Week in Politics: PM Jacinda Ardern puts housing into safer hands

8:37 pm on 28 June 2019

By Peter Wilson *

Analysis - The prime minister plays it safe with her reshuffle while the future of David Seymour's End of Life Choice Bill remains uncertain despite it surviving a second reading vote.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern heading to announce the Cabinet reshuffle on 27 June, 2019.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern heading to announce the Cabinet reshuffle on 27 June, 2019. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

There's safety in numbers. KiwiBuild is now in the hands of a team led by a new housing minister and Phil Twyford's train wreck will be left behind.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's decision to move the portfolio was inevitable - the government couldn't continue to take the hits over housing that National had been handing out.

Housing Minister Megan Woods will go about her work in a different way. There won't be any more boasting or trying to dress up minor programmes as significant progress. The reset, when it is announced, will be achievable.

KiwiBuild's 100,000 affordable homes in 10 years never was achievable and the embarrassment over a flagship policy that quickly unravelled wasn't helped by Mr Twyford having been so loudmouthed about it in opposition, and in the early months of the new government.

Ms Woods is quietly capable, as is Kris Faafoi who has been given the public housing role. The split allows Ms Woods to have a sharp focus on affordable housing for first home buyers without being responsible for delivering more state houses at the same time.

Mr Twyford hasn't been totally cast aside, he's in charge of urban development - which means changing the cumbersome rules and regulations that have bedevilled new housing projects. On the fringes of the new team are Nanaia Mahuta, who retains responsibility for Māori housing, and Jenny Salesa who keeps building and construction.

It's now clear why Ms Ardern has for months been fudging answers to questions about the reset - she wanted to have her new team in place, to finalise it before going public.

Ms Ardern's rationale for a team approach is that the housing crisis is too big for any single minister, and she's probably right. It will also make it more difficult to nail down blame because Mr Faafoi will be handling criticism over state house waiting lists.

The rest of the reshuffle was minor and relatively harmless. Mr Faafoi's promotion to the Cabinet was long overdue and Ms Ardern has set her stage for election year.

National's housing spokesperson Judith Collins, who made Mr Twyford's life a misery, now has a new target in Parliament, but she's taking a conciliatory line and even offering to help - which she well knows won't be accepted. The government should talk to National about "how to get stuff done" she told RNZ. Since the election and long before it, Labour has been accusing National of not getting any stuff done during nine years in office.

The other big issue this week was the vote on the second reading of David Seymour's End of Life Choice Bill, which passed by 70 votes to 50. The first reading vote was 76-44, so he's lost a few, but the process is so unusual that anything could happen between now and the third reading.

David Seymour speaks at the End of Life Choice Second Reading

David Seymour speaks at the End of Life Choice Second Reading Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The committee stage is next, when each clause will be debated and can be changed by majority votes. Because the select committee which handled the bill didn't make any significant changes - considering it couldn't because they were conscience vote issues - the committee stage will see it pulled apart and reconstituted.

Its author, Mr Seymour, will seek to make important changes himself including limiting it to people with incurable diseases who are going to die within six months.

Maggie Barry, the bill's strongest opponent, has said she will put up more than 100 amendments.

Winston Peters will ask for implementation to depend on a referendum, and he will probably get what he wants. Under that scenario, the bill could be passed but couldn't become law until and unless it is approved by a referendum to be held at the same time as the next election. His proposal will be attractive to MPs because the decision will be in the hands of voters, and it will be difficult for them to argue that the people shouldn't have the final say on such an important issue.

Ms Barry's amendments could hold up the bill's process well into next year, because member's bills can only be debated every second Wednesday Parliament sits. She denies she's deliberately wasting time and says while she doesn't want the bill passed at all she has to do her best to remove its worst aspects.

There are ways to cut through time-wasting tactics, called filibustering, but Parliament will be reluctant to shut down debate on this bill because it is so controversial and divisive.

Conscience votes are really hard to forecast for the third reading of a bill, its final stage, because MPs change their minds along the way. Some have done so between the first and the second reading, others will do so when they see the final shape of the bill at the end of the committee stage.

A count of 70-50 on the second reading is a solid enough majority for Mr Seymour to be cautiously optimistic but, as he says, there's an awful lot of work to be done before it becomes law.

* 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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