Week in Politics: It's going to be the doing that matters

4:18 pm on 15 May 2020

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - The Budget has given the government the money to repair the economy, but it could be in trouble if it isn't seen to be delivering between now and the election in September.

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National Party leader Simon Bridges. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Vote Labour and they will raise your taxes. That line from Simon Bridges' Budget speech in Parliament sounded familiar, and it was a clear indication of what the election campaign is going to be about.

There's only four months to go and the opposition is going to have to work really hard to swing support away from a government that will be able to say it has saved us from a pandemic and is rebuilding the economy.

Bridges and his MPs don't have a lot going for them, but they're making the most of what they do have.

Opinion polls have consistently shown that voters consider National to be better economic managers than Labour, so Bridges is sowing seeds of doubt about the government's ability to deliver on its reconstructions plans.

He is also fixing the "tax, borrow and spend" tag on the government, a tactic the opposition has been using in its election campaigns for decades.

The government is borrowing vast amounts to pay for the economic recovery, mind-bending sums National says will be a huge inter-generational burden that will mean higher taxes if Labour and its coalition partners win a second term.

Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson, Winston Peters, and James Shaw head to the House to present the 2020 Budget.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finance Minister. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

It was interesting that Finance Minister Grant Robertson didn't rule out tax increases in the future when he was interviewed by RNZ on Friday.

That will have pleased National, and Robertson is going to come under huge pressure between now and the election to explain exactly what he meant when he said he had no plans at present to make any changes to the tax system.

Those issues, however, might not matter over the next few months. When people are terrified of losing their jobs and businesses are struggling to stay afloat, discussions about core Crown debt rising to 53.6 percent of GDP in 2023 and how it is going to be repaid will not be of much interest to them.

It is going to be about what actually happens, it is going to be about getting survival cash to businesses and boots on the ground in new jobs.

There is a lot of talk about shovel-ready projects that will create huge employment opportunities, and those shovels are going to have to be seen hitting doing some digging.

The government cannot waste weeks deciding which ones will start first, it does not have months to wait for committees to work out details.

It could be in serious trouble if it bumbles along between now and the election without people actually seeing results, without actually seeing people working on roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects.

It does have some firm plans for helping businesses, and it has shown it can deliver through schemes such as wage support and interest-free loans. The sector has generally welcomed those plans, although many businesses are likely to need wage support well beyond the eight-week extension in the Budget.

Looking past the Budget

While the Budget dominated the news this week there were other important developments as the country moved into level 2.

The government brought a controversial bill to Parliament, under urgency, giving police the powers they need to enforce the restrictions.

Opposition MPs pretended to be horrified by police being given powers to enter homes without a warrant. They talked about New Zealand being turned into a police state with officers bursting into houses if there were 11 children at a party.

It has been pointed out that the police have had those powers since the lockdown began under a National State of Emergency, and that warrantless searches have been allowed under the Search and Surveillance Act for years.

The bill, which passed 63-57, replaces emergency powers issued under the Health Act with laws passed by Parliament.

The day before the Budget the government was mildly embarrassed by having to change its mind about the number of people allowed to attend funeral and tangihanga. It had kept the limit at 10 under level 2, and faced a backlash that it just didn't want to deal with.

So it talked to funeral directors, iwi leaders and others to work out how social distancing and other precautions could be maintained with more than 10, and came up with a new figure of 50.

It's fairly safe to predict there will be occasions when the new limit is ignored, and the police probably won't be too concerned. Stuff carried a report about as many as 300 biker gang members turning up at a funeral in Matamata as several police officers watched on.

The local police chief said officers would follow up with those at the service "who may have breached the restrictions".

There was also the curious story about Labour MP Louisa Wall taking legal action against her own party over the acceptance of a nomination from Arena Williams to contest the candidacy for the seat. It apparently came in after the deadline in February.

Party president Claire Szabo said the party was careful to follow its constitution. Not much else is known because Wall declined to comment.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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