TVNZ 1 Q+A: Prime Minister Bill English
TVNZ 1 Q+A: Prime Minister Bill English interviewed by Corin Dann
I wouldn’t support changing abortion law – Prime Minister Bill English
The Abortion Supervisory Committee has recommended updating our abortion laws but Prime Minister Bill English told Corin Dann he’s not in favour of the move.
‘That’s right, I’m not, and I wouldn’t vote for legislation that did.’
CORIN What about a law that just
updated it, modernised it, which is what they’re calling
BILL Well, I think what they mean is liberalise it, and we wouldn’t do that.
Prime Minister Bill English denied that the changes announced to Superannuation this week are a political manoeuvre designed to protect supporters.
CORIN It seems deeply
cynical. It seems like, to many people, you are protecting
your voters — older, wealthier New Zealanders.
BILL No, I simply don’t agree with that. This is the time to lay out a path to the inevitable. Of course there will be a bit of debate about the transition. We believe that it’s fair and reasonable.
Bill English also signalled he would like to overhaul Working For Families.
‘We are not quite there yet, so another few years of the technology will mean that we can move families much more to a real-time understanding of their incomes, because whatever the level for families claiming in Working For Families it’s a bit of a risk, because they don’t quite know what’s going to happen, whether they will have to pay money back. So that is the kind of opportunity, two to three years out, ahead of us.’
When asked about tax cuts Prime Minister Bill English said, ‘I wouldn’t expect some big sugar shot in the middle to higher income range.’
Please find the full transcript attached and you can view the interview here.
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Q + A
Interviewed by CORIN DANN
CORIN I sat down with Prime
Minister Bill English on Friday — his first interview for
Q+A since he took the top job. This week he surprised many
by taking on a tricky issue his predecessor had avoided —
superannuation. So what about that other sacred cow — a
BILL New Zealand has reviewed that issue a couple of times in the last 15 years, and at both times the experts have come to a conclusion it’s not worth implementing a broad capital gains tax. There are other more significant issues—
CORIN But do you agree that as a long-term issue, there’s a problem here in terms of where the money in New Zealand goes to; it’s going into all the housing. You must see that.
BILL I don’t think that’s driven by the details of capital gains tax. It’s driven by the fact—
CORIN Or a land tax or whatever you need to do.
BILL Well, it’s
driven by the fact that when more people turn up, as is
happening in this country — fewer Kiwis leaving, more
people turning up; growth, progress, some real dynamism in
the economy — our system for supplying housing has to be
CORIN Sure. So you’re not going to tackle that particular tax issue? That’s not a long-term issue you want to deal with?
BILL That’s right. We’re not going to be making big changes.
CORIN Okay. What about some other ones, sacred cows — TVNZ, New Zealand Post, KiwiBank? Are you going to sell those?
BILL Well, no, we’re not planning to sell them. They’ve all got their own particular challenges. But when you look out ahead, the question is — are those the biggest issues in supporting our economic growth? And they probably aren’t.
CORIN Well, some might just say they’re political headaches for you, but really, deep down, you’d much rather do without them.
BILL Well, look, it might be simpler if someone else was running them, but we have always said we’re going to keep those government-owned organisations.
CORIN For political reasons.
BILL Well, but also they’re quite complicated. As you know, in the media, there’s a lot of change going on in the media. TVNZ’s a constant for still hundreds of thousands of viewers, just as RNZ is, and we’re quite happy with that situation.
CORIN Here’s the thing about this Super change this week. I’m Generation X; I’m going to have to, presumably, if your policy ever comes into force, work right through to 67. I don’t have a problem with that, necessarily. I think a lot of people under 45 can see that it seems a bit crazy that they might live to 95 and have 30 years on Super. But what we can’t understand is why the baby boomers and the tail end of the baby boomers aren’t paying their fair share of that. It seems grossly unfair.
BILL I don’t agree with that. I mean, one of the things that’s happened in New Zealand that’s, I think, a good long-term trend is because people are healthier and living longer, they’re also working longer. So the age groups 60, 65 through to 70 have much higher proportion of them are now in work. And in that sense, they’re paying their own way, which is a great thing. And then today I was with 50 of our school leaders, 17-year-olds, 18-year-olds, and this decision is as much about them as it is about 50-year-olds.
