A harbinger for the election

by RNZ / 13 February, 2017

Parties were painted as serial moaners and ‘stuck in the stone-age’ as insults flew thick and fast in the first week back at Parliament, writes RNZ's Phil Smith and Daniela Moate-Cox.

On Tuesday Prime Minister Bill English delivered his Statement in which he argued that the National-led coalition had been excellent for New Zealand.

The Prime Minister’s Statement is given annually (in a non-election year) to kick off the start of Parliament.

Way back in the early days MPs only met for a few months every year and then they went home. When they left, Parliament was dissolved, or prorogued, by the Governor General.

The Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae Governor General of New Zealand inspect the guard during the official opening of Parliament

 

Every year the Sovereign (in New Zealand usually the Governor General), formally summoned and reopened Parliament with an address from the throne - this now only happens after an election.

In other years parliament begins with a Statement from the Prime Minister which is mostly an outline of the Government's plan for the year, formally it is also a request for a vote of confidence from the House - a vote to see if a majority of the House still supports the current administration.

Prime Minister Bill English outlines his agenda for the year and asks for the House to express confidence in the government.

Before they vote on that - which they plan to do on Tuesday 14 February - there's a 13 hour long debate about the Government's performance.

Because this is an election year that debate set up the issues the parties are likely to push in the campaign to come.

In Mr English’s statement, he argued that in these turbulent times the current Government was the best option going forward.

Bill English at the announcement that this year's General election will be held on 23 September.

“There is only one party that can guarantee political stability in this country through this election, and it is the National Party and its potential support partners,”  he said.

“Anything else—anything else—creates uncertainty when we need more certainty, not less.”

Mr English also took the chance to paint the opposition as unstable by portraying them as relentlessly negative with the National caucus playing back-up singers.

“You would think that the first benefit increase in 40 years would have made them happy. No. No, it did not. You would have thought 130,000 new jobs last year would make them happy. No,” he said.

“You would have thought that better educational achievement, particularly for the Māori and Pacific students whom they think they represent, would make them happy. Did it make them happy?”

“No!” his caucus shouted in reply.

“No, it did not.” Mr English continued.

“You would have thought that, listen to this, 50,000 fewer children in benefit-dependent households would make them happy. Did that make them happy?

“No!”

Voters tend to like certainty, and despite a brand new leader, a sitting government has an easier time presenting itself as stable and sure.

Labour Party leader Andrew Little outlines his party's issues for the election year.

Which is why Andrew Little presented a Labour-Green coalition as a government-in-waiting.

“We are never afraid of rising to the challenges,” he said.

“But, as a country, we get to do that only when we have a leader prepared to step up and stand up and speak up for the things that matter and the people who matter.”

“Are we prepared to pave the way and chart the course for the next generation? Are we prepared to have a leader who will do just that—engage with New Zealanders and restore their sense of hope again? That is the Labour Party. That is me. It is time for new leadership.”

A full house was present for the Prime Minister's Statement but the ambience diminished with each speaker as the House thinned when MPs, having cheered or jeered the major leaders and their own leaders, left to tend to other business.

Furthering the attack on the opposition as unstable Mr English linked his opponents with the President of the United States, Donald Trump.

“I know on the other side of the House they are right in line with the US policy, which is to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Is it not amazing when you find out whose friends are whose?” he said.

Variations of this Trump attack were flying in all directions all week.

Peter Dunne giving his 2015 Budget speech.

United Future's Peter Dunne said he would not let “the populists run amok” with the country while the Maori Party’s Te Ururoa Flavell aimed a Trump barb at Winston Peters.

“The country has got to wake up to the agenda by at least one party that is almost Trump-like” he said.

“What they do is they roll out—and it is starting to happen already—the anti-Māori flavour, the anti-Māori gun. That is what they pull out. Immigration—anybody who is not a Kiwi, oh, you are up for it.“

The ACT Party’s David Seymour, also took aim at Mr Peters saying New Zealand could “do better than handing the balance of power to New Zealand’s Trump movement,” and threw the Labour Party and the Green Party into the mix as “running the xenophobic lines as hard as anyone ever has.”

While Mr Peters cast some of his attention on the press gallery.

“We are going to shock you guys in this campaign and we are going to shock you guys as well,” he said.

“We are going to turn your polls into confetti. I would have thought from the Brexit campaign and the campaign in Australia and the campaign in the United States that you in the gallery might have learnt that your polls are drivel.”

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters.

In addition to putting each other down, the MPs took the chance to outline their major focus for the election year, with housing jumping to the top of the list.

Mr English, in the Prime Minister's Statement spent a sizable chunk of his time on housing while other parties took the chance to attack the Government’s efforts.

Mr Little lamented the amount of debt run up by households saying   “thousands of young New Zealanders are still not able to afford their first homes” despite National having nearly nine years in Government.

Mr Peters focused on Mr English’s state of the nation speech given the week before where he “did not even mention the house price debacle” and Mr Dunne weighed in on the amount of talk about housing and potential solutions.

“One step that the Government could take at no cost would be to allow young families, young couples-recipients of Working for Families-to capitalise on an annual basis their Working for Families entitlement to go towards the cost of either bridging the deposit gap or meeting their housing costs,” said Mr Dunne.

“That is a very simple concept.”

ACT also used housing as a stick to beat them with.

“If we are going to be serious,” said Mr Seymour.

"We know that National will not solve it either, because it has had nine years too It is very simple: it is because it is inherently a conservative party.”

The Act Party's David Seymour debates the Prime Minister's Statement in the House.

"It is not a right-wing party,” he said adding that National has been in Government five times and “each time has preserved the policies bequeathed to it by the preceding Labour Government. That is just yin and yang; that is the rhythm of New Zealand politics.”

The only party that didn't make a focus of housing or populism during the leader's speeches was the Green Party which focused on outlining their concerns about the environment, comparing New Zealand to other countries.

“We have a Government that is stuck in the Stone Age,” said its co-leader James Shaw.

“Too timid, too ignorant, or too scared of the vested interests that it represents to put in place policies that have been proven to work in other countries.”

The Green Party co-leader James Shaw debates the Prime Minister's Statement and delivers the party's main focus for this year's election campaign.

Self promotion and setting an election agenda were not the only pieces of business achieved this week; the Government progressed legislation through the House, and Select Committees held a busy roster of financial reviews where they grilled the leaders of Government entities. 

It was a busy week and clearly the beginning of an election year in Parliament with more talk on stability, readiness, Trump and housing to come.

 

This article was originally published by RNZ.

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