Week in Politics: Major announcements and minor spats

8:02 pm on 2 August 2019

By Peter Wilson*

It's been another big week in politics and it started with National's annual conference in Christchurch. Party leader Simon Bridges came through it in good shape, better than had been expected given his poor personal poll ratings.

Christchurch 28 July

Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch

His keynote speech included the policy announcement that a National-led government would set up an independent cancer agency responsible for better access to diagnosis, treatment and care. Pharmac would get $200 million for drugs that aren't currently funded.

Mr Bridges speech was described by the New Zealand Herald as easily the best of his career and mainstream media outlets hailed the cancer announcement as a king hit and excellent politics.

It's extremely difficult for a promise of better cancer treatment to be scorned by opponents and the best the government could do was to say it was working on its own proposals which were just weeks away from being revealed. It could be doing some tweaking to make sure they're more impressive than National's.

A 1News Colmar Brunton poll gave Mr Bridges a helping hand, showing National gaining support and ahead of Labour 45 percent to 43 percent.

The government's week began with the announcement of an initiative to improve the quality of drinking water, waste water and storm water. The Three Waters Review stems from Havelock North's drinking water contamination crisis in 2016, and includes setting up a dedicated water regulating agency. Ministers will bring a Water Services Bill to Parliament before the end of the year and standards will be set. Councils will have five years to get their acts together and there's sure to be problems with the cost, which is expected to be up to $5 billion. Most of that will fall on ratepayers and small councils will have to be helped out by the government.

The week ended with a really big reform announcement - the disestablishment of the country's 16 polytechs and the creation of industry-governed workforce development councils which will replace industry training organisations (ITOs).

That's a very tight description of a comprehensive plan aimed at correcting the imbalance between what industry needs and what it gets from the current trades training system. Polytechs, which have struggled with falling rolls and funding for years, generally welcomed the reforms. Within industry there's been dissatisfaction with the quality of apprenticeship courses and Wellington builder Jeff Guerin summed it up like this in the Dominion Post: "They come out expecting big dollars and they can't do anything."

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said he didn't expect there would be any job losses as the polytechs were rolled into the new scheme but National's tertiary education spokesman Shane Reti estimated at least 1300 would go.

It all sounds sensible and workable, the way Mr Hipkins explained it, but so did the Modern Apprenticeships programme when it was introduced in 2000. However, times change and so do industry's needs. Training hasn't kept up and has to change as well. It's going to take another few years before judgment can be delivered.

Between the water and training announcements several other political issues gained attention.

The government introduced legislation covering next year's cannabis referendum, and it includes a clause allowing the Cabinet to decide the wording of the question that will be put to voters. It would give the Cabinet the same power if there's a referendum on David Seymour's End of Life Choice Bill.

National's Nick Smith was appalled, and he accused the government of "a crude power grab" which had no precedent. Dr Smith recalled that when Labour was in opposition it had insisted Parliament had the absolute right to decide the wording of the flag referendum question. The government dismissed his outrage and said it had to be able to get the referendum show on the road. Dr Smith was reminded that National had consistently refused to join the cross-party group on cannabis reform.

After doing so well at his party's conference, Mr Bridges spoiled his own week by complaining about Jacinda Ardern being a "part-time prime minister". That was because she was visiting Tokelau - a trip arranged months ago - while Parliament was sitting and the Ihumatao land protest was unresolved.

Before she left, Ms Arden had said there would be no building on the land until the issue was settled. Mr Bridges criticism seemed trivial and it brought back memories of the "slushies" scandal he tried to fire up earlier this year. He was made to look ridiculous over that and "part-time prime minister" was in the same category. Labour's Grant Robertson said the comments were, among other things, "desperate and disrespectful".

Mr Bridges had made himself an easy target.

*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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