Budget week; the politicing begins as Peters predicts big surplus
By Richard Harman (author)
With only four days to go to Labour’s first budget Winston Peters is predicting a big surplus but National is looking to the 2020 election while the Prime Minister is looking out beyond that campaign.
It was a busy political weekend with Labour, National and NZ First leaders all holding major meetings --- an indication that the hiatus after the last election is now over and that politicking has begun again.
Peters made his surplus prediction in a speech in Rotorua on Saturday as part of the annual general meeting of the Rotorua electorate of his party.
After the speech he qualified his earlier comment by saying he made the statement as a prediction based on his experience as a former Treasurer and that it was “just a guess”.
But what he really reflected was the buoyancy and confidence within the Government as it goes into its first Budget this Thursday.
That was reflected yesterday in a packed out school hall where over 500 people jammed in to hear Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern launch the party's Northcote campaign.
Party officials are quick to caution that they think it unlikely their candidate, Shanan Halbert, will win the National held seat.
But they are confident they can bloody National’s nose.
And if the campaign launches were any test, then they may achieve that aim.
Labour not only attracted four or five times National's audience the previous weekend but Labour’s energy levels were several spoons of sugar ahead of National.
The Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told the audience that the Northcote by-election was not about the past six months, or not even about the next two and half years.
“We as a Government have committed to being a Government which thinks beyond electoral cycles,” she said.
“This by-election should be about the future; it should be about the future for Northcote.”
She said that if people wanted to see what New Zealand might look like in “10,20 or even 30 years” then they should look at Labour’s plans in two areas; child poverty and housing.
However, two other trends emerged over the weekend which might if they continue eventually take some of the gloss off the Government’s current euphoria.
Both have their origins in the coalition negotiations.
On the one hand, National is beginning to get over its sense of grievance at not forming the Government and is starting to set in play processes to prepare it for the 2020 election.
And on the other, Peters is starting to bristle at the strictures of coalition Government.
What is emerging in National is that the Bridges leadership is going to be very different from either the key or English leaderships.
For a start Bridges and his close confreres --- MPs like Jami Lee Ross and Todd McClay --- do not share the Steven Joyce addiction to economic indicators.
For them, the economy has to produce tangible results that the electorate can support.
And so Nelson MP, Nick Smith, widely regarded as one of Parliament’s brightest MPs albeit with a challenging personality, has been charged with rewriting National's policy.
He has already begun an exhaustive consultation process within the party to bring this about.
He is starting with what he calls a “listening phase” which he explained to a party regional conference in Rotorua on Saturday.
“It’s really important – and I do want to challenge electorates – that just having a conversation with three or four of your own branch delegates will not cut the mustard,” he said.
“We need to get out and actually talk to our farmers and supporters and business people and community organisations to help in that phase.”
Smith said he was keen to visit every electorate to discuss with them the process and then next year he would seek the sign up of the party membership at large and the caucus to the new policies.
He said he wants to focus down on a few key policies.
At this stage, it is planned that the leader, Simon Bridges, will outline National's overall approach in a speech to be given, possibly, when Labour tables a discussion document it is planning on climate change.
It is a critical policy for National because of its potential to alienate the party's rural base.
The new spokesman, Todd Muller, says National will wait for the discussion document.
"We will reflect on it, and no doubt give a considered response,” he told POLITIK
“We are not doing that in isolation.
“We’ve got to see the detail but invariably, to be successful, you've got to bring people with you, and that's going to be important for us."
What is most interesting about all National's policy discussions is an undercurrent which now accepts that the Key/English/Joyce Government had run its course.
Bridges’ leadership may eventually prove to be more radical than might have been imagined or even be evident so far in some of the party's Parliamentary tactics which often seem focussed on vindicating the decisions of the last Government.
But if National wants input on where it went wrong, it need look no further than Winston Peters, who receives more references in a new history of the party than John Key.
The history, written by Colin James, refers to the”Peters faction” within National and is a reminder that that is where his political roots lie.
Speaking to about 60 mainly party faithful in Rotorua on Saturday – his first public meeting since the election – he reminded them of those roots.
He said New Zealand was currently short of 100,000 houses.
“If we don’t turn this around then many young people people will never own their own home,” he said.
“A thing that used to be a dream and was a special feature of New Zealand, one of the world's greatest property-owning democracies, when great governments of the past realised that if you could get a man and a woman and a family in house, then they had a stake in democracy.
“And a wise man called Holyoake saw what the Labour party was doing in building all those houses and he decided to adopt the same plan and give it a new name.
"He started boasting about how a property-owning democracy was what the National Party stood for.
“But that was then and not now.”
Much of his speech was devoted to attacking the previous "now" National Government.
He singled out their neglect of Foreign Affairs, pointing out that they were criticising him for opening an Embassy in Stockholm,m when they had opened one in Barbadoes. .
And with that came the first of a series of subtle digs at his other partners in the Government.
He said the Scandinavians had much to teach us.
"They are light years ahead of the Greens; they understand you can have added value, you can have extraction and you can have a clean, green country as well," he said.
He complained about traffic congestion to the airport though he said he was not in favour of the light rail proposal.
“We are a party which has clearly put out our transport policy, and it is heavy rail," he told POLITIK.
But for all that, he remains committed to the coalition Government.
“New Zealand First is the heart of this Government and its most reliable partner.
“We know about coalition management and negotiations.
“It is our job to ensure that this Government goes on all the way to elections in 2020.”
And that is where the focus will turn from this Thursday when the Budget is presented and Labour has to define its Government and the time for refighting the 2017 election --- even for National --- will inevitably come to an end.