29 May 2020

A week of upsets for both sides of political divide

7:08 pm on 29 May 2020

By Peter Wilson*

Winston Peters didn't break ranks but he pushed the boundaries of collective responsibility this week with his call for an immediate move to Level 1, Peter Wilson writes.

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Clockwise from top left: Nikki Kaye, Todd Muller, Grant Robertson and Winston Peters. Photo: RNZ / Matt Hunt / RNZ / Stuff

That set him against Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who didn't show any inclination to change her plan for a full four weeks and a decision on 22 June.

There's almost certainly a political element to Peters' attitude. He is distancing NZ First from Labour ahead of the election and may well be on the right side of a big slice of public opinion.

He does, however, have some compelling evidence to support his assertion that the economic impact of Covid-19 is now the enemy, not the virus.

It has become usual for the daily briefing to report no new cases. No one is in hospital with Covid-19 and yesterday the number of active cases was eight.

If the trend continues there will soon be no cases in New Zealand and it will become increasingly difficult to persuade the public that there is a need for any restrictions apart from border security.

The impact of the response on job losses is becoming starkly apparent. There were reports this week of a survey showing 80 percent of households were on the edge of a financial crisis and the governor of the Reserve Bank, Adrian Orr, said the situation would get worse before it got better. "The harder stuff will be ahead of us in the economic sense," Orr said.

And another serious effect is just starting to show up. Although nearly all businesses are up and running, many people are still working from home and could continue to do so for some time.

Shops and cafes in Wellington's CBD, for example, are experiencing a drop in spending of up to 30 percent. BusinessNZ and the Wellington Chamber of Commerce were worried.

National MP Nicola Willis warned the city centre could die. "Hundreds could lose their jobs and the CBD could become a ghost town if the government doesn't bring people back to work," she said. "It's the people who run our local businesses who make us a functioning city."

WELLINGTON - AUG 22 2014:Traffic on Lambton Quay.It is the heart of the central business district of Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand.

Wellington CBD remains quiet as many office workers choose to stay working at home. Photo: 123RF

Muller left floundering

Despite the ongoing crisis, another political story forced its way into the headlines. National's new leader, Todd Muller, got off to the sort of start he didn't want.

A relatively mild caucus reshuffle didn't raise any complaints from disappointed MPs and it went smoothly until it was pointed out that there weren't any Māori MPs on the front bench.

That drew a defensive response from Muller about excellent overall diversity and choices made based on merit and talent.

Deputy Nikki Kaye went further and identified some of her Māori colleagues. Unfortunately she included Paul Goldsmith.

"I'm not Māori," the apparently baffled finance spokesman told reporters, and Muller had to watch him say it again and again as TV news bulletins made it their lead item.

Goldsmith subsequently explained there were historic Māori connections in his whakapapa, but he definitely wasn't Māori.

By then it had taken off, and Māori Party founder Dame Tariana Turia told RNZ she was "gobsmacked".

One of Muller's MPs who definitely is Māori, Jo Hayes, told Radio Waatea "this is not good" and said she would take it up with her leader. Muller subsequently confirmed they had held a conversation, and nothing more was heard from Hayes.

The New Zealand Herald summed up the new leader's first week: "Stunned Muller tries to swim upstream."

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Paul Goldsmith was forced to contradict claims from his colleagues that he is Māori. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Benefit rates in the spotlight

The government didn't get a smooth ride either when it unveiled what should have been a good news story.

The $1.2 billion unemployment relief package will pay $490 a week to people who have lost their jobs because of Covid-19 and $250 a week to part-time workers. The legislation was pushed through Parliament under urgency and was passed on yesterday.

That means a household of two would bring in $980 and here's the crunch - if they were both on the Jobseeker benefit, the normal "dole", it would be around $401.

And while the jobseeker benefit tapers off once a person or their partner earns more than $90 a week, the new payment won't be touched at all unless the beneficiary's partner earns $2000 a week. In that case they would be ineligible.

Those comparisons caused a bit of an uproar, with beneficiary support groups saying it showed just how inadequate the Jobseeker benefit was.

National MP Louise Upston

Louise Upston Photo: RNZ / Mei Heron

The scheme lasts for 12 weeks from 8 June and the government argued it was a one-off measure taken because a large number of people had suddenly lost their jobs. Ardern said there had been similar action taken after the Christchurch earthquakes and during the global financial crisis.

The National Party saw a political motive - Labour looking for middle class votes. Social Development spokeswoman Louise Upston said the payment was grossly unfair and noted it would continue until after the election.

The way she saw it, Labour believed it could take beneficiary votes for granted. "This is going to another group, who they might hope to convert, and that is not how you run a welfare system."

See all RNZ coverage of Covid-19

*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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