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How KiwiBuild turned into a PR disaster

Phil Twyford and Judith Collins: bombast and sound bites. Photo/Getty Images

The KiwiBuild announcement was not about getting the poor out of cars, garages and doorways. It was a middle class lottery win.

When Michael Joseph Savage helped lug furniture into the first state house in Miramar in 1937, he would little have dreamt that a future version of his welfare state’s housing provision could entail the installation of outdoor pizza ovens, Scandi furniture and giant-screen TVs.

It would have saved a lot of misunderstanding and unpleasantness had the Government shelved the title KiwiBuild and called that particular avenue of its housing policy DeveloperRescue.

This PR debacle is what happens when politicians get addicted to photo ops while boasting and swaggering under hard-hats on building sites. KiwiBuild was rhetorically styled as Savage’s second coming, but it was always a rather more limited and expedient operation than simply housing people on low incomes.

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New-build supply in Auckland’s bonkers housing market has been stalling because some developments have fallen over. The Government, rightly thinking “waste not, want not”, took over some projects that happened to be at the upper-midpoint of the market, and has presented the early fruits of this as part of KiwiBuild. This has been hopelessly confusing. Housing Minister Phil Twyford’s bombast has helped stoke the impression that KiwiBuild was all about low-income battlers and starter homes, when some of the projects are a bit flasher than that. Further muddlement had it that these were “state homes”, or that the taxpayer was actually gifting them to people.

National’s Judith Collins kept reminding Twyford in Parliament and via TV sound bites about the “failed development” aspect of KiwiBuild. To her delight, she couldn’t save him from himself. “High-vis” Phil resolutely behaved as though it was all his own beneficent work. Come the grand launch, when news footage showed conspicuously flash homes balloted to people so ascendantly middle class they might not even qualify as battlers, there was public opinion hell to pay.

This was not getting the poor out of cars, garages and doorways. This was granting a lottery win to people who looked as though they could get themselves into a home without a state leg-up.

Unfair enough

None of these perceptions of KiwiBuild are fair, but they’re understandable. The “housing the poor” stuff is happening elsewhere in various ministers’ portfolios, but it’s not happening fast enough for building-site photo ops and boastful press releases. The Government has made the best of a bad situation in ensuring these stalled developments went ahead. It tried to justify state involvement by building some price and resale limits around the properties – fair enough – but also by rebranding the exercise as some form of social housing. It’s barely most people’s idea of that.

It would have been better to frame KiwiBuild as the state stepping into places the private sector had failed – incidentally, not a bad message for any of the governing parties’ voter bases.

Instead, KiwiBuild is more like an overwrought infomercial. “Aaaaannnd … here’s one I built earlier! In easy instalments – $649,000 and a bonus mandarin tree from the Prime Minister. Send no money now!”

Cartoon/Chris Slane

As they also say, “(Results may vary)”. Middle-income battlers was not a space the Government would have prioritised so noisily itself. But its alternative option was to let the developments fail, which would have helped no one.

Suffice it to say, Government MPs would be better off making their next building-site appearances as actual builders’ labourers rather than to be filmed. The quicker some actual new state and starter-homes can be produced, the likelier this PR disaster will recede in voters’ memories.

Meanwhile, the ink’s barely dry on the waka-jumping bill and it’s having the effect of a rogue GPS device that keeps suggesting routes to brick walls, culs-de-sacs and unbuilt bridges.

The Electoral Act amendment had the legal and human-rights firmaments rending their hair, and is now disappointing them in new and ingenious ways. To its detractors, it’s a nefarious provision that will cruelly smite any MP righteous enough to stand up against their own party. The first waka-jumping martyr has been eagerly awaited. For a minute there it looked as though Jami-Lee Ross would be thus ennobled. The Electoral Act now gives a party the power to remove a caucus renegade such as Ross from Parliament altogether, under the premise that nothing should distort the election-day will of the people as to the proportionality of the House.

Is there a martyr in the house?

Trouble is, Ross’ primary beef was not some high-flown principle, but his own lack of promotion. His secondary fit of conscience about the handling of party donations may yet have some validity, but for now he is neither martyr nor whistle-blower, but a guy who has gone untidily off the rails after behaving badly towards women. And being hors de combat receiving mental-health treatment, he’s no poster boy for or against iniquitous threats to democracy or individuals’ rights just now.

But National, too, found itself unexpectedly off-track when it realised it could only stop Ross drip-feeding allegations under parliamentary privilege by triggering the waka-jumping clause – after months of having spoken so pompously against it.

That dilemma has now been solved for it. Sort of. Although Ross has resigned from the caucus, he does not have to withdraw his vote from National. He could just assign his now-independent vote to it by proxy, and thus protect the proportionality of Parliament and make himself unexpellable. This week, he confirmed he is doing just that.

Now, whoa – a new dead-end: National is considering declining to accept Ross’ proxy vote. This is daft upon daft. It means that National, not Ross, would be mucking up the proportionality of Parliament. Could the act be invoked to sack the 55 remaining National MPs for this misdemeanour? Hardly. But while Ross remains on leave, if his vote is left uncast while National has the option of casting it for him, it is the one in the wrong.

Once Ross is back, National won’t be able to stop him casting his vote with it, the party he has vowed to discredit. As for the hypocrisy of voting with the party he opposes, that’s just one of those costs of doing political business. Ross has ducked worse criticisms.

There may, after all, be something psychologically self-protective in MPs’ addiction to wearing hard hats.

This article was first published in the November 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.