Uphill battles await both parties upon return to Parliament
Source: http://www.stuff.co.nz/news/110445850/-

2019-02-10 11:21:15

OPINION: It's not exactly a useful exercise to keep score.

The political year has only just begun and there's a river of water to flow under the bridge yet on this, the "year of delivery", the year of tax, industrial relations, education and mental health reform, and the year of policy discussion.

Sheesh! That's a lot of heavy subjects New Zealanders are expected to digest over the next twelve months, and they can expect it all to be iced with a heavy dollop of politiking, claims and counterclaims.

So as we welcome the MPs back to Wellington on Tuesday, it might be a useful to carry out a stocktake of the past month and translate in layman's terms what it means for our political leaders.

Let's face it; this is politics and there are seldom rewards just for participation.

States of the Nation:

Two major speeches, from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Opposition leader Simon Bridges, focused heavily on the economy and both delivered to similarly business-oriented audiences.

That's where the similarities end.

A picture of two very different nations has been painted by the pair of them. Listen to the prime minister and it's a rosy outlook, a few clouds on the horizon but nothing the Government hasn't future-proofed for, and certainly not an overcast day within its control.

She talked up this week's employment data showing wage growth, but glossed over the unemployment rate, which had risen more than expected - 4.3 per cent and a solid sign of softening markets.

Meanwhile, Bridges zoned it closer to home: "For the first time in years our growth per person is falling behind Australia. For many New Zealanders, incomes are struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living."

In the economic debate, where there are very few wrong answers, it can be framed to suit the audience. Ardern's Government has made significant progress in bringing around the business sector, but she'll be conscious of a regression once industrial relations and tax reform starts to roll out.

Where the Nats have business locked down, they need to appeal to everyday New Zealand - and they'll attempt that through appealing to their wallets.

To tax or not to tax:

The Government could well be on a hiding to nothing here, made worse in part, by a deft political move from Bridges.

Labour has promised tax reform, in particular a capital gains tax. It will be the centrepiece policy in a report from an expert working group the Government convened, in part to keep the recommendation of such a tax at arm's length.

Labour wanted to be able to say, in effect, "it's what the experts recommend".

They've run multiple campaigns on the need for a capital gains tax – there is nothing that will make it more politically palatable for homeowners.

They either accept the recommendation and stick to their convictions, even in the face of a difficult Winston Peters, or they walk away and cause extreme anger in the depths of their core vote.

And in his opening salve, Bridges ran the ball straight up the guts and hit the Government where it hurts by committing to a policy of indexing income tax brackets to inflation.

It's widely accepted as good policy – the Government had the option of endorsing it or rubbishing it. Finance Minister Grant Robertson has chosen the latter, which will make for an interesting contortion should the tax  working group recommend it. Which it may well do, because it's an inordinately fair tax policy.

​KiwiBuild a shonky construction?

There's no grey here, this has the potential to be disastrous for the Government if it cannot get on top of construction and start putting nails through wood.

But Ardern is surely fuming that minister Phil Twyford made the admission when he did, that the Government didn't have a hope in hell of reaching its first target – now abandoned.

Overseas and unable to manage the fallout of Twyford's verbal diarrhoea, Ardern was left to feebly refer only to the 10-year target of 10,000 houses – probably a moot point given failure is directly proportionate to the prospects of a second and third term.

When a construction project of this size starts to blow out, it's usually only by cutting corners that it can have the appearance of staying on track – also not a option.

The policy is Labour's flagship one – the promises were unequivocal: "We will fix the housing crisis." National barely has to lift a finger to offer critique; if this behemoth turns into a slow-motion train wreck, it'll also be too big for voters to miss.

The year of delivery:

This is true of both parties, although the Government has a lot more riding on it.

Its made their promises, it's kicked the delivery of them all down the road, and now they've caught back up to the Government and there's no second shot at a conversion.

The Left voting block will indeed be expecting to take delivery on KiwiBuild homes, a fairer tax system, a renewed mental health system and better resourced health system in general.

It's expecting industrial reform and fair pay agreements, hefty new climate change laws and an overhaul of the welfare system. It's a lot of work, and it's all highly controversial.

It's going to require one hell of a communications plan, which has so far been absent.

To add pressure to Ardern, it's all happening at a time where – she rightly states – the world economy is slowing. Irrespective of the fact that's not within the Government's control, it'll still face punishment for it from some quarters.

And for National, it needs to deliver policy and discussion – a difficult job with the limited resources of Opposition, but not remotely the hurdle the Government faces.

The Nats are likely thinking that if they manage that, they may end up looking competent enough to avoid the position the current Government is now in, should they have the opportunity to return.

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