CORIN I’m sure they get it, but you’re telling a 45-year-old who also had to— under 45 who’s also had to pay for a student loan that they’re suddenly going to have to get a double whammy here, yet a whole generation doesn’t. It seems deeply cynical. It seems like, to many people, you are protecting your voters — older, wealthier New Zealanders.
BILL No, I simply don’t agree with that. This is the time to lay out a path to the inevitable. Of course there will be a bit of debate about the transition. We believe that it’s fair and reasonable.
CORIN 20 years?
BILL That’s right. We believe it’s fair and reasonable. Gives people time to adjust. It is interesting how politics shift. I mean, a week ago, people would say, ‘Don’t even raise the issue.’
CORIN No, I think there are many people who are commending you for—
BILL And now they’re telling us we should go faster and higher.
CORIN Sure. You are standing on
part of the moral high ground here. You get to say that
you’re making a hard call. I give you that. But it does
seem unfair that there is a big chunk who aren’t going to
have to bear that burden, and it would just happen to be a
big chunk of your
BILL Well, look, each generation bears its own burdens. Any number of 60-year-olds can tell you how devastating it was to have 18% inflation when they were trying to save a dollar back in the early ‘80s. So I don’t think that is that helpful. Look, people can argue for a shorter or longer transition. I’m sure that discussion will go on.
CORIN Because you actually said this week to me, you said that you’d much rather live in this economy than the economy, perhaps, that the baby boomers had when they were trying to buy houses and struggling and battling away. Are Generation X and Generation Y just whingers here? Do we believe Tony Alexander that they should just stop buying their lattes and avocado on toast?
BILL I don’t think they’re whingers at all, but the economy is in much better shape than it’s been for a lot of the period since, say, the mid ‘70s where the rules are predictable, the incomes are rising consistently, we don’t have ahead of us the kind of abrupt and major restructuring that used to occur. And I think a lot of the debate here is about which political party is going to support the kind of economic growth that underpins the opportunities a 40-year-old can see ahead of them. I don’t think there’s much doubt about that. That the approach we are taking — investing in infrastructure, dealing with our core social problems, keeping taxes low, controlling government spending, encouraging entrepreneurs and innovation — all of those things are going to help that 40-year-old enjoy the rest of their working life.
CORIN Are you going to help that 40-year-old who has three kids and is on Working For Families? Are you going to help them in the Budget? I mean, looking at Working For Families now, it’s 10 years old. There is a lot of criticism that it is not well targeted. Incomes have risen. You have not increased like you have with Super in terms of to the average wage. Is it time to fix Working For Families?
BILL Isn’t this great that we have got these choices? We have got strong enough government finances and a growing economy that we do have the opportunities.
CORIN Does it need to be fixed? Yes or no?
BILL That will unfold through the year, but I think the opportunity to lift people’s incomes is real, it is available to us. And the good news is we can have a crack at it in the next few years, and if we sustain the economy, we can have another go in the future.
CORIN I get that you’re not going to give away all the details and you got a budget coming and it is wait-and-see and all this sort of stuff, but you can tell me whether you think Working For Families is working properly, because there are a lot of critics who are saying it is simply not.
BILL I can tell you that for families on low to middle incomes, they need to see a share of economic growth that is not just through their incomes, which are rising moderately but consistently, and we have the opportunity to support them more, and I think that’s great.
CORIN Through Working For Families?
BILL Well, there’s a number of tools there. That’s one of them.
CORIN I mean, could we see Working For Families completely redesigned? I guess what I’m going at, rather than some tinkering, some extra accommodation supplement or whatever you might have, is now the time after 10 years for you to get in there and do National’s version of it, rewrite it?
BILL Well, interestingly, because of a large investment we are making in the tax collection system—
CORIN You’ve got the ability to do it now, haven’t you? You’ve got the technology.
BILL We are not quite there yet, so another few years of the technology will mean that we can move families much more to a real-time understanding of their incomes, because whatever the level for families claiming in Working For Families it’s a bit of a risk, because they don’t quite know what’s going to happen, whether they will have to pay money back. So that is the kind of opportunity, two to three years out, ahead of us.
