Week in Politics: Truancy presents delicate problems for the government

5:02 pm on 5 April 2024
Christopher Luxon

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Analysis - The government began the week by releasing its next list of targets, 36 things it intends to achieve by 30 June.

It is very much along the lines of the first 100 days list, but far less ambitious.

The full list is on RNZ's website.

A third of the items start with "Take decisions to ..." without timelines for action.

Among the issues that decisions are to be taken on are implementing the Going for Housing Growth plan, the scope of extension to the Covid-19 inquiry, reform of the Holidays Act and removing the ban on offshore oil and gas exploration.

Some of the other items have been on the agenda for months, such as presenting the Budget and "raising the energy" on key international relationships.

Labour and the Greens scoffed and scorned, but it is more than previous governments have put out on their work programmes.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon is anxious to show his Cabinet is "getting things done" and not bumbling along without timelines or lurching from crisis to crisis.

Opposition parties may have been aware of this when they got together to denigrate the list - they do not want it to be seen as being at all worthwhile.

Chloe Swarbrick

Green Party co-leader Chlöe Swarbrick. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Green Party co-leader Chlöe Swarbrick was the most scathing, describing it as "a 36-point bingo card for environmental destruction and trickle-down economics".

She said it offered no meaningful solutions.

"Christopher Luxon is not in the boardroom anymore. The irony is these bullet points wouldn't even hold up in the corporate world: Vague, immeasurable and untethered from reality and evidence."

Labour's deputy leader Carmel Sepuloni said some of the commitments were just business as usual.

"I think half of the commitments are to take policy decisions, commission a study, or start a review."

Sepuloni took a similar line to Swarbrick when she told RNZ Luxon was approaching running the country as though he was a chief executive of an organisation.

That led to questions for the prime minister when he held a press conference on Tuesday.

"Are you running the country like a business?" he was asked.

Luxon said he was leading the country as prime minister, it was not a business, but he came from a business background and some of the skills were transferable.

He said putting out regular quarterly lists of things the government wanted to achieve was a good way of organising the agenda, "chunking things out" as he put it.

David Seymour

ACT Party leader David Seymour. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

School attendance

There was one item on the list, number 31, that did create a lot of interest: Launch an Attendance Action Plan and introduce the first phase of initiatives to lift school attendance.

At first glance that does not seem to affect parents who send their children to school but it is going to deal with, among other things, reasons for keeping them home if they are sick.

That is going to affect all of them.

ACT leader David Seymour, an associate education minister, is in charge of raising school attendance levels.

"Sickness-related school absences to be targeted under government plan," RNZ reported.

Seymour told Checkpoint the number of children kept home due to illness had doubled since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

"We accept Covid happened but that's largely subsided now, and yet we still have a doubling of the number of kids kept home for health reasons," he said.

"I think we're going to have to start being a bit clearer about what exactly is a valid reason to stay home."

That could be difficult. Parents could object to having their judgement questioned when it comes to whether a child is well enough to go to school or ill enough to be kept home.

Sepuloni picked up on that, Newshub reported.

"I find it ... interesting that David Seymour is looking to be the person that determines what criteria should be used for kids to not be at school because of sickness," she said.

"At the end of the day, as parents it's our responsibility to make that decision."

She did not think the government should get involved to the extent it was trying to.

"They are not doctors, they are not parents and so, therefore, not the ones who determine whether or not they're well enough to be at school."

Something else that came up was spot fines for parents whose children did not attend school.

At present they can be fined up to $30 per day for every day the student is truant but there has to be a police prosecution.

During the election campaign, Seymour talked about introducing spot fines under a system run by the Ministry of Education, Newshub reported.

Asked if he would change the system, Seymour said he had not made any firm decisions on that.

"I can see in perhaps a small minority of cases where you've got parents who've had lots of chances, lots of warnings, and have the ability to pay, then maybe, just maybe, the right thing to do is to fine them," he said.

That does not sound as though he is keen to do it, and Seymour said fines would be "a relatively small part" of his truancy package.

Labour's education spokesperson, Jan Tinetti, a former school principal, said the fines system had been tried "and it never worked".

Seymour has previously said some schools had excellent attendance records, and he would learn from them.

Questioned about truancy at his press conference, Luxon said there was a range of reasons why children did not attend school and therefore a range of solutions was needed.

Seymour and Luxon appear to be aware that this is something that will have to be handled very carefully if they are not to provoke an outcry.

Christopher Luxon at Easy Build Homes Upper Hutt

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and Minister Chris Penk at Easy Build Homes in Upper Hutt. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Overseas building product rules laxed

On Thursday the government took a big step towards making it easier and cheaper to build houses.

The rules around using overseas building products were going to be loosened, Minister for Building and Construction Chris Penk said.

He said it was 50 percent more expensive to build a stand-alone house in New Zealand than in Australia, and since 2019 the cost of building a house in New Zealand had increased 41 percent.

"This is a major shakeup that will drive down the cost of building without compromising on quality, to make it easier and more affordable for people to build or renovate a home," he said.

"It will also help improve the country's resilience to supply chain disruptions and reduce barriers for Kiwi businesses trying to find alternative approval pathways in New Zealand and export their product overseas."

Under the changes, building product standards from trusted overseas jurisdictions will be recognised, and the use of building products certified by overseas schemes will be approved.

All the details are in RNZ's report, which also has video of Penk and Luxon announcing the changes.

Penk said he hoped to pass the necessary legislation by the end of the year.

National MP Matt Moocey

Minister for Mental Health Matt Doocey. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Public sector job cuts

After last month's debacle over cuts to disability care, this week's casualty was Minister for Mental Health Matt Doocey.

He scrambled out a late evening media release on Thursday insisting the Suicide Prevention Office was not a victim of cost-cutting, Stuff reported.

"Doocey's assurance was at odds with the Public Service Association, which said the office would close after the Ministry of Health confirmed 134 job losses," the report said.

Earlier, Deputy Director-General of Health Robyn Shearer had said the Suicide Prevention Office would merge into a "wider directorate" as the ministry worked towards "the government's priorities".

But Doocey's media statement said: "The closure of the Suicide Prevention Office has not been raised with me and I have spoken with the director-general of health to make my expectations clear that the office will remain open".

Doocey can expect a grilling at question time in the House next week about what he did and did not know.

* 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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