The Government has a cunning plan to save Auckland – by emptying it

by Jane Clifton / 06 June, 2018
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David Parker. Photo/David White

As part of the growing anti-charm offensive, Labour minister David Parker delivered an ultimatum to ornery Aucklanders.

It’s beginning to look as though the Government’s cunning plan is to encourage New Zealanders, especially Aucklanders, to emigrate. If enough people push off, then the desperate struggle to feed the voracious organism that is our biggest city becomes redundant, and we can go back to the good old days when politicians got themselves filmed in empty sports arenas lamenting the exodus overseas of everyone’s kids.

How else to explain the relentless anti-charm offensive by key Labour ministers? It began as a smarm offensive: “Together we can fix this.” But it has now advanced to what can only be interpreted as a scram! offensive. “If you don’t like it, naff off.”

There are signs recent and intending immigrants here are getting cold feet. But this new policy is aimed at the established citizenry. Honing his initial tough-love approach to tough cheese, Housing Minister Phil Twyford now says if Aucklanders don’t like what Auckland will become under the Government’s KiwiBuild plans, they should move to Dairy Flat or Pokeno. This is on the “let them eat cake” continuum of political empathy.

What makes it the more pointlessly abusive of querulous citizens is that, on sober analysis, it’s a hollow ultimatum. It will be several years before KiwiBuild makes any appreciable difference to Nimby-minded locals. If they did then decide to move to the likes of Dairy Flat and Pokeno, those rural retreats would rapidly turn into over-burdened quasi-urban areas. Disgruntled original rural retreaters would then have to find pastures new for their lifestyle properties – whereupon they would fall foul of the coming strictures proposed by Environment Minister David Parker against occupying rural land that could be used for horticulture.

Parker’s rhetoric, which has included terms like Nimbyism and McMansions, is a signal that the Government regards lifestylers as self-indulgent. It’s a valid viewpoint by some standpoints, but New Zealanders have become used to more neutrality from politicians about their life choices. Not since the 1970s, when the Muldoon Government decreed whole industries and products, such as boat-building, cosmetics and handicrafts, to be unnecessary and taxed them into the ground, have we seen quite such bold vice-and-virtue signalling from the Beehive.

The successful retail politician at least tries to take people with them when difficult decisions have to be made, laying out the benefits and highlighting the harmful alternatives. My way or the highway-style barking only works on sheep. It’s tempting in politics to demonise the unco-operative: those anxious about the resource pressure from high immigration are racist; those who resent their sun and views being built out are selfish blood-sucking boomers. But in the end, even those inconvenient to one’s righteous political plans have a vote.

Cattle class

A contrast with this political play is the Government’s measured handling of the Mycoplasma bovis crisis. No one will be completely happy, even if the cattle disease can be eradicated, as it has exposed inadequate border inspection and stock handling, as well as leaving many blameless farmers out of pocket. But the Government has wisely resisted harping too much on the failure of the animal movement-tracking regulations. These are a dog’s breakfast and have enabled what should have been avoidable spread of the disease. But the politics – braying about undoubted slackness by the previous Government and Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), and naughtiness by one or more farmers – are for now almost irrelevant. The culprit may well be a single illicit embryo import. And M bovis is an elusive foe, asymptomatic in its early stages and hard to reliably diagnose. Finger-pointing would squander precious public oxygen needed to communicate what’s needed to fix the problem and help devastated farmers and sharemilkers through the process. It’s been refreshing to see remorse from MPI, if not about the rickety stock regulation, then at least about some high-handed and unnecessarily arbitrary treatment of some affected farms.

Suspect stock can now be managed for an optimal return before culling, and new assurances of farmer compensation being just weeks in the processing are impressive. It might not eradicate the disease, but it looks like a concerted and considered effort.

Perhaps, most heroically, Parker has somehow been prevented from crowing that this will be 160,000 fewer cows peeing and pooing in rivers.

Pull out the chequebook

M bovis’s $886 million clean-up bill should have, but mysteriously hasn’t, deprived Opposition leader Simon Bridges of his favourite line: “This Government is awash with cash!” He has chosen a novel, even daring tack for a National leader: goading the Government for not spending more money. Even if his dubious boast that clever, provident National left a sea of money were true, farmer compensation and a border beef-up would likely hoover up all trace of it.

The latest polls suggest crying rich isn’t working for Bridges – but it isn’t not working, either. National is still out-polling Labour – a remarkable achievement for a first-term Opposition. But Bridges’ personal polling, extrapolated on a population basis, would only make him preferred Prime Minister for Wellington. This leaves him crushingly far behind Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who could claim the whole of Auckland, with Hawera thrown in.

Possibly more disturbing for him, though, is that Judith Collins can now command at least Napier-Hastings as preferred PM – though probably not a single other MP in National’s caucus, which is Bridges’ saving grace, for now. Like Winston Peters (just ahead of her with enough to be boss of Tauranga), she probably has a higher unfavourable rating than a favourable one. But she’s a force to be reckoned with. Just three months in, Bridges is doing the smart thing by going on the road and introducing himself to voters town by town. But while the cat’s away, Collins, with her disingenuous “who, me?” smile, has the room and the talent to make more of the all-important TV sound-bite connection with the public.

A further sign Bridges hasn’t yet seized control of the party is his deputy Paula Bennett’s commissioning of a John Key Facebook video message to gee up the faithful for the Northcote by-election. Now there’s Parker/Twyford-grade tactlessness for you. All that’s missing is the sub-titles: “Big Daddy’s still here, even if you’re not too sure about New Daddy.”

This article was first published in the June 9, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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