Gordon Campbell on National‘s aversion to transparency

9b278910b6d47e659e7fIn the last year of a second term in government. the election outcome shouldn’t even be close. All that’s required for a competent Opposition to be streets ahead in the polls, is an ability to look like a credible government-in-waiting.

Instead, we’ve got a very tight contest. There’s a reason for that. Under its current leader, National can’t manage to stop its own avowed coalition partner from stealing its traditional supporters. That being so, it is hardly surprising that National is having trouble in convincing centrist voters that it really, truly can be trusted to manage the affairs of the entire country.

One reason for voter hesitancy: So far, the centre right bloc has shown no semblance of compatibility or policy coherence. Remember how often when Labour was last in Opposition, it used to be pestered about how it planned to manage those allegedly crazy Greens? Labour used to be required to promise that if elected, it would keep Russel Norman away from any economic portfolio. Nothing like the same questions have been put to National about how it proposes to manage the extremism of ACT. Does National plan to keep David Seymour away from any portfolio to do with welfare policy, and/or with economic management?

All too often, the Man Who Used To Run An Airline seems to be flying by the seat of his pants. It is a little chilling to think that in less than five months time, this coalition of bumblers and wild-eyed ideologues could be running New Zealand.

Running Cover For The Boss

If elected, National is promising to go through government spending line by line. However it is refusing to allow the public – let alone the media – to apply the same rigour to its own election promises. In a break from a tradition honoured by John Key and Bill English, National is refusing to release the full costs of its election promises until fewer than four weeks before Election Day.

That’s right. National won’t release its full costs until after the Treasury has released its Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Update (PREFU). As CTU economist Craig Renney pointed out last week, there is no valid reason for that level of delay:

“ACT recently released its fiscal plan. Labour, in opposition in 2017, released a fiscal plan and then updated it when the PREFU numbers came out. John Key released a fiscal plan and then updated it when the numbers came out.

The few figures that National has released are cause for alarm. Last week, CTU researchers found that a $1.5 billion fiscal hole exists in National’s plans to adjust the tax brackets. The cost of this adjustment has blown out from $6.64 billion in four years to $8.2 billion. Last week, National’s leader Christopher Luxon conceded that the CTU figures are “about right.”

So far though, National has given no indication as to how it plans to make up the revenue. Nor has it revealed what public services it plans to cut to make up the difference. Obviously, cutting back on a few advisers and contractors won’t do the trick.

If this was an isolated example of the confusion on National’s front bench it might be tolerable. But it isn’t.

The housing policy debacle

Voters really dislike parties that discard principle and engage in opposition purely for opposition’s sake. Housing – one of our most pressing social problems – has just fallen prey to this process again.

As widely reported, National has broken the bi-partisan commitment it signed with the government in 2021. At the time, this agreement – intended to address the housing shortage – was touted as evidence of politicians being willing to set aside personal party advantage and act for the greater good. At the time, National’ now deputy leader Nicola Willis had hailed the bi-partisan agreement as a “win/win” for home buyers and renters alike, and then went on:

“New Zealand has some of the most unaffordable housing in the world. The impact of our housing shortage reaches right across our communities, robbing too many of the aspiration of home-ownership, leaving thousands homeless and fuelling inequality,” she said.

“Today National and Labour are coming together to say an emphatic ‘yes’ to housing in our backyards.”

Not anymore. National has now backed out of the agreement, humiliating Willis in the process. Instead, it has offered its own plan, which re-opens the door to all the old problems of urban sprawl – not the least by potentially locating housing builds on the fast disappearing “green fields” farmland required for food production.

The National plan also fails to significantly address the need for added infrastructure to make this re-embrace of urban sprawl socially sustainable.

Why the change? The apparent aim is to curry favour with older NIMBY voters who oppose infill housing. The National plan would therefore permit councils to opt out of the agreed housing standards, that would have permitted three -storey builds in our major cities, on zoned residential land. Instead, as Newshub explained:

It would give councils discretion to either increase density or develop farmland – called green field sites – but they would be required to zone land for 30 years worth of housing demand in the “ short “ term…according to National housing spokesman, Chris Bishop.