CORIN And one of those other choices, of course, is tax cuts. And I do not want to play the game again of wait-and-see and all this sort of stuff, but you can give us an indication that if — if —you do a tax cut, will it be meaningful? Will it actually be $20 plus a week for somebody? Because what’s the point otherwise?
BILL Well, look, we are working through all that. It is a bit of a challenge with the way the tax system is structured to target the people who are in real need. So you have got to look at a balance of tax cuts and other mechanisms. But it’s great here. We’ve got the opportunity.
CORIN John Key said 3 billion to make it worthwhile.
BILL Well, I’m not going to put a number on it.
CORIN But that’s a meaningful figure. I’m only saying that because it is a reasonable point, isn’t it? You’ve done this before — chewing gum tax cuts; block of cheese tax cuts with the last government. Is there much point if it is not meaningful?
BILL Well, we’ll look at the balance of all that, but I wouldn’t expect some big sugar shot in the middle to higher income range. Part of the intent here is that in sustaining growth, we want people to be able to share the benefits of that growth right across the board. So that ranges from lifting the minimum wage, which has just gone up $0.50, or will on 1 April, through to the opportunities we have with government surpluses. And alongside that the other things we need to achieve — getting our debt back down, contributing to the Super Fund. So this is all about getting the balance of the support for families now but the longer term decisions that are going to sustain our growth.
CORIN Part of the reason for this interview is that it’s our first opportunity to talk to you as Prime Minister. So I think it’s important that we try and unpick a little bit about who you are. Now, over the last week or so, you made comments about— you said something along the lines of a lot of young Kiwis are failing drug tests, jobseekers. You’ve in the past made comments about young males being hopeless, not turning up for work. Seems like you’ve got quite a harsh view, particularly of those young males. Are they lazy? What’s going on? Do you think that they aren’t trying?
BILL Look, I’m just realistic. My children are of that generation. I’ve had interaction with lots of young New Zealanders, also lots of employers and businesses. We’ve spent a lot of time, and I’ve personally spent a great deal of time in this government working on how to support youth more. And that does need a bit of gritty realism. You can’t pretend that everyone’s life is fine, that they will all stay on track if they just get a bit of counselling. This is a bit of a long, slow job to keep all of our young people on track. And our social investment analysis tells us it’s worth doing almost anything to keep a young person on track to work and off the welfare track.
CORIN But is it quite a harsh view of them? And as Prime Minister it’s different, because you’ve got a much bigger megaphone, and when you start making comments like that, it’s quite derogatory, isn’t it, to a big group of New Zealanders. Because the facts were it’s actually a very small number of Kiwis who are failing drugs tests for jobs.
BILL Well, look, the young people I have been talking to in the last week, they are not telling me that that’s a harsh view. They think it’s realistic, and I think it’s realistic.
CORIN Your mantra in terms of social investment is hard data, evidence. ‘If you can’t give me the data for a social programme, I’m not going to fund it.’ That’s what you say. I mean, we’ve seen it with programmes.
BILL Well, it's not quite that simple.
CORIN But you want data analysis, don’t you?
BILL That’s right. They’ve got to show that it can work.
CORIN So why would you stand up in front of the country and make a comment about drug users based on anecdotal evidence?
BILL Well, it is a description of reality, and I know some people struggle with that.
CORIN But you don’t accept that same description when you are funding your social programmes. You are not going to take anecdotal evidence. I’ve seen it with getting assistance for young parents programmes that are cut.
BILL Well, as it happens, we are investing extensively in alcohol and drug support, and a lot of that involves young people. I know that may be a surprise to some, but one reason we know that it’s drug use is we invest in these things…
CORIN But it wouldn’t be anecdotal evidence telling you that, though, would it?
BILL …in our prisons, through our health services, and increasingly through our focus on breaking the cycles of long-term welfare.
CORIN I guess the point I’m making — do you accept that as Prime Minister it’s slightly different, isn’t it? That is a much bigger audience to those sorts of comments you’re making. Do you accept that there is more gravity to those words? You’ve got to be more careful, don’t you?
