent in addition to the normal annual cost efficiencies that are necessary to offset the impact of inflation.”

Yep, the savings made by Air New Zealand from its use of consultants would help the airline meet its reduced growth targets, and thus still manage to grow the business during hard times:

Chief executive Christopher Luxon said the airline planned to grow it network at between of 3 per cent and 5 per cent a year on average for the next three years – down from a forecast 5 per cent to 7 per cent. This reflected the slower demand growth.

Right. So for the guy who used to run Air New Zealand, bringing in more consultants enabled him to save money and offset inflation, and manage to achieve growth in the face of adversity. Yet now, during a cost of living crisis fuelled by inflation, the same guy wants to reduce the number of consultants as the way to save the money required to finance his election bribe to women voters. Wow. Didn’t Luxon learn anything while he was CEO of Air New Zealand?

There’s only one way this makes sense. National’s real aim is to finance its election sweeteners by cutting public services to the people in need of them. And the more lollies that National hands out, the more pressure there will be to reduce those public services.

Footnote: Along the way, Luxon’s speech yesterday also resurrected the old National Party chestnut of banning the wearing of gang patches in public. Regulating what people can wear is a very odd position for any party that claims to believe in free expression, and in reducing government interference in peoples’ lives. (It also violates the Bill of Rights.) And surely it was in poor taste for Luxon to revive the idea in the very same week that former National MP Chester Borrows died.

Borrows had tried the same idea of banning gang patches, 14 years ago in Whanganui. It failed. Last year, Borrows rubbished Luxon’s interest in reviving the policy:

His bill was a futile and ultimately ineffective measure, the former Courts Minister says, 13 years after the Wanganui​ District Council (Prohibition of Gang Insignia) Bill was passed into law. Borrows, who is also a former police officer and current member of the Parole Board, is now criticising his former party – saying its latest proposal to curb gang crime was designed for “big headlines” and would be mostly ineffectual in practice… Police will either spend a lot of time trying to enforce this, and it may not be all that helpful, or the police will ignore it and the public will be upset it isn’t being enforced.”

According to Borrows, an effective policy on gangs needed to address why people joined gangs in the first place – and with a focus on prison reform, intergenerational gang membership, and the socio-economic reasons why joining gangs was seen to be such a compelling option. There’s no sign of any of those positive steps coming from Luxon or from the parry he leads. It is now all about getting the ‘big headlines.”

Enter ACT, further right

Currently, the ACT Party holds the world land speed record for going from climate change denial to the point where global warming is a problem so immense we can only adapt to its awesomeness, since – supposedly – it would be futile for New Zealand to reduce its emissions. Alas, the “when” and “how” of ACT’s conversion experience has been lost to history.

Still, the one common factor in ACT’s changing positions on climate change is that the people creating the bulk of our emissions shouldn’t be asked to reduce them. No way. In the past, this was because ACT claimed climate change wasn’t real, or dangerous. Now, it is because ACT claims everyone just has to learn to live with the conditions that the emitters continue to generate.

Much the same sentiment of course, is evident in ACT’s socio-economic policy. (The losers need to get out of the way of the winners in the fast lane.) On TVNZ’s Q&A programme yesterday, David Seymour refused to accept that his party should be held accountable for the harmful dismissal of climate change that ACT has promoted in the past.

That aside…. Let’s take Seymour at his word. Lets focus only on the here and now, and on ACT’s newest programme for cutting through government red tape and bolding going where it has always gone before. You may be surprised to hear that ACT’s current plans include demolishing tiers of public servants, promoting the business of private insurance companies, and – in some parts of the country – freezing minimum wage increases and suspending the labour rights enshrined in Fair Pay Agreements.

Hmm. ACT has spent the past year railing against the evils of separatism. Yet in its 15 point “recovery” plan from Cyclone Gabrielle, ACT wants to treat Hawkes Bay and Tairawhiti as Bantustans (sorry, as “Free Economic Zones”) that would have separate wage structures and different labour rights to the rest of New Zealand, for a period of three years. As Jack Tame politely pointed out on Q&A, why would any workers be attracted to help Hawkes Bay and Tairawhiti recover, if they were to be paid less, and under potentially exploitative work conditions? Seymour’s response? Let’s wait and see.

Footnote: On Q&A, Seymour made it clear that ACT’s message to the people who weren’t insured and who have lost everything is basically… Suck it up. ACT is not even in favour of compensating the uninsured for their land value.

Footnote Two: Seymour also wants to scrap the RMA consent process within the ravaged areas of the East Coast. Because otherwise, Seymour argued, things might end up like the situation after the leaky buildings crisis, where all sorts of regulations and red tape were imposed on the building industry. Yes, ACT‘s leader really wants to go back to the good old days so that the cyclone rebuild can be done cheaply, and in the kind of giddy “no rules” climate that gave us the leaky buildings crisis:

Seymour also called for council consents to be replaced by mandatory insurance on new builds: “That way, an insurance company is working out, maybe this risk is worth it; maybe it’s not. And I think it’s become a more relevant policy after these disasters because what we’ve seen is that often councils haven’t made the right calculation.

“What’s more, if we start having councils or central government bailing people out, the only way they’re going to respond is the same way they responded after leaky buildings. They will put more stringent bureaucracy and requirements on people who want to build, because they are on the hook.”

You have to concede that this is quite a novel idea. Replace flooded buildings with (potentially) leaky rebuilds, and then let the people affected sort it out with their insurance companies. What could possibly go wrong?

Big Thief, Colbert

Anyone who caught Big Thief’s recent shows in New Zealand will have heard Adrianne Lenker unveil several new songs. The most memorable of them was the “ Vampire Empire” song that the band featured last week on Stephen Colbert’s late night show. Oddly, she seems to have slowed down the tempo from the version she played in Wellington, at least. It puts the song at risk of plodding, when it should feel like an inevitable headlong rush. And a flute is always a bad sign of over-thinking the situation.

Add this one to the list of songs that sounded better in the moment than in the versions preserved for posterity. Still good, but… in Wellington, the scream that Lenker delivered to finish the song was hair-raising.