By using funds derived from scrapping Kiwibuild, National would also create a $1 billion fund for councils and developers to compete for “ Build for Growth incentive payments” to deliver more new housing.

Many older NIMBY voters in the likes of Christchurch will probably love it.

Talking of short term thinking…

On the weekend, National also changed the goalposts on its earlier commitment to gradually raise the retirement age from 65 to 67, staring in 2037. Luxon had previously described this change and defended the timeframe as something that “needed to be done.”

“It’s the sensible, pragmatic, practical thing we have to do.” When asked, Luxon was unable to say how much money a person living alone on superannuation was paid a week. But he said the amount and how they survived off it was a different issue.

Indeed. And surviving one’s own policy announcements is a different issue again. On the weekend, National back-tracked by extending the phase-in date by seven years, mainly to lessen the political backlash from voters at this election.

In the original version of the policy, voters aged 52 (and under) who voted for National would have in effect, been voting to postpone their access to the pension they’d been paying taxes for decades to obtain. Along the way, they would also have been facing the need to find an estimated $50,000 a year for the years between 65 and 67, to make up for the shortfall.

Now, however, it seems that only anyone born in or after 1979 ( i.e, voters aged 45 and under) would be volunteering to penalise themselves by voting National and – thereby – postponing the retirement they would otherwise be receiving at 65.

Senior MP Chris Bishop did a media stand-up on Saturday in response to Labour but was talking about a timeframe even further into the future – a phasing from 2044, affecting those born after 1979.

That policy shift would mean fewer people would be disadvantaged by having to wait longer for their super, extending that to many now in their forties, or the younger Gen X.

According to a National Party spokesperson, the public hadn’t been told earlier about the looming policy change because it “mostly hasn’t come up, until now…” This is a major backdown. Bill English has set that phase- in date as commencing at 2037. Ever since, Luxon had insisted that raising the retirement age was (a) essential and (b) needed to be phased in from 2037.

Back when Luxon was touting the 2037 start date, he didn’t appear to have a clue about the Retirement Commission’s research findings that the social impact of raising the retirement age would fall most heavily on women, and on Maori or Pasifika communities. At the time, Luxon had seemed blissfully unconcerned:

At around the 8.30 mark in this Newshub interview, Jenna Lynch had to enlighten him that the change would actually cost potential retirees an extra 50 grand. As Lynch said in an aside, that’s double what it would have cost retirees if the Labour government had followed through on its much-mocked plan to make the major banks pay GST on the retirement services they provide. We all remember the scorn heaped on the government for that proposal Yet Luxon is proposing to double that impact on retirees, and barely a peep of concern is being expressed.

Luxon has now kicked the retirement can down the road for a further seven years, Once elected of course, there would be little to stop National from reverting to business as usual.

Footnote: National’s delay in releasing its full policy costings is a sign that it believes it needs to shield Luxon from media and public scrutiny for as long as is humanly possible.

The man’s inability to think on his feet and explain policy beyond a few pat cliches has become grimly obvious to all. Time and again, his statements have had to be walked back, and “explained” afresh, presumably after input from his advisers, once they’d stopped tearing their hair out.

For those who think Luxon really needs those cue cards, here’s a small piece of supportive evidence. This is Bill English in 2017, explaining why the National government aimed to raise the retirement age:

“New Zealanders are healthier and living longer so adjusting the long-term settings of NZ Super while there is time for people to adapt is the right thing to do,” Mr English says. It will also bring New Zealand into line with other countries like Australia, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany and the United States which are all moving to a retirement age of 67.”

And this is Christopher Luxon speaking in late November of 2022:

Every decade people live 1.3 years longer. It’s not an unreasonable thing and other countries have already fully adopted 67 as a retirement age. It’s the sensible, pragmatic, practical thing we have to do.”

Pretty similar, huh? English was speaking in March 2027 while facing an election in late September of that year. Yet revealingly, he also added this little paragraph:

Mr English says the Government is announcing the change now [i.e. six months before the election!] so that political parties can debate superannuation transparently in the lead-up to the election.

Plainly that example of democracy in action is not something National wants to pursue this year. The very last thing it seems to want is a full, informed and timely debate about its own policy costings.