BILL Well, of course you’ve got to be a bit careful, but I think people also want whoever is running the government to be able to say it basically how it is, to have a realistic understanding, not a misleading understanding, of how people live their lives, because if we are wanting to change lives, which is a strong focus of this government, and change their life cycle, then we need to be realistic about what situation people are in.
CORIN And you were realistic a few years back too, weren’t you, when you said prisons were a moral failure. Do you still believe that?
BILL Yes, I do. We are having to build more prisons. I think that’s unfortunate. But we have got to deal with the product of our own legislation.
CORIN But what’s the moral bit that you’re concerned about?
BILL Oh, just the fact that, particularly for younger people, if they get into the justice system for relatively minor offending, they can go in with School C in crime and come out with a PhD. They just learn how to do it.
CORIN You could do something about that, though. You’re in a position now to do something about that. I mean, do we need to lock people up for as long? Do we need to lock up so many people for minor offences? You could change that.
BILL Well, that’s a discussion, I think, that’s starting to occur, you see, from the ACT Party — a proposition to relate literacy achievement to shortening of sentences. Now, I think that’s a pretty fascinating idea, and it was surprisingly well received by the public.
CORIN So are you in favour of the idea of looking at more realistic sentences to take the moral and fiscal burden off our prisons, reduce sentences, perhaps look to ways to get people more home detention, those sorts of things?
BILL Well, look, I like the idea that it’s related to change in the behaviour of the prisoner, because we have focused a lot of money and time on trying to break the cycles of reoffending, and we’ve had some success there, but not near enough yet, and welcome more propositions that might tie our big resource we’re putting into that to having fewer people in prison because behaviour’s changed. But, look, if people are committing serious crime, under the law, they’re going to be locked up, and some are going to be locked up a long time.
CORIN You as prime minister, if you win this election, it’s pretty likely that there will be at some point some socially progressive legislation that comes past — the conscience vote issues, gay marriage; call it what it is. You said when you stood, actually, in this building and talked after becoming Prime Minister that you wouldn’t stand in the way of that because you’re socially conservative. Why not? Why not just be who you are?
BILL Well, my views about a range of social issues are pretty well known and fairly consistent in the Parliament, and if issues like, say, euthanasia arise, people will know where I stand on it and how I’ll vote on it. That won’t change.
CORIN But it’s a different story when you’re Prime Minister because we saw with John Key when he voted for gay marriage, that was a big impetus to that legislation. We’ve seen it with the smacking legislation in previous years gone by. Prime ministers set the tone, and if you’re socially conservative, what I’m curious about is how you behave around a social conscience vote is quite significant. For example, the Abortion Advisory Committee has recommended an update of our abortion laws; they’re outdated and clumsy. Would you stand in the way of that, given that, I’m presuming, you’re not in favour of liberalising abortions?
BILL That’s right, I’m not, and I wouldn’t vote for legislation that did.
CORIN What about a law that just updated it, modernised it, which is what they’re calling for?
BILL Well, I think what they mean is liberalise it, and we wouldn’t do that. I mean, it’s a law that’s standed the test of time. But, look, the Parliament has ways of working with this. They know how I would vote, but also they can— You know, I’m focusing on a whole wider set of issues, and many views that I think have traditionally been regarded as socially conservative turning out to be pretty useful. For instance, cracking some of our worst social problems is about trying to rebuild families that have been shattered by dependency, offending, abuse, and as a government we’re focusing on achieving that.
CORIN I think you’ll find the Abortion Advisory Committee does not think it’s standing the test of time and that it’s an outdated, clumsy, sexist piece of legislation.
BILL Well, look, they’re free to have their opinion. They know what my opinion is. The Parliament would deal with the issue, I’m sure, one way or another if it came up.
CORIN But would you stand in the way of it? You’re Prime Minister; you’re signalling that’s something you’re not interested in reforming.
BILL Well, I’m signalling that as a parliamentarian with one vote out of 121, and I hope others would vote with me.
CORIN Yeah, but the most important vote, isn’t it?
BILL Well, no, on conscience issues you are just one vote. I’ve seen this process work in the past, and I’d vote my way.
CORIN But it sets the tone, doesn’t it?
BILL Well, look, if it does, in that case, I’m quite happy that it sets the tone of not rushing into big changes in abortion law.
Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz