Softly softly from Labour; full steam ahead for the Nats

8:28 pm on 7 August 2020

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis: The main parties have revealed their campaign strategies, and they're very different. National entices voters with big infrastructure projects, Judith Collins rips into Jacinda Ardern and Parliament passes a bill that could affect every tenant in the country.

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From top left: Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters, Alfred Ngaro and Judith Collins all featured as Parliament wrapped up before the election campaign begins. Photo: Getty Images / RNZ

During a hectic week in politics the campaign strategies of the main parties were revealed.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, having previously said that her party wasn't going to release the usual comprehensive policy manifesto, was asked at her post-Cabinet press conference on Monday if that meant the country was in for "a Covid election".

She replied: "Yes, you're right, Covid will pre-determine a lot of what we debate this election. But voters still have a choice to make as to whether or not they continue with the plan that we have pitched or whether or not they choose to stop and move on to an alternate programme."

That said a lot about the government's intentions. Ardern may try to keep the focus on Covid-19 through to Election Day, relying on confidence among voters that it is doing a good job and that they won't want to risk putting anyone else in charge of a strategy that's keeping the virus out the country.

The government's economic recovery plan had been set out, Ardern explained, and because Covid-19 was going to be around for quite a while its policies and actions would mainly revolve around keeping New Zealanders safe.

Collins goes on attack

Faced with that tactic, National's leader Judith Collins scorned Labour. "What we're seeing from Labour is no policies at all. Hiding away is never a way to win an election," she said.

During the adjournment debate in Parliament on Thursday she explained how her campaign was going to work: "This election is going to be about who is going to be best able to manage what has been described by the Reserve Bank as the biggest economic downturn in 160 years."

Collins told Morning Report her party was getting ready to roll out "a whole raft of policies". They wouldn't be announced all at once. "If we pop them out too early then the government, who don't seem to have any policies, will maybe just steal them."

To show she's just as serious as Ardern when it comes to keeping people safe, Collins told Newstalk ZB National had a zero tolerance attitude to the virus. Under her watch "it simply would not be allowed in".

She had a dig at the government over people escaping from managed isolation, and gave another firm assurance. "If we're in charge there wouldn't be people escaping," she said. "There's a lot of fear about Covid-19 coming across the border. I think every time someone escapes from quarantine it just makes people even more nervous."

National isn't shy about policy announcements and made all the running this week, enticing voters with huge transport infrastructure projects.

It released some of the allocations in the previously announced $31 billion spend-up, with $4b for Wellington, including $700 million for a second Mt Victoria tunnel on the route that has frustrated thousands of commuters for decades.

That, and other projects to get rid of bottlenecks, are already part of Wellington City Council's plans under the title Let's Get Wellington Moving. The difference is that National is committing to actually start building the roads and tunnels.

Then there was $1.1b for the Kāpiti Coast to extend the expressway which would "free people from the tyranny of congestion and save lives," Collins said.

National Party leader Judith Collins announces the party's $4b transport infrastructure plan for Wellington and the Hutt Valley, on 5 August 2020.

Judith Collins announces the National Party's roading plans for Wellington and the Kāpiti Coast. Photo: RNZ / Charlie Dreaver

One Labour policy did slip out this week, although it wasn't confirmed. Newshub reported the party looked set to announce an extension of sick leave. MPs were coy about it but admitted it was being worked on.

There's not much doubt it would be a popular move. Newshub said a UMR poll for the Council of Trade Unions showed 68 per cent of people wanted the five days to be increased and 53 per cent thought it should be doubled.

Benign wrap-up from Ardern

In Parliament, the final act was the adjournment debate. It's usually an opportunity for party leaders to tear each other apart but Ardern didn't do that. Her benign speech listed numerous good things the government had done as it put 190 bills through the House, which she said was proof of its extraordinary unity and its ability to create consensus around legislation.

Ardern made no mention of National's leader and the word "opposition" didn't pass her lips.

Collins wasn't having any of that. She began by telling Ardern she was going to be more famous than she thought, because she was going to be the first one-term Labour prime minister since Bill Rowling.

She trashed cabinet ministers Kelvin Davis and Phil Twyford, saying their rankings of two and four said a lot about the competence of Ardern's team.

"What did we hear from the prime minister, the leader of the Labour Party - a whole lot of pixie dust and talk about how everything is going to be just fine," she said.

Winston Peters took her on, describing her speech as "cant, carp and criticism with not a single policy." Collins didn't stay for the rest of it, hearing him say as she left the debating chamber: "Don't go now, this is your best chance to learn something."

National criticises tenancy legislation

Parliament passed several bills during its final week. The most important and controversial was the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill.

It stops landlords kicking out tenants without cause under a 90-day notice, removes rental bidding and allows landlords to increase rents only once in a 12-month period.

Tenancies can only be terminated for "fair and justified reasons" such as anti-social behaviour and repeated rent defaults.

Associate Housing Minister Kris Faafoi said more New Zealanders than ever were renting and the old laws were outdated and out of balance.

National's Alfred Ngaro described it as the "I hate landlords bill" and another, Andrew Bayly, warned it would lead to rent increases. He said most landlords were decent people and they were being punished because of a few bad ones. The result would be "mum and dad" landlords deciding not to rent out their properties, the market would shrink and prices would be pushed up.

He could be right about rents. Stuff reported yesterday property managers were advising landlords to start issuing rent increase notices now.

Bindi Norwell, CEO of REINZ

Bindi Norwell Photo: supplied

The bill comes into force on 27 September, at the end of the Covid-19 rent freeze period.

"We imagine a number of landlords will be issuing rent increases over the coming days and weeks," said Bindi Norwell, chief executive of the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand (REINZ), which also represents property managers.

"We have heard some landlords suggest that they may issue more significant rent increases as a result of changes in the legislation." She said: "We will be keeping a close eye on this."

Norwell said REINZ welcomed the provision that landlords could only increase rent annually because it gave certainty to tenants who could better plan their finances.

The TV debates between Ardern and Collins will be must watch events. They go head-to-head on TVNZ at 7pm on 25 August and again on 17 September, same channel same time.

*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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