Week in Politics: Money, money, money

4:25 pm on 4 October 2019

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - Smart ATMs for towns without a bank branch, a supercharged SuperGold Card, the government dangles the promise of cheaper electricity and Shane Jones gets himself into trouble.

New Zealand Dollar Closeup

Photo: 123RF

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern began the week by announcing the government and the big banks had found a way around the problems caused by branch closures in regional towns.

Flanked by Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Regional Development Minister Shane Jones, who got it up and running, she said Smart ATMs would be trialled in Martinborough, Twizel, Ōpunake and Stoke. They'll be able to provide basic banking services and, most important, there will be someone there to show people how to use them.

The trial will last a year, and during that time there won't be any more closures. If it works they could start appearing around the country. The first question Mr Robertson fielded was whether branch closures would resume when the trial was over.

He said he didn't think so but consumers might find that hard to believe. Banks are strong on automation and if the ATMs turn out to be successful and popular they could be hyped up as "the way of the future" - and cheaper to run. But whatever the outcome, they'll be a lot better than nothing at all for people living in towns which have no banking services. Opening new branches seems to be the way of the past as far as the banks are concerned.

Winston Peters also had good news for consumers this week, those over 65 that is. The SuperGold card he introduced for seniors in 2007 is going digital with a phone app and a website which will make it easier to find out which shops offer discounts and where they are. More than 750,000 pensioners have the cards, which give them free travel on public transport during off-peak hours.

That's the main advantage - just get on the bus and flash the card. Finding out where discounts are offered hasn't been so simple.

There were 5500 businesses signed up to the SuperGold discount scheme before the upgrade and another 500 recently joined it. The discounts aren't all the same and there are conditions attached which card holders need to know but at present have difficulty discovering. For example, one supermarket chain which offers a 5 percent discount limits it to purchases of more than $40 on Tuesdays at "selected outlets". The only downside is that while smartphones are a way of life for most people, that's not the case for the oldsters. Stuff reported only about half of them would be able to use the app and the website.

Nevertheless, Age Concern's chief executive Stephanie Clare said it was "a really big step up for the card… it will be extremely well-used."

Another NZ First MP who made headlines this week was Shane Jones, but it wasn't good news. Ms Ardern had words with him after he was reported to have told attendees at a forestry awards ceremony in Northland they had better vote for him or risk missing out on Provincial Growth Fund money.

If he had said "vote for me if you want my party's policy of regional investment to continue, including forestry", which is presumably what he meant, he wouldn't have had a problem. But he didn't, he mentioned money, taxpayer funds and the distribution of them. That was interpreted by some of those present as akin to bribery, or buying votes, and at least two of them called the New Zealand Herald.

Ms Ardern, dealing with it lightly because she has to tread carefully with coalition ministers, told reporters: "Minister Jones is about to take a short break, a holiday over the recess, and we've agreed he'll take the Cabinet Manual with him." That meant he might have breached the rules around what ministers can or can't say, but Mr Jones didn't seem too concerned about that. What did upset him was the way he was dobbed in, and he said he knew who had done it because others at the ceremony called to tell him. The leakers were executives working for overseas-owned forestry companies, whom he described as "National Party characters".

"They thought they were brilliant, they thought they were political maestros leaking to the New Zealand Herald, but they didn't realise that half of the audience there that night were Māori," he said. Mr Jones isn't going to let it slide, but he'll bide his time. "Political utu is a dish best served cold."

The government saved the best till last this week - a promise of lower energy costs.

There's a lot of detail still to come but an overhaul of the way the intricate market works is designed to ease the pain that many families feel when they get their monthly bill. A raft of changes include making the big power companies charge less when they sell electricity to smaller retail companies - levelling the playing field, as Energy Minister Megan Woods put it - which is a significant shift in the wholesale market.

Last-minute deals to persuade customers not to switch to another supplier will stop, the aim being to force the companies to offer competitive prices to all their customers.

The government also wants more people to shop around for good deals, believing that will increase competition. Changes will be made so it's easier to do that, with price comparison websites upgraded.

There's no deadline for these and other changes to be made but Ms Woods wants it to happen sooner rather than later. And next year she'll be checking that consumers really are better off.

*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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