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Taking the Long View: Mopping up after National

Scoop, 31 July 2018

Taking the Long View
Gord Stewart

Mopping up after National

“We can’t correct nine years of neglect in one budget,” said Finance Minister Grant Robertson in response to expectations for his May budget announcements.

That budget would be the Labour-NZ First-Green coalition’s first shot at reducing poverty and inequality, building more – and more affordable – housing, supporting public transportation, fairly remunerating nurses and teachers, and tackling climate change, to name just a few crucial issues facing the country.

Is it any wonder the best the National Party could come up with in last year’s election was a promise to cut taxes? Acknowledging the need to properly address these issues would have been an admission of failure by the John Key then Bill English-led Government.

Nine years of neglect indeed.

Poverty: New Zealand’s child poverty was recently described as “shocking” by a United Nations committee reviewing the country’s human rights record. This echoes an earlier call by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child for more resources to be devoted to tackling “deeply concerning” high rates of child poverty.

Only during the 2017 election campaign did National set an overall target on reducing child poverty, a move regularly called for by the Children’s Commissioner. No doubt they were shamed into it by Labour’s earlier announced target and the soon-to-be prime minister’s personal commitment to the cause.

Inequality: Credit Suisse data and the Oxfam report, Reward Work, Not Wealth, note that just 10 per cent of Kiwis own more than half the nation’s wealth and the inequality gap widened significantly in the last year. The National Business Review stated it more crassly on publication of its Rich List. “It’s continued boom times for the rich,” it noted. “The rich get richer and the rich are having a really successful period at the moment.”

Both the OECD and the International Monetary Fund have called for a capital gains tax in New Zealand. The tax needs to emulate the efficient and equitable schemes operating in the likes of Australia, Norway, Sweden, the UK and Canada. Perhaps the new Government’s recently formed Tax Working Group will move us successfully in that direction.

Housing: It will be hard to forget the stories in recent years of people living in their cars and on maraes and in motels as a stop-gap housing measure. All the while National refused to admit there was a crisis. Both the shortage of rental accommodation and housing affordability remain major legacies of the previous National Government.

So it’s a bit rich when National housing spokesperson Judith Collins takes Housing Minister Phil Twyford to task on the Government’s KiwiBuild initiatives. After nine lost years under National, this is one problem that will not be solved overnight.

Public transportation: Nor will Auckland’s transportation problems be easily solved, but at least Central Government and Auckland city are now working as true partners. National’s slow and unenthusiastic response to public transportation needs early in its tenure put Auckland-of-the-future on a path to being more like Los Angeles than Melbourne.

Leaving National’s ‘asphalt agenda’ behind, the coalition Government has confirmed $14 billion in new funding over the coming decade for clean transport solutions. This will include rapid transit projects in major centres, improved public transport in towns and cities, regional road improvements, and facilities for safe walking and cycling.

Teacher and nursing salaries: The OECD confirms our teachers are paid much less than their peers overseas. Our nurses, long starved of decent pay increases under National, are fighting for a major catch-up, too. While their pay packets may not increase fast enough to do justice to the contributions they make, at least now they have the ear of a receptive and supportive Government.

Climate change: New Zealand regularly won a ‘Fossil Award’ at international climate change talks during National’s time in Government in recognition of our poor performance in tackling this most crucial of issues.

This is all changing. With an Independent Climate Commission, a Zero Carbon Bill in the works, and a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, transformative change is now possible.

With our MMP parliamentary system, in the absence of a majority government, coalitions have to work. By all appearances, this one has rolled up its sleeves and is getting to work!


Gord Stewart is an environmental sustainability consultant. He does project work for government, industry, and non-profits.

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