15 Aug 2023

Labour ministers turn political disputes personal

5:38 pm on 15 August 2023
Labour MP Willie Jackson

Associate Housing Minister Willie Jackson, who is also the Broadcasting and Media, and Māori Development Minister. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Labour ministers are turning political disputes personal, as election campaigning ramps up and polls continue to show a declining trend for the party.

Associate Housing Minister Willie Jackson has had to apologise in Parliament, while Finance Minister Grant Robertson is refusing to apologise after calling his opposite a "liar".

'Get it through your thick head'

Questioned about interest deductibility on Tuesday afternoon, Jackson had to apologise after repeatedly criticising the questioner, Chris Bishop, and National's leader Christopher Luxon.

"Get it through your thick head," he said to Bishop. "These questions are getting stupider and stupider."

Bishop had been asking him about Labour's policy of removing interest deductability from rental properties, which began being phased in from October 2021.

Chris Bishop

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"This person here (Bishop) was advocating for the tobacco companies, advocating against the average New Zealander, he should hang his head in shame, Mr Speaker, but now he's an honourable member, some say.

"Under the previous government, Mr Speaker, landlords would kick people out - Kiwis out - just at a whim ... now we have warm homes, we look after people, you can't put rent up just at the drop of a hat like Mr Luxon and his rich mates would do."

National had unearthed a since-deleted social media post by Associate Revenue Minister Deborah Russell from 2013 - before she was in Parliament - which warned against such a move, saying it was a bad idea, and would be "an arbitrary rule, designed to achieve a non-tax purpose".

Russell this morning defended having changed her view on that, saying she was now fully in support of the interest deductability change.

"Goodness, are the going to go back to my arguments with my brothers in the sandpit next?" she asked. "Times have changed, the facts have changed, the fact is that house prices were getting very very high, we know it was driven by some people who were investing and using interest as a means of doing that - so when the facts have changed, I've changed my mind."

She said it was "pretty desperate" for National to be going back to a 2013 blog post.

"A tweet. I've put many opinions in many tweets. I have thought through the implications of it - the tax system exists to serve the people of the country. The purity of the tax system is not an object of itself."

Jackson later said housing shortages and wage increases were more to blame for rent rises than interest deductability changes - relying on a recent report from Treasury, the Reserve Bank and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. It was his subsequent response to questions about Russell's post that got the House in an uproar.

"Mr Speaker, yet another stupid question from that Member. Mr Speaker we all say things and we do things differently 10 years ago, I mean that member, Mr Speaker, was a rotten lobbyist for the tobacco companies 10 years ago, and now he's an honourable member.

"The member's talking about what someone said 10 years ago, we have a member here that totally supports what the government is saying. He should look at what he was doing 10 years ago which was advocating for the dirty rotten tobacco companies."

Labour MP Willie Jackson addresses the National Party during the general debate

Labour MP Willie Jackson addresses the National Party during the general debate Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

'It was something that wasn't true'

Grant Robertson on the other hand is refusing to apologise after saying National's finance spokesperson Nicola Willis was "lying" in her speculations about the GST-free policy.

Jan Tinetti and Grant Robertson announce new funding for universities

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Willis had criticised Labour after discovering an error in their costings in documents released early to the media under an embargo. The details were corrected by the time of the policy's official release but reporters were not notified of the change.

She on Monday said the error suggested Robertson and Hipkins had disagreed over the date the policy would be in place by.

Hipkins seemed to confirm this somewhat in the post-Cabinet media briefing that afternoon: "Yeah, like I said, we did look at a number of different scenarios, calculated out the costs of a number of different scenarios, and clearly the wrong one was used in that first fact sheet," he said.

Appearing on Newstalk ZB on Tuesday morning, Robertson was asked whether there had been a disagreement, but repeatedly claimed it was a lie. He later criticised the media reporting of the matter.

"I'm frustrated by the form of questioning that says 'Here's an accusation that has no evidence behind it, what do you say to that', then the politician says 'Well that didn't happen' and then the story is written that the politician denied it," he said.

Willis shortly after told media she was not likely to pursue the matter in the courts.

"The last thing he needs is a lawyer letter, he probably needs a cup of tea and a lie down," she said.

Nicola Willis

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"He's clearly under a lot of pressure, he's had a tough start to the year, he's had to swallow a lot of rats, and it was out of character for him to get personal like that ... I've got some compassion for him, I think he needs a break, and I'm very happy to give him one."

In the afternoon, Robertson refused to back down from his accusation.

"There was a series of meetings about the policy and obviously that discussed the dates, but the accusation was that there was a disagreement between the prime minister and myself - that is absolutely not true," he said. "It was something that wasn't true, and to me that's what that is."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs