Week in Politics: Housing, bilingual road signs, prescription fees and a minister in trouble

3:09 pm on 2 June 2023
Christchurch based housing

The Medium Density Residential Standards is under the spotlight again as National pulls its support. (file image) Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Analysis - The bipartisan agreement on housing density, proudly announced by National and the government in October 2021, was intended to give much-needed certainty to the sector, allowing developers to confidently plan ahead and quickly deliver more homes.

Nicola Willis, National's then housing spokesperson, with her then leader Judith Collins beside her, said the party was standing with Labour "to say an emphatic yes to housing in our backyard".

The legislation was passed and the Medium Density Residential Standards (MDRS) became law, allowing up to three homes three storeys high to be built on most sites with no need for resource consents.

Both the main parties knew it was going to be unpopular with NIMBY (not in my backyard) homeowners, and they also knew the bi-partisan agreement neutralised political damage.

Willis's emphatic "yes" became a "no" when National Party housing spokesperson Chris Bishop unveiled their new housing policy, RNZ reported.

Chris Bishop

National Party housing spokesperson Chris Bishop Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

It allows councils to opt out of the MDRS, with leader Christopher Luxon saying the party "got it wrong" when it went into the agreement.

It would require councils to zone enough land for 30 years of development and make the land immediately available for that purpose. It would also mean an increase in mixed zoning - commercial and residential property together.

It would permit densification on transport corridors.

Bishop said he was proud of it: "The point is to smash the urban limits that have held our cities back… there's now a decade of reports on how restrictions on the edges of our cities drive up land prices,"

The government accused National of turning certainty into uncertainty as both parties sought to gain an advantage from the new situation.

Parties in stand-off over housing legislation

PM Chris Hipkins

Labour party leader Chris Hipkins says they are open to talking to National about a new bipartisan agreement on housing density. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said at his post-Cabinet media conference that when the legislation came to Parliament, National had claimed it was all their idea and they had pushed the government into signing up to it. There was "an element of truth" in that, he said.

According to Bishop, National agreed to "the government's MDRS proposal" because it was better than doing nothing.

Now that bipartisanship has gone, and with it the protection it offered, both parties are trying to give the impression it was not their idea in the first place.

Hipkins said Labour was open to talking to National in an attempt to create a new bipartisan agreement on housing density. Bishop said he was happy to meet Housing Minister Megan Woods.

However, National clearly does not intend the government getting any credit from that, should it ever eventuate.

"I think we've got a great policy. It would be fantastic in a spirit of bipartisanship for them to adopt that," Luxon said.

Did he really intend that comment to be taken seriously?

Although the long-term certainty about housing density has been taken away, the MDRS is set in law and cannot easily be changed. National has to win the election, repeal it, and replace it with new legislation.

Presumably it would consult councils, as they have to do the zoning. We know how consultation with councils worked out with Three Waters.

And saying they have to zone enough housing land to accommodate housing for the next 30 years is one thing, getting them to do it would be another thing entirely.

National's bilingual road signs debacle

Simeon Brown

National transport spokesperson Simeon Brown comments about bilingual signs had the senior leadership racing to clarify the remarks. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

National transport spokesperson Simeon Brown opened up another controversy when he told a public meeting late last week that National did not support having road signs in te reo Māori and English. "We all speak English, and they should be in English," Brown said.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said many countries had bilingual signs and he did not think they created safety concerns.

He suggested National was dog-whistling to racists, RNZ reported. Hipkins could not remember whether Labour had approved the decision or was simply told about the change.

Waka Kotahi put some signs out for the public to have a look at. The plan is to put them up when old signs are replaced, and some are already in place on the cyclone-hit east coast. They are direction and information signs, not STOP and GO and other instructions.

Te Pāti Māori naturally climbed into National over Brown's comments and then the National Party senior leadership started to think about it, apparently deciding their transport spokesperson had gone too far and unless they stepped in the whole thing could escalate horribly.

The New Zealand Herald called it a backdown, and it was interesting to see Bishop and Luxon trying to fix the predicament Brown had put them in without actually saying he had got it wrong.

Bishop said his party supported bilingual signs "in principle" while Luxon said he did not have a problem with them "per se".

They both tried the old "it shouldn't be a priority" angle, with Bishop saying Waka Kotahi should focus on fixing potholes.

"We just don't think it's a particularly good use of resources right now," Bishop said.

Luxon also used the "should be fixing potholes" line, saying the road sign issue was a distraction from road maintenance.

Brown decided to "clarify" his comments, saying he was concerned about changing signs that were critical to road safety, despite those signs not being included in Waka Kotahi's programme.

