The Week in Politics: More controversy, more surprises

6:03 pm on 8 March 2024
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon at post-cab

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Analysis - Christopher Luxon gets a roasting for accepting an accommodation allowance, changes his mind and gives it back. When is a tax not a tax? The $50 rego fee hike gives motorists an unpleasant surprise, there's another Air Force 757 debacle and the government brings in a bill that's described as 'going nuclear on nature'.

The week began with a story that was a gift for columnists and cartoonists, and they went for it.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon was pocketing a taxpayer-funded accommodation allowance, worth $52,000 annually, for living in his own mortgage-free Wellington apartment.

The details are in RNZ reports, but briefly: Newsroom broke the story, others picked it up and when Luxon was questioned he said it was well within the rules to claim the entitlement.

He said he wasn't living in Premier House because it was in a poor state and needed fixing up, which was confirmed by an independent report commissioned before the election.

About two hours later he had become aware of intense media and public criticism, and said he wasn't going to claim the allowance and would give back what he had received. It had all become a distraction he didn't need.

It didn't save him from a roasting.

In various reports it was pointed out Luxon was a millionaire who owned seven properties, was leading a government that was cutting costs wherever it could, and he was clipping the taxpayers' ticket for $52,000 on top of his $471,000 salary.

His words on fiscal discipline and Labour's track record were thrown back at him, particularly his complaint about "taxpayers being treated like a bottomless ATM, to be raided at any time, for any reason".

Claire Trevett, the Herald's political editor, said his short-lived decision to claim the allowance "showed there are still some significant glitches in the development of his political radar".

"He will doubtless be feeling a bit peeved about it, but it was never politically defensible," she said.

In the Sunday Star Times columnist Vernon Small said it was a big mistake for Luxon to couch his right to receive the allowance as being "entitled to the entitlement".

"His spin doctors and more media-savvy colleagues must have wept into their lattes," said Small.

"Saying you are entitled to a taxpayer-funded perk is Kryptonite to any politician."

Small thought that receiving roughly twice as much money as superannuitants or beneficiaries simply because he could "looked like chronic entitle-itis".

The spinoff story was the state of Premier House

The cost of fixing it - a staggering $30 million, according to the independent report on its condition. The Herald on Sunday got hold of part of it.

Premier House has had a number of different style additions throughout its history, and is protected as a heritage building.

Premier House Photo: Supplied/ Ballofstring CC BY-SA 4.0

"The report into Premier House that PM Christopher Luxon has given as the reason he cannot live in it does not state the residence is uninhabitable but does raise red flags about its condition and suitability as a home for the prime minister," it said.

"It was commonplace for things to break. It noted the apartment (within Premier House, which prime ministers use) was uncomfortable, had small, poor-quality bathrooms and was badly laid out."

The report put the total cost of the work programme for Premier House and its grounds at $30 million, which included proposals for redevelopment on top of the basic work to modernise and refurbish it.

Since the Herald on Sunday report came out Stuff has revealed Luxon spent two nights in Premier House over Christmas and hosted his extended family for festive celebrations "despite saying the residence is unliveable".

Citing that report, Newshub political editor Jenna Lynch said Luxon's stated reasons for not living there didn't add up.

"If it's good enough for Jacinda Ardern and her toddler to live in, it was good enough for John Key to live in, it is not good enough for Christopher Luxon to live in and the question is why," she said.

Former prime minister Chris Hipkins stayed at Premier House occasionally and said it was warm, dry and comfortable.

Before that Jacinda Ardern stayed in the apartment with her young daughter.

When it comes to fixing it up, Luxon is between a rock and a hard place.

He said there was no way the government was going to spend $30 million because, as previous prime ministers knew, laying out that sort of money for the house they lived in wouldn't go down at all well.

He's right, the property deteriorated because his predecessors didn't want to take the heat.

But it has to be done. It's an embarrassment for New Zealand to have a shabby official residence for its prime ministers.

Visiting prime ministers and presidents are hosted there, or should be, and it's the venue for other VIP functions.

Overtaken by a Transport announcement

The only comfort Luxon could take from all this was that the story quickly ran out of steam and was overtaken by something that actually matters to people.

Luxon and Transport Minister Simeon Brown took the podium at the post-cabinet press conference to release the draft Government Policy Statement on Transport.

It's a big deal, proposing a $70 billion spend through to 2034 with $20 billion allocated for the next three years, RNZ reported.

Minister Simeon Brown at post-cab

Tranport Minister Simeon Brown Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The focus is switching back to roads and the plan revives the Roads of National Significance programme scrapped by Labour.

Luxon and Brown were enthusiastic about the new roads that would be built, the potholes that would be fixed, and how motorists would benefit from all the good work.

The sticky bit came further down - the vehicle registration fee was going to increase by $50 and fuel tax would go up 12 per cent from 2027 followed by increases of 6 cents a litre and 4 cents a litre in subsequent years.

The government promised during the election campaign not to increase the fuel tax, so it has pushed it out to after the next election. Labour's policy was to raise it gradually, reaching 12 cents in 2026.

