Politicians aren’t talking to us this election year, but to Winston Peters

by Jane Clifton / 28 April, 2017
Winston Peters. Photo/Getty Images

Winston Peters. Photo/Getty Images

We certainly don’t want any repeats this election of David Cunliffe’s cod-bogan attempt to get down with the peeps by calling the prime minister “the greasy liddle follah in da suit!” But MPs seem to be going way too far in the other direction this campaign.

When, seemingly by multi-party accord, the main agenda items are the finer points of town planning appeal machinery and the internal governance structure and scope of the Reserve Bank, suspicion grows that for some reason politicians are deliberately talking over our heads. And not even about pork-barrel stuff.

Resource management and monetary policy are terribly important, but lately we’re getting a pointy-heads’ seminar rather than policies people can see will improve housing affordability, job growth and wages. Everyone (including National, secretly) agrees there’s a housing crisis, so anything that doesn’t directly address this grossest of standard-of-living depressants seems a ridiculous luxury – at any time, let alone on the hustings. Yet even this election’s miserable handout offer, the triennial tax-cut tease, is being larded with technospeak about bracket creep and fiscal drag.

This month's boastful policy-wonk leapfrogging by Labour and National over Reserve Bank reform was reminiscent of the haughty old French code Wodehousian great-aunts used to invoke: “Pas devant les enfants.” Don’t let’s discuss important business in front of the plebs – certainly not in a way that might risk engaging them so that they might form (shudder) opinions.

Part of the reason for this peculiar carry-on, as so often in our politics, is Winston Peters. They’re not really talking to us – they’re talking to him. The risk that National, or more improbably Labour, might have to rely on New Zealand First’s votes to form the next government has caused both parties to stock their larders with offerings and bargaining chips.

Monetary reform has always been dear to Peters’ heart – or at least his rhetoric. He gets irritable if anyone reminds him that even as Treasurer in a past administration, he never did a darn thing about it. But it’s certainly something with which he might be flattered, wooed and won by either main party.

Backhanded tribute

The scramble over the Resource Management Legislation Amendment Bill was another backhanded tribute to NZ First’s potential relevance. The ostensible reason, and the one Prime Minister Bill English seems genuinely seized with, is to bring iwi more meaningfully into development and environmental planning decisions. It also equips the Maori Party, which won whacking great concessions in this legislation, with a stronger election-time trophy chest, arguably, than any other minor party in our history.

A recent poll suggests the party is gaining ground – perhaps despite rather than because of being National’s preferred coalition buddy. Trouble is, Peters would rather gnaw off his own arm than see them succeed any further, so superficially National has promoted them to the status of deal-breaking bollard should NZ First hold the balance of power.

But as with all things Peters, it’s not necessarily that simple. Finding the Maori Party intensely annoying is not the same as refusing to join a coalition arrangement with them: as Peters would style it, NZ First could form a coalition deal to spite them. National could dilute, review or otherwise tactfully defer the iwi-consultation provisions as part of the price for NZ First’s coming on board. Cynics have even suggested iwi scope was strengthened expressly to create this bargaining chip. This is too Machiavellian to be English’s intention. But needs must.

Lest this seem unspeakably dishonourable, this legislation was only ever meant to be temporary. While triumphal waiata were in order to celebrate the new iwi powers, National has also agreed with the Productivity Commission that the entire resource-management framework is overdue a brass-tacks overhaul. The commission has handily given National an excuse in the event it has to go dog on the Maori Party. It could honestly contend that the whole thing was back on the drawing board anyway.

There’s more going on here than hanky-waving at coalition phantoms, though. Labour’s policy signals – endorsed by the Greens – are also a means of telling business and sector groups anxious about economic and fiscal upheaval from a change of government, “Cross our hearts, we’re not swivel-eyed whackos.”

Last month, Labour and the Greens caused both dismay and approval when they issued a statement of joint fiscal/economic intentions that was, by anyone’s standards, conservative. They’ve ruled out new or raised taxes in their putative first term and prioritised infrastructure spending, chiefly KiwiBuild, debt reduction and restocking the Cullen pension fund. As for the housing crisis and the indivisible lag in new infrastructure for it, such as roading and water, Labour has said it will look at new self-contained funding mechanisms, such as municipal bonds.

To the tacit annoyance of National, Labour is now on the same page as the Productivity Commission and the New Zealand Initiative (the think-tank successor to the Business Roundtable). The latter, generously but perhaps tactlessly, praised the party for its far-sighted approach. The upshot is that some lefties are spluttering about the neo-liberal virus infecting their parties.

The C-word

But the headline message is catching on: that only by looking united and orthodox can the Opposition defeat the Government. This is more commonly expressed as the need to win the centre vote, but Labour leader Andrew Little regards any utterance of the word “centre” as heretical, so in the interests of squelching National’s “Angry Andy” taunts, no one uses the c-word around him any more (except mischievous journos on slow news days).

It’s euphemistically referred to as “appealing to disillusioned” National voters – which, handily enough is something National is now focused on, too. With polls showing a little vote slippage, it’s trying to bustle forward popular new housing in Auckland by letting the council part-fund the required supporting infrastructure with selectively higher rates. It’s a way of letting the council raise more revenue, but only from those who benefit from the new housing.

It would be good, though, if ministers could descend from the senior common room sometime before the election and say so. Sensible voters filter out seminar-speak, so it’s doubtful Beehive hints about getting “value capture” from “value uplift” to maintain “optimal local debt ratios” are getting the message across.

This article was first published in the April 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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