Week in politics: Ardern scores again with Christchurch Call

4:40 pm on 17 May 2019

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has just returned from another international success, and when Parliament resumes next week there will be nothing National can do to take it away from her.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Christchurch Call summit in Paris. Photo: AFP

The Christchurch Call - a non-binding agreement to stem the spread of terrorist and extremist online content - was signed by 17 governments and gained commitments of specific action from social media giants Facebook, Google and Twitter.

It isn't a treaty-level document and the United States wasn't one of the signatories, but it was an unprecedented first step at an international level to deal with a problem that's recognised worldwide.

Ms Ardern, who co-hosted the Paris summit with French President Emmanuel Macron, was given wide media attention including an extended interview with CNN's chief international anchor Christiane Amanpour.

Following on from the global praise she received for the way she reacted to the 15 March Christchurch mosque attacks, the prime minister is presenting an image of care and compassion that is very difficult for the opposition to counter.

If National tries to brush off the Christchurch Call as all talk and no teeth it will look like a cheap shot. So it will probably just ignore it, or maybe offer faint praise.

Party leader Simon Bridges, already under criticism for ineffective tactics, will have to come up with something else when he faces Ms Ardern across the debating chamber on Tuesday after a week's recess.

President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron welcomes Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Elysee Palace.

President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron welcomes Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Elysee Palace. Photo: AFP

The opposition isn't entirely at a loss. The revelation that a big slice of the money set aside for the fees-free policy has been reallocated because it isn't going to be needed gives National a good shot at the government benches.

Fees-free was one of Labour's flagship election policies aimed at the student vote, offering a free first year at university with an estimated uptake of around 80,000. That has been cut back to 50,000 and Finance Minister Grant Robertson is rejecting claims that it's a failure.

The money will instead be used for vocational training.

Mr Robertson announced the re-allocation in a pre-budget speech this week, bravely saying it represented a great opportunity to boost the vocational training budget and prepare young people to fill the gaps in badly needed skills.

He later told RNZ's Morning Report: "There was an element of this policy that was about getting more people in but it wasn't the only purpose. A part of it was about trying to relieve some of the financial burden on people who were going into post-secondary education and training, and we do know that has happened."

Grant Robertson, Minister for Finance announces Budget 2018.

Grant Roberston Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

National, which opposed fees-free from the start, will be able to say "we told you so" but, interestingly, spokesman Shane Reti has stopped short of saying a National-led government would scrap it.

His party also has its eye on the student vote in next year's election, and doesn't want to spoil its chances.

There have been warnings of a backlash if the policy isn't continued. Victoria University Students Association president Tamatha Paul said it provided significant benefits.

"We're having conversations with students consistently who are saying they wouldn't have come to university if it wasn't for this policy, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds," she said.

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

Phil Twyford Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Meanwhile National is sure to continue scorning the government over the failure of KiwiBuild to deliver anything like the 100,000 affordable homes in 10 years. Results so far have been pitiful and it seems the government is about to give up on the 10-year goal which until now it has been insisting is achievable.

Neither Ms Ardern nor Housing Minister Phil Twyford would commit to it in recent interviews, saying the policy was being "recalibrated". It's turning into a never-ending problem and Ms Ardern may be considering dealing with it the same way she handled the capital gains tax - bite the bullet and say it's not going to happen.

National would rave about broken promises but KiwiBuild has to be put out of its misery well before the next election. A minor problem would be Winston Peters, because the New Zealand First leader is still insisting the target can be met.

Minister for Pacific Peoples, Alfred Ngaro.

Alfred Ngaro. Photo: RNZ / Laura Tupou

The New Zealand Herald''s intriguing report that a former National Party cabinet minister is considering forming a new party is something else that's going to be closely watched in coming weeks.

Alfred Ngaro, a list MP and a cabinet minister in the previous government, is tipped to lead a Christian party which would be a coalition partner for National - something it desperately needs if it to have any chance of beating a Labour/NZ First/Greens combination.

Mr Ngaro, according to the report, would stand in Botany, a National seat held by Jami-Lee Ross. Mr Ross, booted out of National and now an independent, has no hope of retaining the seat on his own and National would stand aside to leave the field clear for Mr Ngaro to take it.

The electorate demographics look good and Botany is a rock solid National seat, the way Epsom is where National allows ACT to win every election. The big question is how many party votes a new Christian party could gain nationwide.

The Herald points out that in the first MMP election the Christian Coalition gained 4.6 per cent and in 2014 the Conservative Party just on 4 per cent. Neither made it into Parliament because they couldn't crack 5 per cent and didn't win an electorate seat.

If Mr Ngaro won Botany his party wouldn't have to reach the threshold, and should be good for five or six seats. If that happened, it could be game on.

* 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.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs