Political year kicks off and the government takes a hit

7:59 pm on 25 January 2019

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - Having to reveal a politically-damaging failure wasn't the best way for the government to start 2019.

Labour MP, Phil Twyford Minister of Transport, Housing and Urban Development

Housing Minister Phil Twyford admitted this week that the government's target of 1000 KiwiBuild homes being completed in the first year won't be met. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The government's KiwiBuild target of 1000 affordable homes by 1 July can't be met - only 47 have been completed and the total will be about 300.

Housing Minister Phil Twyford delivered the bad news under questioning from Guyon Espiner on RNZ's Morning Report this week and he's lucky Parliament is still in recess.

He'll be savaged when it sits next month and Judith Collins is already on the case.

"He's sort of stuffed, really," said National's housing spokeswoman.

"He clearly can't do the job, he's got no excuse because he had this portfolio in opposition for six years."

So he did, and National's MPs haven't forgotten the way Labour hammered them over the housing crisis with shouts across the debating chamber of "just build some bloody houses".

Not nearly so easy, it's turned out, and now it's the government's turn to feel the heat.

Judith Collins

National housing spokesperson Judith Collins said Mr Twyford was 'stuffed' over the failed KiwiBuild promise. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Mr Twyford explained that it's been more difficult than expected to shift property developers from the existing models - in other words persuade them to build smaller, cheaper homes.

"Currently, fewer than five percent of new builds are in the bottom 25 percent of the price range, where first home buyers traditionally buy," the minister said.

Developers prefer to build more expensive homes because they make bigger profits that way, but there's more to it than that.

Those spoken to by RNZ said the process for becoming part of the KiwiBuild programme was slow and heavily bureaucratic.

One said his company decided not to take part because it was "clunky" and home building was bedevilled anyway with rules and regulations.

"There's always a problem jumping up to try and stop you."

Mr Twyford's admission coincided with the release of a report by Demographia International which showed New Zealand continued to be one of the most unaffordable countries in the world to buy a house.

"KiwiBuild has been so badly conceived that it's just been a joke," said co-author Hugh Pavletich.

The government is in a really bad space over this. KiwiBuild is a flagship policy with the target of building 100,000 affordable homes over 10 years.

That's now looking ridiculous, which is a valuable gift to the opposition because it's going to run its dismal course right through to the 2020 election.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Photo: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern - who is doing her best to talk down the KiwiBuild failure - began her year with a trip to London and then Davos in Switzerland for the annual international economic conference.

She met British Prime Minister Theresa May, who had more important things on her mind, and gained assurances that New Zealand exporters wouldn't be disadvantaged by whatever happens to Brexit.

In Davos she received positive publicity talking about the Government's Wellbeing Budget to be presented in May and took part in a panel discussion with Prince William about mental health.

Add in a meeting with Sir David Attenborough and it was all feel-good and comfortable - and easily forgotten.

The only thing that raised eyebrows was being asked during a BBC interview whether she was going to propose to partner Clarke Gayford.

She said she wasn't, and social media erupted with criticism of her questioner for asking her.

At home, on the other side of the political fence, National's nemesis Jami-Lee Ross broke his silence with tearful interviews about how sorry he was for the damage caused by his meltdown last year.

He has apparently given up his vendetta against party leader Simon Bridges and from now on he's going to be the best MP he can for his Botany electorate.

Mr Ross, now an independent, should make the most of it because he won't be around after the next election.

The story, however, has shifted from the National Party to Mr Ross himself. His former colleagues are studiously ignoring him and will be able to continue their hand-washing unless he freaks out again.

Ex-National MP Jami-Lee Ross at his first public appearance since receiving treatment for mental health issues.

Jami-Lee Ross made a public apology on Facebook this week for his behaviour last year. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

One potential problem for the party is that a text sent to him by the woman MP with whom he had an affair is in the hands of the police.

She is reported to have told him he deserved to die - and it is an offence to incite people to commit suicide or self-harm.

Whether the police decide to do anything about it under the Harmful Communications Act remains to be seen but their decision could, obviously, re-ignite the sorry saga down the track.

Paula Bennett listens to media questions during a press conference with Simon Bridges

Paula Bennett is now National's spokesperson on drug policy. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Mr Bridges announced a minor reshuffle caused by the departure of Chris Finlayson, and used it to put his deputy Paula Bennett in charge of drugs policy.

It was a smart move and he's thinking about the cannabis referendum to be held at the same time as the next election.

National won't develop a party policy on legalising cannabis because it's a conscience issue, but there are differing views in its caucus which could be divisive.

Ms Bennett's job will be to keep a lid on that and steer a safe path through what is going to be a polarising period during the campaign.

*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.