19 Sep 2023

Labour's Chris Hipkins shies from curbing spending promises

10:41 am on 19 September 2023
Labour's Chris Hipkins and Ginny Andersen visit Porirua Women and Family Centre to talk with staff about their work. There is a combination of Whare Manaaki, WINZ, Women's Refuge, Living Without Violence at the centre.

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Labour leader Chris Hipkins is defying calls from other parties to revise spending promises, saying the party has already scaled down its offering.

ACT's leader David Seymour and NZ First leader Winston Peters have both said the major parties should be reconsidering their flagship tax changes - income bracket adjustments in National's case, and GST off fruit and vegetables in Labour's.

Hipkins told RNZ's Morning Report host Corin Dann Labour's manifesto was "a very modest one" and had been scaled back already.

"We've already seen about $4 billion [over four years] worth of savings," he said, referring to cuts and reprioritisations the government identified late last month.

"There are certainly policies that we've considered that we've decided not to go ahead with, because we decided that the country couldn't afford them at this time."

Hipkins would not identify any examples, however: "We're not going to announce policies that we're not announcing, because we've decided not to do them," he said.

The calls to curb spending followed the opening of the government's books in the pre-election fiscal and economic update (PREFU) a week ago.

The figures were not as disastrous as many economists had predicted, with New Zealand expected to avoid recession, wages ahead of inflation, high employment, and a return to surplus in 2026/27.

The fiscal situation was still bad, however, with slower growth and a higher deficit than what the Budget had predicted in May.

This did not stop the spending promises flowing, with Labour on Monday promising rebates of up to $4000 for homes that installed solar panels and a battery, as well as panels for social houses and a $20 million fund for community-based renewable energy projects.

Hipkins said that policy would be funded out of the Climate Emergency Response Fund (CERF), money raised through the Emissions Trading Scheme from polluters which was intended to be ringfenced for emissions reduction and climate change adaptation.

"We think that investment in solar panels is actually good for New Zealand's overall resilience, it will help to save household power bills," Hipkins said. "What we're not going to do, though, is raid the Climate Emergency Response Fund to pay for tax cuts, which of course, is what the National Party are proposing.

"I don't think it's affordable. And I think the reason that they're not releasing their costings is because they know that it's not affordable."

Labour leader Chris Hipkins speaks to media on 18 September, 2023.

Labour leader Chris Hipkins speaks to media. Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

National has consistently refused to explain how it came up with the figures it has estimated it could raise via new taxes and "backroom" public service cuts to pay for its tax relief package. It also expects to rake in $2.3b over four years directly from the CERF for the tax cuts.

Labour's hands are not fully clean from using the CERF either, having moved $236m from the ETS fund into the general pool of government revenue when it found its savings in August, forcing an apology from Finance Minister Grant Robertson for failing to inform Climate Minister and Green co-leader James Shaw.

"There's actually only one party who is saying that they can afford multibillion-dollar spending up through in the form of tax cuts, and that's the National Party," Hipkins told Morning Report.

Hipkins on attack over candidates' former views

National and Labour are also both facing criticism over views their candidates have previously shared on social media.

National's Hamilton East candidate Ryan Hamilton had supported anti-mandate and anti-fluoride groups and views, while Labour list candidate Deborah Rhodes had claimed in posts the HPV vaccine was "poison".

Both have since disavowed those views.

Labour candidate Deborah Rhodes.

Labour candidate Deborah Rhodes. Photo: Supplied/ Labour Party

Hipkins said he had not spoken to Rhodes directly, but "she's indicated that that was a statement that she made some time ago, she's had more information, she's changed her mind. She's genuinely changed her mind and she's, you know, confident that the vaccines are safe".

Before news of Rhodes past posts was made public on Monday, Hipkins had said he thought it fair to call unfair Hamilton a conspiracy theorist, and while people were entitled to change their views in politics, "generally speaking, I haven't found conspiracy theorists are that willing to change their views".

He suggested the two situations were different, continuing to claim - incorrectly - that Hamilton "hasn't actually indicated that he's changed his mind, he's just said that he now supports a National Party's position".

"What we do seem to see from the National Party is that a number of the candidates appear to be having their minds changed for them. They still believe the things that they have previously expressed," Hipkins said.

Hamilton, when pushed, confirmed he believed fluoride was safe, though he refused to say when he had changed his mind on the matter.

Debate, donations, co-governance

Labour Party leader Chris Hipkins is touring the Auckland University's refurbished Faculty of Education and Social Work's (EDSW) building as part of the elction campaign trail on 19 September, 2023. It has been redeveloped through the government's Covid-19 Infrastructure Recovery Fund.

Photo: RNZ / Emma Stanford

Hipkins said he was also looking forward to the upcoming first leaders' debate on Tuesday evening. He said there were a lot of undecided voters out there and it would be a good opportunity for them to hear what each party had to say.

"I'm really looking forward to the debate, one of the things about modern campaigns is you don't actually get very much time to talk about the issues."

He highlighted climate change, child poverty and cost of living as topics likely to come up.

RNZ has this week also revealed Labour received no substantial donations from businesses in more than two years, while National received $1.1m.

National, ACT and NZ First combined also received more than $700,000 from New Zealand's wealthiest man, Graeme Hart, and his businesses.

Hipkins rejected the suggestion it showed a lack of confidence in Labour from the business sector.

"We're never going to compete with the National Party for those huge corporate donations," he said. "It's not just the National Party and the ACT party that are getting it, it's groups like the Taxpayers Union who were funnelling money into attacking the Labour Party.

"No, courting money from the business community and from the wealthiest New Zealanders has certainly not ever been my priority."

The Taxpayers Union is a private lobby group funded through donations and memberships, but little is known about their backers. In 2019, British American Tobacco confirmed to media it had for three years been financially supporting the group - which campaigned against annual tobacco excise tax.

Hipkins also defended Labour's approach to co-governance, saying the term applied to more than just Māori and Treaty of Waitangi relationships.

"Co-governance means shared decision making, so it means you have a structure for shared decision making. I'm quite open to the idea that we have structures for shared decision making in a range of areas - and Māori issues are only one area where that might happen.

"We work together with farmers, for example, to make decisions regarding farmers, and I wouldn't rule out doing more of that. I think the idea of government collaborating with people who are affected by the decisions being made is actually a fundamentally good concept."

Asked if Labour would look to take co-governance further, or slow the party's approach after criticism from the likes of ACT, Hipkins demurred.

"Co-governance has been an integral part of the Treaty settlement process and is likely to continue to be as we work our way through more contemporary Treaty issues," he said.

"That has been the case under both Labour and National governments and I don't propose to have a referendum to go back on commitments that governments past have already entered into."

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