ANALYSIS: As MPs vacate Wellington for their summer break, Thomas Coughlan looks back at the decisions that shaped the political year and what they portend for 2020.
It was never really the “year of delivery”.
The phrase, which was to hang like an albatross around the neck of the Government, was first made by Jacinda Ardern at a Labour party caucus retreat at the end of January.
Her coalition partners were horrified. Had Ardern, whose political education was as a staffer in the Clark Government, forgotten that Government’s maxim: “under promise and over deliver”?
The year had already gotten off to a rocky start. January dawned with the admission Labour’s flagship housing policy, KiwiBuild, would only deliver a third of the 1000 houses promised in its first year.
The 1000 home target had only been in place since April 2018 and as late as October KiwiBuild was still forecasting with “high certainty” that 627 homes would be ready for the first deadline in July 2019.
At the end of the month, the Labour caucus met for its retreat in Martinborough. Kiwibuild was the question on everyone’s lips. The issue was deftly dispatched.
KiwiBuild would be taken away for “recalibration”. Labour stuck by its promise, cooked up in the back of a car in 2012, to build 100,000 modestly-priced houses in a decade, but it was obvious that building anything close to the number of houses promised in 2019 would be difficult.
The “year of delivery” line was meant to mask that as early as January, the Government was failing to deliver on one of its key promises.
Ardern’s speech touched on a number of other policy areas, which she described as “areas where we are rightly in delivery mode”: child wellbeing, housing – both community housing and KiwiBuild – the Tax Working Group report, mental health, and climate change.
By the end of 2019, the report card is mixed. The Government has built thousands of public houses, unveiled $1.9 billion of mental health spending, and passed the Zero Carbon Act, alongside making vital reforms to the Emissions Trading Scheme.
Child wellbeing remains something of an open question, but the Government has shelved the heavy-hitting recommendations from its Welfare Expert Advisory Group, which was tasked with alleviating poverty in New Zealand. It’s wish-list of recommendations worked out at $5.2 billion a year, the Government accepted a package of recommendations that would cost $285.8 million over four years – roughly 1 per cent of what the group asked for. Poverty looks like it’s here to stay.
But these problems were all ahead of Ardern in January. Back then (apart from KiwiBuild) she was only facing a bit of light criticism for opting to rub shoulders with the world’s rich listers at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, instead of joining MPs annual pilgrimage to Ratana.
In the meantime, the Government found its mettle. This was forged in crisis of the March 15 terrorist attack.
Coalition grumbles, which had stymied almost every reform not explicitly spelled out in 2017’s agreements between Labour, NZ First and the Greens, were entirely absent. Insiders say the operation was cohesive and swift. When it became clear a gun ban of some kind was needed, there was little debate.
Less than 24 hours after the attack took place, Ardern took to the Beehive Theatrette and proclaimed quite simply, “I can tell you one thing right now. Our gun laws will change”.
Less than a month later, they did.
While New Zealanders grieved, international commentators – sadly more experienced with terror than we were – marvelled at Ardern’s response. Writing in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Ardern had “rewritten the script” of how leaders respond to a terrorist attack.
Leaders from George W. Bush to Norway’s Jens Stoltenberg responded to terrorist attacks with various degrees of sabre-rattling and finger pointing. Ardern’s response was different. She did not deign to name the terrorist, instead focusing on the victims. Terrorism has destabilised politics in nearly every country it’s touched. As yet, March’s attack shows little sign of altering politics for the worse here, in large part thanks to Ardern’s response.
As March became April, the increased attention on Ardern deprived the National party and its leader Simon Bridges of political oxygen. Two polls from that month had Labour’s numbers nudging 50 per cent, with National hovering just above the crucial threshold of 40 per cent.
Parliament was enjoying a rare two week recess in the middle of April. But the rumour mill churned: Judith Collins would mount a leadership bid when Parliament returned. On the day of the next caucus meeting, Newshub was even reporting former prime minister John Key was weighing in on things, although Key himself would not confirm it.
Some months later Stuff spoke to National party members who were in the room. Caucus meetings are strictly confidential and detailed leaks are rare. MPs are even required to leave their mobile phones outside the room.
Accounts differ. One account said the leadership made it clear to caucus that Collins “never had remotely anything approaching the numbers”, and asked her to pull her head into line.
Another account said MPs Anne Tolley and Maggie Barry called up to “attack” Collins for her alleged disloyalty. A visibly elated Bridges faced media just before Question Time at 2pm. He was still the leader of the National Party.
Things only looked up for Bridges. National took the wind out of the Government’s long-awaited Wellbeing Budget, by scraping key details from the Treasury’s website. His party released 10 policy discussion documents which captured public attention through trolling (see Strike Force Raptor and a crackdown on wayward cyclists), but offered some serious debate on things like transport and education
Bridges seems to have found his feet too. He’s more comfortable with himself, leaning into obvious gaffes like his description of Boris Johnson as “buffoon-like”, or his painful repetition of PR attack lines like the Government going soft on “crims, gangs and extremists”.
National is having its cake and eating it too. It signed up to the Zero Carbon Act, pledging to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050, although it wants to let the Climate Change Commission re-look at agricultural emissions if it wins in 2020.
At the same time, the party turned fire on most of the Government’s climate change initiatives, including its ‘feebate’ scheme designed to radically cut the cost of electric vehicles. This was despite National’s own environment discussion document saying transport was “the most significant opportunity in the medium term… but electric cars are still relatively expensive for the average Kiwi family”.
There are also signs National is enjoying the relatively fast and loose nature of policy creation in Opposition. It wants to revive some of the previous government’s expensive roads and unleash a wave of new infrastructure investment, all without raising fuel excise in its first term, or increasing borrowing. A fiscal hole à la 2017 is beginning to open up – but this time it is in National’s back yard, rather than Labour’s.
Meanwhile, the economic storm brewing in the United States and China finally made landfall in New Zealand. A suite of economists joined Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr in calling for the Government to increase spending in infrastructure to keep the ship afloat. But doing that would require it to unshackle itself from its debt limit, an arbitrary cap Labour and the Greens signed themselves up to in 2017. Meanwhile, briefings from Treasury showed the Government was having difficulty spending all the money that it promised.
Twyford, this time in the role of Transport Minister, again found himself caught up in policy trouble, this time in the form of a Treasury briefing that seemed to lay the blame for an underwhelming infrastructure spend at his doorstep.
He ignited a furious round of finger-pointing. Twyford produced new information, this time from the Ministry of Transport ticking off Treasury for misunderstanding some of its terminology. Twyford remonstrated Treasury for reporting the “reckons of private sector infrastructure groups without context and without putting facts around it”.
But Twyford could not deny that the Government’s biggest transport infrastructure project, a light rail line from Britomart to Auckland Airport, was hopelessly behind schedule.
During the election, the Government had promised the first section would be complete by 2021. Now it appears the line won’t even have begun construction by that date.
In October, one of the chief causes of the delay was revealed. A leaked letter from the former interim chair of New Zealand Transport Agency revealed the secretive bid by the NZ Super Fund to build and run the project was allegedly “little more than an idea set out on six pages of power point presentation,” but it was enough to set the entire project back years while the Government weighed-up how to proceed. It’s not yet clear what kind of rail line will be built, let alone who will build it.
NZ First began to sour on the idea – although the party was on the verge of a scandal of its own, in the form of revelations about donations to the NZ First Foundation.
The Government limped into the final sitting block surrounded by the NZ First scandal and a gloomy economic outlook. But as they had done on March 15, the Government front bench rallied, ending the year on a high – so much so that the press gallery unofficially labelled December “the month of delivery”.
Foreign donations were swiftly banned. Finance Minister Grant Robertson unofficially seized control of infrastructure spending, unveiling a $12 billion package mainly directed at roads and rail. Ardern, and Police Minister Stuart Nash, deftly managed the White Island tragedy, again proving their mettle in a crisis.
And as financial markets closed on Thursday, Climate Change Minister James Shaw announced sweeping changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme, which had been left broken and ineffectual for more than a decade.
The two major parties ended the year on a high. Consecutive TVNZ-Colmar Brunton polls have now shown Bridges in a position to form a government. But both of those polls rely on NZ First dropping out of Parliament, something that’s far from certain.
And the Government has some good economic news to share in 2020. The day after Parliament rose, as Labour enjoyed its annual year-end BBQ, Robertson received the most recent Stats NZ economic data showing the economy had grown ahead of nearly every commentator’s expectations. Businesses are starting to feel the Jacindamania too, with two successive business confidence surveys showing an uptick in sentiment.
It’s rare for first term governments to effect change, especially when the economy is looking good, but Ardern and her front bench need to learn the hard lessons of 2019. Ardern and her ministers are good in a crisis, but too often the crises are of their own making.