Luxon and Brown faced hostile questioning after their announcement which included "you lied" from a reporter who said National said during the campaign that its transport plan was fully funded.

Labour's Hipkins argued the government had broken two promises, RNZ reported.

"Christopher Luxon made cost of living his number one election commitment," Hipkins said.

"He said that they weren't going to be introducing any new taxes. He said that they weren't going to be increasing fuel taxes. In fact, they're doing both of those things."

Senior National minister Chris Bishop rejected that.

"It can't be a broken promise when we did not talk about it during the campaign," he said.

"You can't spell out in explicit detail every single thing you will do in government. You have to campaign on core policies and commitments."

The Greens were horrified by the emphasis on new roads.

"It's extreme, it's unbelievable," said transport spokesperson Julie Anne Genter. "It's so backwards it's doubling down on the failed approach of last century and it will lead to more emissions, more congestion and higher transport costs for all of New Zealand."

The government challenged the description of the increased registration fee as a new tax.

"We are not increasing taxes, we are making adjustments to a fee," Finance Minister Nicola Willis said on Newshub's AM Show.

In Parliament, Hipkins reminded her that when Labour had increased fee charges during its term in office Willis' mantra had been "If it looks like a tax, if it quacks like a tax, it is a tax".

Grounded in Wellington

Luxon kept his cool throughout the Premier House controversy but if he lost it on Tuesday morning he could be forgiven.

He was told at the last minute that the Air Force Boeing 757 had "a maintenance problem" and couldn't fly him to Melbourne for the ASEAN summit.

The grounded Defence Force Boeing 757 in Rongotai, Wellington, on 5 March 2024.

Defence Force 757 grounded with maintenance fault. Photo: RNZ / Anneke Smith

Luxon rushed to Wellington Airport to catch a commercial flight to Auckland and then connect to a trans-Tasman flight.

The media contingent that would have travelled with him on the 757 was stranded.

He arrived late and missed two bilateral meetings with Asian leaders.

New Zealand's Prime Minister Christopher Luxon meets with Prime Minister of Malaysia Anwar Ibrahim on the sidelines of a special Australia-ASEAN summit.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon meets with Prime Minister of Malaysia Anwar Ibrahim Photo: Supplied

The notoriously unreliable plane had done it again, another prime minister-level embarrassment.

Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters said it was a consequence of letting the fleet slide over the years.

"Of course, it's embarrassing. Everybody in New Zealand feels that way," he said.

"And if it was a rescue mission of some critical dimension, maybe seriously embarrassing."

Defence Minister Judith Collins said upgrades would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and the government couldn't afford it now, Stuff reported.

Hipkins said the Labour government had been looking at replacing the two 757s before the election because they were a critical public asset.

"Let's be clear, when they talk about not being able to afford things it's because they are making the wrong choices," he said.

"The 757s need to be replaced. We replaced the Orions and were in the process of replacing the Hercules. We'd allocated money for those and the 757s, I think, in terms of Air Force equipment, were next on the list."

Rounding out the week with a controversial bill

One of Parliament's last actions on Thursday before going into a one week recess was passing the first reading of another controversial government bill.

Luxon announced it in the morning, alongside three senior ministers.

The bill sets up fast-track consenting regime, RNZ reported.

It gives ministers the final call on whether to approve projects after recommendations from an expert panel, with no requirement to seek public input or hold a hearing.

National MP Chris Bishop

Housing Minister Chris Bishop Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The legislation provoked shock and outrage.

"This will make New Zealand a banana republic where a minister can be lobbied to make a decision and can disregard the interests of the public," said Labour's environment spokesperson Rachel Brooking.

It was "frightening", she said, that the ministers who will make the final decisions on projects are Regional Development Minister Shane Jones and Infrastructure Minister Chris Bishop.

Greens' co-leader James Shaw said it was "one of the most significant assaults on the environment by any government in my lifetime".

"Ministers are handing themselves extraordinary powers to approve projects that could include new coal mines, mining on parts of our precious conservation estate, and the destruction of the seabed," he said.

Environment protection groups piled in.

Forest and Bird chief executive Nicola Toki said it gave ministers powers not seen since 1970, and it could override the Conservation Act, the Reserves Act, the Wildlife Act and the RMA.

The Environmental Defence Society said the government was going "nuclear" on nature.

"The new legislation allows ministers and developers to ride roughshod over all this country's environmental protections with no effective checks and balances," said chief executive Gary Taylor.

The Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) welcomed it, as did other industry bodies.

"We need to make it easier to build the essential infrastructure we need in this country," said EMA head of advocacy Alan McDonald.

"Whether it is roads, public transport, hospitals or schools, we need to get spades into the ground quicker."

Luxon has previously described the existing consent regime as "insane" and Bishop told Checkpoint red and green tape had held the country back for too long.

"It costs too much to get resource consents for major projects, and we are cutting those costs and reducing the time so we can get on with decarbonising the economy and also building the infrastructure we need for the future," he said.

*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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