18 Aug 2023

Week in Politics: NZ First gains traction while GST-free produce fails to hit the sweet spot

4:23 pm on 18 August 2023
Chris Hipkins and Winston Peters

Chris Hipkins, left, and Winston Peters. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver / Ella Stewart

Analysis: Labour will have to do much more than offer families a saving of about $5 a week to get back in the election race, NZ First's support continues to creep up and the media starts looking at where it's coming from, while another poll supports the trend that's showing National and ACT with enough support to form a government.

Rarely has a policy attracted such harsh criticism as Labour's election promise to remove GST from fruit and vegetables.

On the government's own estimation it will save households about $4.25 a week based on an average spend of $32.50.

That's about the price of a flat white, as has been pointed out or, in the words of National's Nicola Willis it's "a tax change worth less than a kumara".

Of all the many critics, Stuff's political editor Luke Malpass was the most cutting.

"This proposed change… is really the idiot cousin of Labour's craven desperation," he said.

"The one that no one pays much attention to until panic sets in and the party casts around for cynical policies to get elected."

Malpass thought it would be "a contender for the stupidest and most principle-free decision of a major party of this election campaign".

Seeking the opinion of tax experts and economists, RNZ questioned 12 of them.

"Labour's GST-free fruit and vegetables tax policy is being widely panned by experts, who say it is betting on voters' ignorance," the report said.

Among the experts were:

  • Professor of Taxation Lisa Marriott: "To be perfectly honest, I think it's one of the worst ideas I've heard for a while. It's really unlikely that all that saving will be passed through to consumers. And because it's on products like fruit and vegetables that do fluctuate there's going to be no way to hold supermarkets to account."
  • Infometrics principal economist Brad Olsen: "If you can find an economist that supports this policy, they don't deserve the title."
  • Child Poverty Action Group economics spokesperson Susan St John: "It's a populist idea… it's probably one of the least cost effective ways of helping people who are struggling to feed their families."
  • New Zealand Initiative chief economist Eric Crampton: "Creating holes in GST is a terrible idea. It only becomes appealing when a party is down in the polls. It's a bet that voters are too stupid to understand tax policy. I hope that voters aren't."

And so they went on. Not even CTU chief economist Craig Renney, who thought it would be "something that's worth exploring", supported it. "There are more direct routes to put money in people's pockets."

So why did Labour go for it?

Because the party's internal polling showed it was a popular, strongly supported policy, journalists who had been briefed on it reported.

"About two-thirds of voters thought it was very good and supported it overall, including half of National voters and, crucially, the groups they consider to be swing voters", the Herald's political editor Claire Trevett said.

"Surprise, surprise," said Newshub's Jenna Lynch. "People like the idea of cheaper produce."

Lynch thought Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was choosing tinkering over transformation - "entering the cost of living clash with one simple proposal: how do you like cheap apples?"

She said he couldn't make big spending promises because he had "cut down his magic money tree" by ruling out a wealth tax.

The next set of polls is going to show whether Labour's hopes about swing voters are realised, but it seems doubtful that what's on offer will have much impact, if any, on its ratings.

This policy simply isn't big enough to grab people and make them think voting Labour is the way to go.

It also gives National endless opportunities to criticise it and make comparisons, as Willis did on Morning Report when she said her party's tax plan, yet to be fully announced, would see the average family benefit by at least $35 a week.

"We think passing a tax cut through a supermarket or a shop and hoping they will pass on the full benefit is naïve, and we want to have a much more direct approach," she said.

To get a third term Labour needs to catch up with National and then pass it. This won't do it, and unless Labour has something really good in the works it will have to rely on Hipkins running a stellar campaign and cleaning out National's Christopher Luxon in the TV campaign debates.

Listen to The Detail's look at the debate over GST on fruit and veg

Poll gives Labour a better showing

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and other Labour MPs announce four weeks paid parental leave for partners at Brooklyn Kindergarten

A new poll made for better reading for Labour leader Chris Hipkins. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The latest poll, released this week, was the Talbot Mills corporate poll and it was better for Labour than last week's Taxpayers' Union-Curia poll.

Talbot Mills had Labour on 32 percent, up one point on the last poll, and National down one point to 35 percent.

The Curia poll had shown Labour slumping to 27.1 percent and National on 34.9 percent. It also showed NZ First on 5.8 percent, which caused some excitement, but Talbot Mills put the party on 4.4 percent, up 0.4 points.

However, Talbot Mills followed the firm trend of National and ACT having enough support to form a government if an election was held now, the Herald reported.

Talbot Mills does Labour's private polling, while Curia handles National's.

The Herald's latest poll of polls, released on Thursday, showed that if an election was held this weekend National and ACT would have a 75.3 percent chance of forming a government.

Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori would have only a 9.2 percent chance.

The poll of polls runs simulations based on polling data from multiple public polls and previous election results.

NZ First courts anti-mandate, anti-vaccine support

Winston Peters.

Some media have been looking into a surge of support for NZ First and leader Winston Peters. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

For some weeks now polls have shown NZ First edging up to the 5 percent threshold which would get it back into Parliament without having to win an electorate seat. A Roy Morgan poll gave it 5 percent and there was Curia's 5.8 percent.

This has raised interest in where its support is coming from, and the Sunday Star Times reported on that.

Leader Winston Peters has been courting the conspiracy theorist Freedom Movement vote and the paper ran a full-page inquiry into what it called the digital footprint of some of its potential MPs.

It named four who appeared on the party's website, described as being among "our 2023 suite of candidates" and identified the electorates they were standing in.

They had all shared "false or extreme views about the pandemic and other topics" the report said, and gave examples.

Peters responded to questions about them by saying the views of the announced candidates were not relevant until the final list was confirmed next month.

"NZ First candidates are selected after a process of investigation as to their qualifications and suitability and will not be finalised or released until Nomination Day on 14th September," he said.

It will be interesting to see whether those named by the Sunday Star Times make the final list.

The paper also published an editorial titled 'Has Peters gone too far this time?'

In it editor Tracy Watkins said it was clear that "some of the people rushing to ride his coattails" were at the extremes of the conspiracy movement.

"He has done what he does best and scooped up disenfranchised voters marginalised by vaccines and mandates," she said.

"The anti-vax and anti-mandate movement has always been bigger than the establishment, including those of us in the media, previously realised or acknowledged.

"Peters has cannily given them a legitimate political vehicle on which to hitch their protest vote and in so doing has given them a valve through which to vent their anger."

Watkins said if that was an alternative to throwing paving stones at police on the steps of Parliament, it was probably a good thing.

Peters made a highly publicised visit to Parliament's grounds while it was occupied by protesters, where he was seen greeting and talking to them.

The Herald's Trevett also looked at NZ First's rise in the polls, and said it was no great surprise.

"The current success of the minor parties has stemmed from a great shrug of indifference to the larger parties, National and Labour," she said.

"The Greens and ACT have benefited from that. Both have also deserved it. They have been putting up interesting and pretty solid policies over the past few months."

National staying quiet on working with Peters

National party leader Christopher Luxon

Christopher Luxon's stance on working with NZ First remains unclear, in contrast to ACT's approach, Peter Wilson writes. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Trevett saw Peters as "very firmly National's problem" because he has ruled out working with Labour post-election.

"The more Peters is in the game, the harder it is for National to offer a clear-cut alternative to what it has called the 'coalition of chaos' on Labour's side," she said.

"Its own side would be looking even hairier."

Luxon is still refusing to say whether he would work with Peters. ACT leader David Seymour has said he won't sit round the cabinet table with NZ First, and wants Luxon to say he won't either.

Seymour may be thinking that if National rules it out, and Peters has himself ruled out working with Labour, voters won't see much point in voting NZ First.

Tensions apparent

Parliament has two sitting weeks left before it breaks up for the campaign, and tensions have been rising.

"Labour ministers turn political disputes personal," RNZ reported.

Associate Housing Minister Willie Jackson had to apologise for some very sharp criticism of National's Chris Bishop while Finance Minister Grant Robertson refused to do the same after saying Willis was "lying" when she suggested he and Hipkins had been at odds over when the GST-free policy should start.

Appearing on Newstalk ZB, Robertson was asked whether there had been a disagreement and repeatedly claimed it was a lie.

"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.

Robertson has a point, the media does do that and as the campaign gets underway there's likely to be more accusations with no evidence behind them, coming from all sides.

Being called a liar didn't faze Willis, who said she wasn't thinking about suing for defamation. "The last thing he needs is a lawyer's letter, he probably needs a cup of tea and a liedown."

Kerekere fires up before her exit

Dr Elizabeth Kerekere

Elizabeth Kerekere remains disenchanted with the Greens' leadership team. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Former Green MP Elizabeth Kerekere, who had a serious falling out with the party, left it to become an independent and then decided she had had enough of politics, had a crack at her former colleagues in her valedictory speech.

Co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson were the only Greens in the House to hear her speech, RNZ reported, and they were her main target.

She accused them of making "unfounded and increasingly elaborate allegations" against her.

"No formal complaints, no natural justice and never a process let alone a tikanga-based one. I consider this to be an epic failure of leadership," she said.

The government's week ended with the release of its draft transport policy statement, something it has to do, but the timing was unfortunate.

The plan sets out a $70 billion spend through to 2034, with 14 new roads and public transport links.

The catch is that petrol taxes would have to be increased to pay for it, by 12 cents a litre, phased in from July next year.

By July 2026 motorists would be paying an extra $6 to fill a 50-litre tank, Stuff reported.

"Will the government's petrol tax hike cancel out GST-free fruit and vege?" it asked.

The GST-free policy comes in on April 1 next year, three months before the first petrol price rise.

*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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