The Week in Politics: A wild ride with problems for both the main parties

8:02 pm on 3 July 2020

By Peter Wilson*.

Analysis - The Greens' wealth tax causes problems for Labour, Ardern shoots down National's border tactics, the health minister resigns and a National MP is accused of racism. Newshub reports a caucus leak and the fisheries minister apologises for comments he made about NZ First.

Grant Robertson delivers Budget 2020. Generic Parliament pic

It's been a rollercoaster of a week in politics. Photo: Pool / STUFF LTD

The Greens kicked off the political week, launching their wealth tax policy on Sunday and causing a problem for Labour. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern tried to get as far away from it as she could without actually saying it wouldn't fly, and National turned it into a campaign weapon.

The Greens want to tax wealth over $1 million at 1 percent and over $2 million at 2 percent, using the revenue to set an income floor of $325 a week for every adult. They would also increase the tax take by changing high income tax brackets.

At her post-cabinet press conference on Monday, Ardern said Labour would have its own policy and it wouldn't look anything like the Greens'. She also questioned whether it would bring in as much as the Greens thought it would, because people would shift their assets around to avoid it.

It's a complicated policy and there are exemptions, but that didn't bother National when it posted a campaign ad on social media: "Labour-Greens plan to tax your house, your retirement fund, your business assets and even your art. Who knows what they'll tax next."

Ardern accused the opposition of "spreading blatant misinformation". It won't be the last time she has to say that as National tries to tag Labour a tax and spend party.

National's week

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Todd Muller. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

National began its week with a new line of attack on the government's pandemic response. Party leader Todd Muller issued a media statement on Tuesday: "The prime minister needs to stop misrepresenting the border issue and tell New Zealanders what her strategy is to protect the economy long term".

Muller appears to be trying to link the border bungles with the need to keep it closed. "The government's clumsy and incompetent management of our quarantine procedures means it's impossible for New Zealand's border to open tomorrow, next week or even next month," the statement said.

Later the same day he used question time in Parliament to demand answers from Ardern. He didn't get anywhere and she accused him of suggesting the border should be opened while Covid-19 was rampant around the world. Ardern repeatedly told Muller she was going to keep New Zealanders safe and he was out of step with public opinion.

Muller's tactics seemed to overlook the fact that the border has to remain closed to people other than returning Kiwis because the virus is active in most of the rest of the world. They couldn't all be put into managed isolation for 14 days. During question time he focused on Australia and the plight of the tourist industry, and that didn't work very well either as Ardern pointed out Victoria had just announced 75 new cases in one day and there was community transmission in the state.

David Clark's resignation

David Clark has announced he is stepping down as minister of health.

David Clark is no longer the minister for health. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

David Clark's resignation as health minister had been a matter of when, not if, and it happened on Thursday. He had been a serious liability since he broke lockdown rules and was noticeably absent during critical phases of the response. Laying blame for the border bungles on the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, appears to have been the last straw.

Clark insisted the decision was his own, saying it had become clear to him that he was becoming a distraction from the government's response to the pandemic. "I've always taken the view that the team must come first," he said. "So I've made the call that it's best for me to step aside."

Ardern revealed his decision followed "frank and open conversations" they had held about his future. She had more on her mind than just the health portfolio, as RNZ's political editor Jane Patterson pointed out: "Having a wounded minister feeds too well into the Opposition narrative of an incompetent government, in very close proximity to an election campaign."

Education Minister Chris Hipkins has been put in temporary charge of health. He's competent and Ardern obviously sees him as a safe pair of hands, but he's handling two huge portfolios and National's deputy leader Nikki Kaye questioned that.

"New Zealanders need to have absolute confidence that the health portfolio, given the bungles that have occurred around border management, is being managed well," she said. "I'm not confident that Chris Hipkins will be able to do that with both education and health."

The border, however, is now firmly in the hands of Megan Woods and Air Commodore Digby Webb. Hipkins will keep the rest of it ticking over until Ardern appoints her new Cabinet after the election, assuming the government wins a second term. Woods could be in line for it, if she wants it. She was asked about that at a border update press conference on Thursday, but didn't give anything away.

Breaking news

Newshub had a good week. The network broke two exclusives, the first after a National Party caucus meeting on Tuesday when it revealed MPs had just been shown, for the first time, the results of the party's internal polling.

The report said they were first shown slides of voting trends, without any numbers. "When pushed, the leadership told MPs Labour is on 55 percent and National 34 percent - that's less than the 35 percent the party was polling under former leader Simon Bridges the week before Muller rolled him."

It wasn't clear when that poll was taken but Newshub said it followed Paula Bennett's resignation. That was after a 1News Colmar Brunton poll put National on 38 percent and Labour on 50 percent.

National didn't challenge the report and Muller will have serious problems if his caucus continues to leak.

The second was a report on a conversation Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash had with an unidentified person in 2018, not long after he was given the portfolio. In it he clearly blamed New Zealand First for holding up putting surveillance cameras on fishing boats and made disparaging comments about the industry.

Nash didn't deny it. He said he had been a new minister without a good understanding of how the industry worked, and he had not had a clear idea at the time of NZ First's position.

The party strongly denied it had held up the camera operation and Nash apologised to Winston Peters and Shane Jones. The fishing industry wasn't impressed.

Ending on racism

The week ended with National's Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker being accused of racism. He issued a media statement saying up to 11,000 people could arrive from overseas and be put into quarantine in the south without any consultation with local communities.

Hamish Walker, National candidate for Clutha/Southland speaks to residents in Winton.

National's Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

"These people are possibly heading for Dunedin, Invercargill and Queenstown from India, Pakistan and Korea," the statement said. That was what got him into trouble. Megan Woods, the minister responsible for quarantine and managed isolation facilities, said his comments were "disgraceful and reprehensible... they are also misleading, he is scaremongering and is, frankly, being racist."

Woods intends visiting Dunedin and Queenstown next week to check out hotels which could be used for managed isolation. She has said she will talk to local communities about that.

Interviewed on Morning Report on Friday, Walker defended his statement and said he had been referring to the countries where people were coming from, not the people themselves.

The statement was reported to have been removed from National's website.

* 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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