By the end of the week, they seemed to have hosed it down but it had been a muddle of their own making.

Hipkins did not escape unscathed. Reporters in Parliament asked him to translate Waka Kotahi and Te Papa, the national museum. He failed the test.

The signs will start popping up and some people will no doubt be upset about that, but the opposition and the government are mostly on the same page so those who do not like them will have to spread the blame.

Prescription charges policy plan and meme reaction draws fire

Christopher Luxon

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

After the backlash over saying it would replace the $5 prescription charge, which the government is scrapping, National probably hoped there would not be any more problems in that space this week.

There was. Luxon told Newshub he was open to considering exemptions for Gold Card holders and low-income earners, which had been previously announced, but made it clear regular contraception users, and prescription holders in general, would go back to paying the $5 fee under National.

Luxon said he did not consider people needing regular contraception prescriptions were in the category of "high medical needs", which National wanted to exempt from the payment when it is reinstated by a National-led government.

Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said it was outrageous to make women pay for the pill when it had been prescribed, and Luxon was "showing the world that he's even more out of touch than we already knew".

Senior Cabinet minister Megan Woods, who is Labour's campaign manager, posted the Newshub report on social media captioned "unbelievable" and followed it with a meme from The Handmaid's Tale.

Megan Woods

Senior Cabinet minister Megan Woods Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The Handmaid's Tale is a futuristic novel, which has been made into a TV series, about women being forced into child-bearing slavery.

This infuriated Willis, who accused Woods of "completely ridiculous, baseless attacks". She thought The Handmaid's Tale reference was "frankly appalling".

Former party leader Peter Dunne said on Newshub's AM Show National had mishandled the prescription fee issue right from the start.

"I think this just looks like a complete mess… and I think with the women's vote being so potent these days, this has the potential to just turn a large number of women off voting for National at this election," he said.

Education Minister in the hot seat over error

The government's downside this week was hearing Speaker Adrian Rurawhe tell Parliament he was referring Education Minister Jan Tinetti to the Privileges Committee.

It will consider whether a false statement to the House and her delay in correcting it amounts to contempt of Parliament.

The accusation revolves around Tinetti claiming in February she had no responsibility for the release of attendance data, but was told later that day by her staff that was an error, RNZ reported.

She did not correct the record until early this month. Rurawhe said she had claimed not to know she needed to correct it until he sent her a letter.

Rurawhe said it was an important principle that the House could trust the accuracy of ministerial replies to questions, and it was vitally important that when errors were made they should be corrected at the earliest opportunity.

The Privileges Committee is Parliament's court that deals with rule breakers. The MPs on it take it very seriously and there are no party games.

Newshub reported Tinetti's office instructed officials to delay the release of the attendance information, which had been ready since December, so it could be timed with a truancy announcement by the government.

Tinetti told Newshub she was not aware at the time that her office was holding up the data.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and education minister Jan Tinetti visit Ridgway School to make a pre-budget education announcement

Education Minister Jan Tinetti and Labour party leader Chris Hipkins have been in the spotlight over the delayed release of attendance data. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

On Wednesday, the network published another report which said the prime minister's office had known about "conversations" concerning the release date of the attendance information.

In response to a written parliamentary question from National Party education spokesperson Erica Stanford, Hipkins said on 3 January his office was advised by Tinetti's office they intended to release the data to be aligned with a truancy package announcement.

"What we do know is Chris Hipkins' office was made aware that the data would be delayed," Stanford said.

"The question for Chris Hipkins now is what did he personally know?"

The Privileges Committee is chaired by Labour MP and Attorney-General David Parker, and he has set down an hour-long hearing for next Thursday at 12.30pm.

It will be open to the media and the public.

The committee has eight members including Parker. National, the Greens, and ACT are represented on it.

The last time it considered a contempt case was in 2008, when Winston Peters was referred to it over whether he should have declared a $100,000 donation from businessman Owen Glenn.

The committee recommended a censure motion, which the House later voted on and passed.

Is the government really 'soft on crime'?

The Herald deserves credit for publishing on Thursday a detailed investigation into whether Labour really is "soft on crime" as National consistently alleges.

Analysing masses of data, it came to what it described as a surprising conclusion.

It discovered that between 2017, when Labour came to power, and 2022, the total number of people charged and convicted for all offences dropped by a quarter.

However, there was an even larger decrease under John Key's National-led government from 2008 until 2017 - the number of people charged fell by 40 percent and convictions by 36 percent.

The report is on the Herald's website and is essential reading for anyone confused by the claims and counter-claims politicians make about crime, which is shaping up as a big election issue.

*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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