Questions And Answers Sept 7
(uncorrected transcript—subject to correction and further editing)
WEDNESDAY, 7 SEPTEMBER 2011
QUESTIONS FOR ORAL ANSWER
QUESTIONS TO MINISTERS
Economy—Government Measures for Growth and Job Creation
1. CHRIS AUCHINVOLE (National—West Coast - Tasman) to the Minister of Finance: What steps has the Government taken to make better use of its balance sheet to boost growth and jobs?
Hon BILL ENGLISH (Minister of Finance): The Government has a very substantial balance sheet, with total assets currently at a value of around $220 billion. In the last few years the Government has undertaken a range of carefully selected capital investments, including an infrastructure programme with significant investment in roads and in KiwiRail, as well as investment in schools, hospitals, and commercial assets. The first Investment Statement shows that these substantial investments will add up, over the next 5 years, to increasing State assets by $34 billion, much of it through expenditure on property, plant, and equipment, which will generate jobs and a long-term boost in productivity for the economy.
Chris Auchinvole: What independent assessments has he seen of the benefits of the Crown using its capital better?
Hon BILL ENGLISH: When the Government is making very substantial new investments, it needs to be careful how it finances those investments. Last week I saw analysis by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research of the mixed-ownership proposal that the Government has put forward. It concluded that the proposal makes sense, that a partial sale would allow the Government to share the financing of major future investments with other investors, and that the proposal will reduce the Government’s future borrowing needs.
Chris Auchinvole: Did the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research analysis also cover what impact mixed ownership would have on Government finances?
Hon BILL ENGLISH: Yes, it did. It noted that the return on the equity that the taxpayers have invested in these assets is less than the interest costs of holding the assets. The institute calculated that the annual gain to the Government from selling 49 percent of these companies could be close to $250 million. This seems reasonable, though the Government’s own projections are more conservative.
Chris Auchinvole: Has he seen other examples of New Zealand businesses redeploying their capital for better use?
Hon BILL ENGLISH: Yes, I have. I have noted that Tower Investments chief, Sam Stubbs, has said it is likely to sell assets it owns overseas in order to be able to buy these assets in New Zealand. That would follow the pattern of shareholders of Port of Tauranga Ltd, where New Zealanders are buying out foreign ownership of Port of Tauranga Ltd shares listed on the stock exchange. I have also seen reports that Fairfax intends to float part of TradeMe on the New Zealand sharemarket—a
model similar to the one the Government is proposing and similar to that of Air New Zealand, which was set up as a mixed-ownership company by the previous Labour Government.
Hon John Boscawen: How would growth and jobs have been affected if the Government had implemented a tax-free threshold on income of $5,000 a year, taken GST off fresh fruit and vegetables, and restored the research and tax development credits, as proposed by Labour?
Hon BILL ENGLISH: Thankfully, we did not get to find out, because the Labour Government was thrown out and did not have the opportunity to put that package together. But it would almost certainly have been as bad for jobs and confidence as the policies of that party were when it was in Government.
Hon John Boscawen: How would growth and jobs have been affected if the Government had reduced spending to 29 percent of GDP and reduced the top company and income tax rate to 21 percent, as proposed by ACT last month?
Hon BILL ENGLISH: Well, it is a bit hard to tell, because those measures may have ended up with the Government slashing the support that many New Zealanders have relied on through the tougher times of the recession. I am sure the member’s party believes those measures would have been better for growth and jobs. We believe we struck about the right balance between building confidence and the opportunity for there to be more jobs and higher incomes in the future, while protecting New Zealanders through the tough times of a recession.
Child Poverty—Estimated Cost Per Year
2. Hon ANNETTE KING (Deputy Leader—Labour) to the Minister for Social
Development and Employment: In light of her answer on behalf of the Prime Minister yesterday, that there is child poverty in New Zealand, what is the estimated cost of child poverty per year?
Hon PAULA BENNETT (Minister for Social Development and Employment): That very much depends on whom one asks. New Zealand does not have either an official poverty measure or an official measure of the cost of child poverty—nor does any country in the OECD. Recent reports into child poverty take data from Statistics New Zealand and the Ministry of Social Development’s household incomes report. They then undertake their own analysis. Two recent reports go a step further and come up with an estimate of the cost to New Zealand of child poverty. These reports used assumptions from the UK and USA in their cost estimates, which range from $6 billion to $8 billion per year. I am not in a position to comment on the accuracy of those estimates.
Hon Annette King: If the Government is “putting massive investment” into child poverty as she said in the House yesterday, how many children have been lifted out of poverty in the last 3 years by this investment?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: As I stated, New Zealand does not have an official poverty measure. It did not have one under Labour—
Mr SPEAKER: I apologise to the member. I say to some of the Labour front bench that their deputy leader asked a fair question and I believe she deserves to hear an answer. That absolutely obsessive interjection level means no one can hear the answer.
Hon PAULA BENNETT: New Zealand does not have an official measure of poverty. It did not have under the previous Labour Government and it does not have one under this National one. I stand by my stance that we have put millions and millions of dollars into those children and their families. Some examples are insulating over 100,000 homes where those children live, putting $1.4 billion into early childhood education, focusing on those children who most need it, spending money on Incredible Years, our immunisation rates going from 73 percent to 90 percent, and the focus on children in care. The list can go on.
Hon Annette King: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. My question was based on an answer given yesterday by the Minister, about putting massive investment into child poverty, which I raised in my question. Then I asked her how many children had been lifted out of poverty by this
investment in the last 3 years. The Minister told us about a lot of programmes, but that did not address the question.
Mr SPEAKER: I believe, in fairness, that in the early part of the Minister’s answer she reemphasised the fact that the Government does not have an official measure of child poverty. If there is no official measure of child poverty, it is not possible to estimate the number of children who have been lifted out of poverty. In that regard, I believe the member’s question was answered.
Hon Annette King: What did she base her answer on yesterday, when she said that there was not a lot of work being done in research and evaluation of children’s policy, in light of the following reports: the Ministry of Health report on child health and well-being, the Public Health Advisory Committee’s report on child health, her own ministry’s report on indicators of child wellbeing, the household incomes inequality report, the Children’s Social Health Monitor report, the Child Poverty Action Group’s annual reports, the OECD Doing Better for Children report, and the Every Child Counts report—every one of them highlighting child poverty in New Zealand?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: What I was referring to was the evaluation and the effectiveness of programmes, so it would be fair to say that when National came into office, and certainly when we were in Opposition, we had concerns about how effective they were in reaching those children, and then how good some are, compared with others. We have done some work, as much as we can, in starting those evaluations and working our way through them. We have held a number to account, and I make no apologies for that, but I do think there is still a lot more work to be done.
Hon Annette King: Will the Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study, commissioned by the Ministry of Social Development, involving 7,000 children and their families, provide the Government with the sort of research that will enable it to formulate policies for children?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: Yes. The member raised the longitudinal study Growing Up in New Zealand yesterday. When we came into Government a huge investment had already been made by the previous Government into that study. However, it had not funded it ongoing, so within weeks of being in this job I was informed that we had to find money to keep the study going. I had to go to my colleagues, cap in hand, and ask them to find some money out of their baseline funding. We have since put millions of dollars more into that study and do support it. But $25.9 million into the longitudinal Growing Up in New Zealand study, coming out of taxpayers’ pockets, is a lot of money and I think it is an incredibly fair investment in that programme.
Hon Annette King: Is the Ministry of Social Development funding the study, and is the funding continuing from the ministry after July 2012; if not, why not?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: I do not have all the facts in front of me, because the member did not actually ask that in her main question. If she wants more information on the longitudinal study I would welcome a written question. But I can say that we have supported the longitudinal study. I have had to find millions more dollars, since I have been Minister, to keep it going. I think an investment of $25.9 million into the longitudinal study over a period of time shows our commitment to it.
Te Ururoa Flavell: Tēnā koe, Mr Speaker. Kia ora tātou. When will the Government be implementing the Māori Party policy of having a polity measure?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: That is not on the Government’s time line at the moment.
Hon Annette King: Has she not been told that the funding from the Ministry of Social Development has been stopped, from July 2012, and is she aware of the outcome of withdrawing such funding for a project that requires ongoing research through to at least 2014, and these outcomes include the loss of participants, the loss of data, the loss of goodwill, and putting the whole project in jeopardy?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: As I have stated, I am more than happy to answer questions and put the actual facts on the table for the member because I do not believe that she has her facts right and that funding does stop there. We had a huge hole in funding that we had to find millions of dollars to fill, and we have done that. I think members will see that we have ongoing funding for
longitudinal study. I am sure that there are gaps in some of it. We are trying to fill them, but there were no appropriations ongoing from the previous Government for that study.
Hon Annette King: Will the Minister apologise to this House when it is shown that funding from the Ministry of Social Development does stop in July 2012, as I have been advised by the University of Auckland today?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: I will apologise when the previous Government apologises as well for the hole in funding it left the programme with.
Broadband, Ultra-fast—Roll-out to Wellington
KATRINA SHANKS (National): My question is to the Minister for—[Interruption]
Mr SPEAKER: I apologise to the member. I say to the front-benchers that, please, I have called Katrina Shanks. We have dealt with the previous question.
3. KATRINA SHANKS (National) to the Minister for Communications and Information
Technology: What progress has the Government made on rolling out ultra-fast broadband in Wellington?
Hon STEVEN JOYCE (Minister for Communications and Information Technology): Good news. I was delighted to attend the commencement of the roll-out of ultra-fast broadband in Wellington just last week in the Lower Hutt suburb of Kelson. In the next 12 months, over 9,000 premises across Wellington will be passed with new fibre, which when combined with existing fibre will total around 29,000 priority users in homes covered in the first year. This excellent progress in Wellington is just one part of the wider national roll-out that is currently seeing broadband deployment already under way in Whangarei, Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, and Whanganui.
Katrina Shanks: How will the roll-out improve broadband services and economic productivity?
Hon STEVEN JOYCE: By the time the roll-out is completed in Wellington, fibre will cover a population of almost 390,000 people, as well as 7,900 business premises, many schools, and more than 1,500 medical and other health care services. Fibre with ultra-fast capability will mean business people, innovators, and entrepreneurs in our capital city grant will have a platform from which to compete with anyone anywhere in the world. In addition, we are boosting retail competition by ensuring the newly built network is open to retailers on equal terms. Wholesale prices will be as low as half the current price for business services, and residential customers will enjoy a vastly improved service for as much as they currently pay, or less.
Hon Trevor Mallard: Amongst the good news was there the fact that the broadband is broad enough to get the very big message to Katrina Shanks that the Prime Minister supports Peter Dunne?
Mr SPEAKER: That is not the Minister’s responsibility at all.
Hon Trevor Mallard: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. The capacity of broadband to get big messages through the system is something that is certainly his responsibility.
Mr SPEAKER: I accept the member’s point, except I have ruled the question out of order.
Te Ururoa Flavell: What progress is expected—[Interruption]
Mr SPEAKER: Fortunately I did not hear any of that.
Te Ururoa Flavell: What progress is expected on connecting marae, rūnanga, kōhanga reo, and wānanga with ultra-fast broadband?
Hon STEVEN JOYCE: Under the ultra-fast broadband programme these are all priority users for fibre to the home and they will be provided by the end of 2015 right across the country. Also, under the rural broadband programme further marae will be connected, as well. The Government is continuing to work with Ngā Pū Waea to maximise the benefit of the ultra-fast broadband to iwi, hapu, and whānau. Once again, I take the opportunity to thank the Māori Party for its support in ensuring this transformational programme for New Zealand is proceeding on time and quickly to the country’s benefit.
Children, Hospital Admissions—Respiratory and Infectious Diseases
4. GRANT ROBERTSON (Labour—Wellington Central) to the Minister of Health: Have hospital admissions for children with respiratory diseases and infectious diseases increased over the last three years; if so, by how much?
Hon TONY RYALL (Minister of Health): As the member will be aware, there are a number of respiratory and infectious diseases that children can suffer from, including pneumococcal disease, whooping cough, measles, bronchiolitis, bronchiectasis, rheumatic fever, asthma, skin infection, and others. I am advised by the Ministry of Health that hospital admission data for the last year is not yet complete for most of these conditions. However, I have seen the Children’s Social Health Monitor 2011 update, which advises that in the 2007-10 calendar years there was an increase in admissions for certain medical conditions for children. At the same time there had been reductions in rates of others, such as invasive pneumococcal disease, but here in New Zealand there is more to be done in this important and challenging area.
Grant Robertson: Can he then confirm that the Children’s Social Health Monitor said that 5,000 more children were admitted to hospital for avoidable medical conditions in 2010 compared with 2007?
Hon TONY RYALL: It is not my report, but I certainly read those numbers in the report. I remind the member that a couple of those years were in part of his Government. I say to the member that I have also seen the comments of Associate Professor Cindy Kiro, who said that the recent update indicates that although these admissions are still increasing, the rate of increase appears to be slowing, with possible early signs of improvement in some groups—potentially, Pacific children. Professor Kiro put these improvements down to interrelated factors, one of which she identified as the Healthy Homes initiative and the second is the much better uptake of immunisation in the last couple of years.
Grant Robertson: Were the authors of the report by the Children’s Social Health Monitor correct when they said that children may be suffering “permanent health damage” because preventable illnesses are not being treated because parents are struggling with the cost of living, including the cost of getting medical treatment?
Hon TONY RYALL: I certainly would agree that some children are suffering permanent damage if certain diseases are not remedied, and that is the reason why I was in Hawke’s Bay this morning, at the Irongate primary school, to launch the first of the Government’s roll-out of the rheumatic fever programme. The rheumatic fever programme—$12 million over 4 years—is a substantial investment targeted specifically at a disease that causes irreparable damage to young children. This has actually been a national health goal since 2001, when it was set under the previous Government. But as that member knows, although that Government set it as a goal, it never did anything about it.
Grant Robertson: Does he accept that his removing of the target for district health boards to reduce avoidable admissions to hospital may have contributed to the increase of 5,000 more children being admitted for avoidable medical conditions?
Hon TONY RYALL: No, I would not agree with that, because in one of the key groups— children under the age of 5—the advice is that avoidable hospital admissions are in fact coming down. The target that the Government puts great store in is the increase in immunisation for 2-yearolds, where we have taken it from 73 percent of 2-year-olds being immunised to over 90 percent today. This morning I received an email from the Western Bay of Plenty Primary Health Organisation to advise that now 98 percent of Māori 2-year-olds are fully immunised, and then a few hours later, I received a text from the Eastern Bay of Plenty Primary Health Organisation to advise that it has hit 94 percent across both Māori and Pākehā,. Those levels are the highest ever achieved in those communities.
Grant Robertson: Will the Minister reinstate a national health target for avoidable hospitalisations, in light of the fact that 5,000 more children were admitted to hospital for avoidable medical conditions in 2010?
Hon TONY RYALL: The Government has a number of key preventive health measures that impact positively on children. The first is immunisation, where we now—
Grant Robertson: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. That was a very direct question. It asked whether the Minister would reinstate the target. That was the question that was asked. [Interruption]
Mr SPEAKER: A point of order has been called. To avoid uncertainty, I will invite the member to repeat his question, because I am still struggling to hear accurately today, and I apologise for that. The member may repeat his question.
Grant Robertson: Will he reinstate a national health target for avoidable hospitalisations, in light of the fact that 5,000 more children were admitted to hospital for avoidable medical conditions in 2010?
Hon TONY RYALL: No, I will not make it a national health target, because the Government already has a number of health targets specifically targeted at good health promotion and prevention for children. The first of those is immunisation, where we have closed the gaps. Whereas the party opposite talked about doing a better deal for Māori and never achieved that in 9 years, we have closed the gap, and in many parts of New Zealand Māori kids have a higher immunisation rate. The second issue, of course, goes directly to the question of respiratory disease, and it is the work we are doing to stop smoking, which has been internationally recognised.
Grant Robertson: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. [Interruption]
Mr SPEAKER: Before I call the member, I say to the deputy leader of the Labour Party, who has been a little bit vociferous today in her interjecting, that she heard her colleague call a point of order, and kept interjecting across the House. [Interruption] I am finding it very difficult to hear because of these cousins on each side of the front bench here, expressing cousinly affection for each other. If they could desist, it would assist me hugely.
Grant Robertson: I seek leave to table a segment of the Children’s Social Health Monitor report entitled Hospital Admissions and Mortality with a Social Gradient in Children, which shows that 5,000 additional children were admitted to hospital with avoidable conditions in 2010. Document, by leave, laid on the Table of the House.
Water for Agricultural Uses—OECD Recommendation
5. Dr RUSSEL NORMAN (Co-Leader—Green) to the Minister of Agriculture: Will the Government adopt the OECD’s 2011 recommendation that New Zealand implement water charging for agricultural uses?
Hon DAVID CARTER (Minister of Agriculture): The OECD report makes many recommendations, and some of the issues it has raised are already covered by current Government policy. This Government is committed to water reform, and to date we have been working very closely with the Land and Water Forum. The forum has also made a number of recommendations, and included in those is the recommendation that consideration be given to allocating as efficiently as possible water for industrial, agricultural, and domestic purposes. The Government has still to respond to the forum’s recommendations.
Dr Russel Norman: Was the OECD wrong when it said about New Zealand: “With little pricing of water resources, water scarcity is being felt increasingly acutely in some dairy-intensive regions prone to drought.”?
Hon DAVID CARTER: No, but it is important to note that the OECD report said upfront: “The country’s environment is of high quality”. It did, however, recommend continued development of better measurement of water abstraction, something which the Government has done, and on water quality via national guidelines, which again is something this Government has done.
Dr Russel Norman: Will a charge on irrigation water benefit the New Zealand economy by driving efficiency gains in the irrigation sector, and also decreasing the pressure on overallocated rivers and aquifers?
Hon DAVID CARTER: It is wrong to assume that farmers do not pay now for water. If they are involved in significant community or regional schemes, there is a charge. If they are involved in extracting water, they already also pay considerable costs for the benefit of the water that they use.
Mr SPEAKER: Before I call the honourable member for his further question, I say the question asked whether water charges could improve efficiency in terms of the allocation of water, as I understood the question. The answer said farmers already pay a charge, but made no comment whatsoever about whether charging for water could have any impact on the efficiency of water use. I believe the Minister should make some attempt to answer that, because the question was, I think, a reasonable question.
Hon DAVID CARTER: Some attempts to put additional charges on water could well lead to more efficient use of water. The very fact that we are now requiring irrigators, over time, to measure their water abstraction will also clearly lead to more efficient use of water.
Dr Russel Norman: Should we understand from that that the Government is leaving open the door to introducing a charge on irrigation water?
Hon DAVID CARTER: No. What the member should take from that is that we are working very closely with the Land and Water Forum, which has made a number of recommendations. As I said earlier, some of those recommendations include finding ways to more efficiently allocate water, not only to agricultural uses but also to domestic and industrial uses, and the Government will respond to the forum’s recommendations when it is ready to do so.
Dr Russel Norman: Will the Minister therefore rule out the introduction of a charge on irrigation water in New Zealand?
Hon DAVID CARTER: The Government will respond to the Land and Water Forum when the Government is ready to respond to the Land and Water Forum recommendations.
Dr Russel Norman: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. It was an absolutely clear question. The Minister might say no, but he did not really address the question at all.
Mr SPEAKER: In fairness, on this occasion I think the member asked whether the Minister would rule out charges for irrigation water, and the Minister, in reply, said the Government was making no decision or announcements until it had finished its consideration of a report advising the Government on these matters. I think that it is a reasonable position not to rule anything out until the Government has reached a position on advice.
Dr Russel Norman: Does the Minister agree with the Speaker’s interpretation of his last answer: that he is not ruling out a charge on irrigation water?
Hon DAVID CARTER: In this matter it is important that the Government takes a position, not just I myself as the Minister of Agriculture. The Government will take a position, and when we do so we will respond to the Land and Water Forum recommendations. At that time the Minister will know what the Government has decided.
Dr Russel Norman: Can the Minister therefore confirm, in relation to his last answer, that the Government has not at this point ruled out introducing a charge on irrigation water?
Hon DAVID CARTER: The Government is considering very carefully the recommendations of the Land and Water Forum and will respond to those recommendations in the very near future.
Dr Russel Norman: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. With regard to the answer in the last question, am I to take it from you that your previous ruling stands: that that answer again was that he is not ruling it out? Is that what you—
Mr SPEAKER: I cannot rule in that way at all. But I think it is a perfectly fair answer for a Minister, when asked whether or not they will rule matters in or out, and when the Minister, on behalf of the Government, is in the process of considering advice on a significant issue like that, not
to pre-empt any decisions that the Government might make. I cannot ask a Minister to answer any more precisely than that when a matter is under consideration.
Early Childhood Education, Subsidy for Hours—Retention of Entitlements
6. SUE MORONEY (Labour) to the Minister of Education: Does she stand by her commitment on The Nation on 20 August 2011, that low and middle income families would not pay more for 20 hours of early childhood education in the next three years if the Government is reelected?
Hon ANNE TOLLEY (Minister of Education): That is not what I said. If the member listens to the interview again, she will hear that I was not asked about low-income families. But I can tell the House that this Government will be maintaining the 20 hours’ early childhood education policy should we be re-elected.
Sue Moroney: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. The text of that question was validated by your office, and the Minister has disputed that that was a statement that she made.
Mr SPEAKER: And it is absolutely the right of a Minister to do that. Although a question is validated as being compliant with the Standing Orders, a Minister is still at liberty to totally disagree with what may be included in the question.
Hon Trevor Mallard: Did she make the comment that was referred to in the primary question?
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: My answer to the primary question was that I did not say—I was not asked about low-income families.
Hon Trevor Mallard: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. It was a very direct question: did she make the comment?
Mr SPEAKER: I hear what the member’s point of order is. The member did not ask whether the Minister was asked in this interview about low to middle income families. The question was whether she made this comment about low to middle income families, and that is a different question.
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: I was neither asked nor did I make comment about low-income families.
Mr SPEAKER: I thank the Minister.
Sue Moroney: Will she commit her Government to keeping the existing subsidies in place for 20 hours’ early childhood education for the next 3 years if it is re-elected?
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: It is good to hear the Opposition talking about this Government being re-elected. What I can say is that this Government will be retaining 20 hours’ early childhood education and fee controls.
Sue Moroney: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. The question was specifically about keeping the existing subsidies in place for 20 hours’ early childhood education, and the Minister made no reference to that in her answer.
Mr SPEAKER: Given the unnecessary comment at the start of the answer, I think the Minister should be asked to answer the question again. The question was quite specific. It contained no criticism of the Government; it just asked whether it was the Government’s intention to maintain current subsidies during a further term, should it be re-elected. I do not believe the answer was fair in responding to that question.
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: The answer to the question is that we will be retaining the 20 hours’ early childhood education and fee controls.
Sue Moroney: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. Again, the Minister failed to answer the question, which was about keeping the existing subsidies in place for 20 hours’ early childhood education for the next 3 years if re-elected to Government. The Minister has made reference to fee controls. She has made no reference to the specific question, which is the only part of this question, about the existing subsidies.
Mr SPEAKER: I think the member who asked the question has a fair grievance, in that the question asked about subsidies and the answer spoke about 20 hours and fee caps. I might be stupid,
but I do see a difference. When members commendably ask straight questions, I think it is in the interest of the House that they are answered.
Hon Steven Joyce: I am new here, but my sense is that obviously 20 hours’ early childhood education is a subsidies programme, and I would have thought that the Minister did answer the question. Perhaps more broadly, I think we are getting into a situation this afternoon where members of the Opposition are not only seeking to ask questions but also seeking the exact answers that they want, as well. It is perhaps getting a little bit tough, because the Minister does have the ability to answer the question that I think the member asked.
Mr SPEAKER: I do not need any further help on this matter. As I said, I might be stupid, but members have a right to ask questions and Ministers are accountable. Where questions are absolutely within Ministers’ portfolio areas, they are accountable to answer those questions. The question did not ask whether the Government intended to keep the 20-hours policy in place. The question did not ask whether the Government intended to keep a fees cap in place. The question asked whether the Government intended to maintain the current subsidy levels. I cannot help with regard to the questions asked. It is not my job as the Speaker to stop members asking questions. It is a fair question, it is in the public interest, and I believe it should be answered. It may be that no decision has been made; it may be that there are trade-offs in certain areas. But to ignore the question totally is, in my view, not on, because Ministers are accountable to this House and the House deserves an answer. As I say, the question was commendable in that it did not make any criticism of Government policy. It was a straight question, and I believe it deserves to have some kind of answer.
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: I attempted to answer the question by saying this Government, should it be re-elected, intends to maintain 20 hours’ early childhood service, which is a subsidy programme, and the fee controls. They are the two essential parts of 20 hours: universal provision of early childhood services for 20 hours for every 3 and 4-year-old, with fee controls—
Hon Members: Free.
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: It is not free. It never has been free, which is why we renamed it. It was never free—
Mr SPEAKER: I have assisted the Opposition to obtain an answer here. To put up a barrage like that when the Minister is answering the question as she sees appropriate is not on. If members of the Opposition want the Speaker to assist in getting answers, they should treat answers with more dignity.
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: There is something happening towards the end of November, which is called an election, and if the Opposition wants to know what the Government’s policy is, it will have to wait until it is announced.
Sue Moroney: When the Minister says the subsidy programme will continue for 20 hours’ early childhood education, is she committing to the same level of subsidies that currently exists?
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: I have just said any election policy will have to be announced as part of an election policy, but this Government is committed to 20 hours. We have extended it to kōhanga reo, Playcentre, and 5-year-olds, and we have said we would maintain fee controls. Parents like it, parents use it, and we will retain it.
Sue Moroney: Do her promises on this issue carry the same weight as her promise in National’s 2008 education policy that “National is also committed to keeping all other ECE funding.”, given that she subsequently cut $285 million from early childhood education in 2009 for improved staffchild ratios and $400 million in 2011 for centres employing more than 80 percent qualified staff?
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: It is pretty rich to get that sort of a question from an Opposition party that, when in Government, allowed early childhood education spending to treble while less than 1 percent more children turned up at school having experienced early childhood education. This Government has increased the spending on early childhood education by almost 40 percent over what the last Government spent, and we are determined to make sure that those children that will
benefit the most from it—that is, Māori and Pasifika children, and children from poorer backgrounds—actually get access to good-quality early childhood education.
Sue Moroney: I seek leave to table the education policy document from 2008.
Mr SPEAKER: We will not do that sort of thing; that is all available to members.
Sue Moroney: Will she rule out any funding cuts to home-based early childhood education and kōhanga reo, should her Government be re-elected?
Hon ANNE TOLLEY: This Government has proven time and time again that it believes in having a diverse sector; we believe in having a very diverse early childhood education sector. If there are any changes made to the funding system, it would be to make it less bureaucratic and much more flexible than it currently is, and to maintain the diversity. Home-based care is extremely important, as are parent-led services, to parents. We believe in parents having choice.
Sue Moroney: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. The question was very straightforward: will she rule out any funding cuts to home-based early childhood education and kōhanga reo?
Mr SPEAKER: The member has done pretty well today, but, as has been pointed out, some of these questions are about what the Government might do after the election. The Minister made it clear that there is an election policy to be finalised in this area. I think that was a fair answer to that question.
Hon TAU HENARE (National): My question is to the Minister—
Chris Hipkins: Dead man walking!
Mr SPEAKER: I want to hear the question.
Hon TAU HENARE: It is better being 40 on National’s list—
Mr SPEAKER: Order!
Hon TAU HENARE: —than 15 on their list.
Mr SPEAKER: The member will resume his seat right now. I am very tempted to move straight on to question No. 8, because the member wilfully ignored the fact I was on my feet. The only reason why I am not is that there was a fairly provocative interjection. But let me warn the member that that will not work again. The Hon Tau Henare, question—[Interruption] The Hon Trevor Mallard on this occasion is not being particularly helpful. I call the Hon Tau Henare, question No. 7—[Interruption] No, the member will just ask his question.
7. Hon TAU HENARE (National) to the Minister for Social Development and Employment: What reports has she received on the latest benefit figures?
Hon PAULA BENNETT (Minister for Social Development and Employment): Numbers put out today say that last month the number of people receiving the unemployment benefit was 55,974. That is the lowest it has been since July 2009, a drop of 18 percent since its peak in January last year when 68,369 people were on the unemployment benefit. In August the number of people on the unemployment benefit dropped by 1,145, with half of the decrease due to more young people going into work. The overall number of New Zealanders on benefits is 328,355.
Hon Tau Henare: How many young people came off the benefit and went into work during August?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: In August 2,471 18 to 24-year-olds cancelled their main benefit to move into work. We have seen the number of young people on the unemployment benefit drop by 32 percent, from 23,545 in January 2010 to 15,980—the highest we saw the numbers go down during the economic downturn.
Transport, Auckland—Draft Plan
8. PHIL TWYFORD (Labour) to the Minister of Transport: Does he endorse the transport elements of the draft Auckland Plan; if not, why not?
Hon STEVEN JOYCE (Minister of Transport): It is not appropriate for me to endorse or otherwise any aspect of the draft Auckland plan at this time. The Auckland spatial plan is the Auckland Council’s plan, and the council will be consulting the community on it. The Government strongly endorses the process, but its role is to provide input, not to formally endorse it. With regard to transport elements, the Government will continue to consider individual projects on their merits if the Government or its agencies are called on to provide funding assistance. In this context it is important to remember that central government is currently contributing over $1 billion a year towards Auckland’s transport needs.
Phil Twyford: Can he confirm the New Zealand Herald’s report that he and Ministers Hide, Smith, and Heatley, at their 26 August meeting with the Auckland mayor and Auckland Council, could not stop browbeating the councillors over the draft plan’s commitment to urban intensification in a way that was “intimidating and small town”?
Hon Tony Ryall: What’s wrong with small towns?
Hon STEVEN JOYCE: Yes, I do not know that we should be picking on small towns. I point out that that was a view of a prominent left-wing politician from Auckland, who might have a slight conflict of interest, and it was reported by a prominent left-wing columnist from Auckland, who might also have a certain interest in this matter: a certain Mr B Rudman.
Phil Twyford: Does he accept that the alternative to a compact city supported by a modern public transport system is an Auckland that sprawls endlessly and a traffic jam from the harbour bridge to Whangarei?
Hon STEVEN JOYCE: I do not know that I would want to make too many comments on the Auckland plan at this point, but I would say that we on this side of the House believe strongly in people having the right to determine where they live and the way in which they want to live. We think it is an important principle, provided, of course, that they meet the cost of those decisions. I think that is an important point to make. I understand that Mr Twyford might have a strong view that everybody should live on top of each other, but others might disagree.
Jacinda Ardern: Is the city rail link his No. 1 transport priority for Auckland?
Hon STEVEN JOYCE: No, it is not, actually. The current priorities for Auckland are many and varied. They include the Waterview project, which the Government is building currently, the Victoria Park Tunnel project, the electrification of the rail in Auckland, the Newmarket Viaduct, and a number of other very important investments in Auckland. Currently, the central business district rail link has a benefit-cost ratio of about 0.3, and I think that we can all say that it probably needs to have an improvement in that before any responsible Government would seek to invest in it.
Phil Twyford: Why did his Government go to the trouble of creating a unified Auckland when it is very clear that the Government is determined to undermine and block Auckland Council’s plan for a world-class transport system and a compact city?
Hon STEVEN JOYCE: The member is simply incorrect. It is an important project for a unified Auckland. I think it is a very important project, and Auckland Council is currently consulting on its new spatial plan, which is a very important part of the unified Auckland process. I think it is great that it is doing so and that people are getting the opportunity to comment. I note that the member is assisting in that matter, as well. In fact, I understand that he had a public meeting on Monday night and that up to maybe eight people turned up. On that current progress, if he was to hold more public meetings, he could possibly cover the whole of Auckland—once he has got to 162,500 public meetings—and be able to consult on the future of the Auckland plan.
Jacinda Ardern: What is his advice to Government members who have claimed that the city rail link is this Government’s No. 1 transport priority in Auckland?
Hon STEVEN JOYCE: My advice to the Government members would be to attract more people to their public meetings than the eight that Mr Twyford was able to attract.
Health Services, Canterbury—Improvements After the Earthquakes
9. NICKY WAGNER (National) to the Minister of Health: What steps has the Government taken to improve outpatient and other health services to the people of Canterbury following the earthquakes?
Hon TONY RYALL (Minister of Health): The district health board’s earthquake recovery plan has identified a need to increase short to medium term medical bed capacity, and to relocate most components of the general medical service back on to the Christchurch Hospital site. The Government is announcing this afternoon that we have fast-tracked approval of $15 million in capital funding to relocate the outpatients facility and the acute medical assessment unit. This will enable the district health board to achieve shorter waiting times, to meet the growth in outpatient demand, to improve medical team efficiency, and to improve staff satisfaction and morale. Both of these projects will be completed in time to ensure that the new facilities are available for the 2012 winter peak demand.
Nicky Wagner: What other support has the Government given to the Canterbury District Health Board to manage the impact of the earthquakes?
Hon TONY RYALL: The staff of the Canterbury District Health Board have simply done an outstanding job of providing good quality services to the people of their community in the most difficult of times and circumstances. I advise the member that in addition to the $15 million for the new outpatient and acute medical unit, in June this year the Government pledged a special payment of up to $16 million to the district health board to assist with earthquake-related costs for the 2010- 11 financial year. This $16 million is in addition to the new funding for buildings and facilities. The Government has also made it clear that further special payments to the district health board over the next couple of years will be expected by then to cover ongoing extra costs as a result of the earthquake, to help the people of the district health board get the best possible services for the people of Canterbury.
State-owned Enterprises—Privatisation Parameters
10. STUART NASH (Labour) to the Minister of Finance: Does the Government’s privatisation plan include parameters which would cause it to cancel sales, such as low sale prices or high dividend yields; if so, what are the parameters?
Hon BILL ENGLISH (Minister of Finance): In the first place, the Government is not getting ahead of itself. It has always said it would get a mandate from New Zealanders before proceeding with the detailed plans for the sale. The mixed-ownership model is about achieving long-term value for taxpayers. The Government has said that if it is re-elected such a programme would be spread over 3 to 5 years, which gives the Government ample flexibility to adjust to market circumstances. In the current environment, demand from New Zealand investors is likely to be strong. The NZX 50 Index has risen 27 percent in the past 18 months, and that looks reasonably favourable, at least at the moment.
Stuart Nash: Has the record $900 million of dividends returned to the Crown by the Stateowned energy companies in the last year, on top of an average rate of return of 17.5 percent over the previous 5 years, caused him to reassess the economic case for selling these highly profitable State-owned assets?
Hon BILL ENGLISH: As I pointed out yesterday, of the $900 million the member is talking about, at least $500 million is a one-off capital release as a result of the sale of assets between Genesis and Meridian Energy. The fact is that until this Government came into office and lifted the performance of these State-owned enterprises, they were pretty abysmal. They are better now, and under the mixed-ownership model they will improve further.
Stuart Nash: Given that 75 percent of New Zealanders earn below the average wage of $50,000, and only 1.5 percent earn above $150,000, what percentage of hard-working Kiwi families does he think will be able to afford $4,000 to directly buy shares in an asset they already own?
Hon BILL ENGLISH: New Zealanders will have the opportunity to own these assets in a number of ways. First, the Government will retain 51 percent ownership. Second, we expect significant investment by the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, which holds assets on behalf of all New Zealanders. KiwiSaver funds, which—
Stuart Nash: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have listened to the other two answers, and they have really been off the point. This one really—I do not want to know who will own the shares; I just want to know what percentage. The question asked what percentage of New Zealanders—just a rough percentage—he thinks will be able to afford to buy these shares.
Mr SPEAKER: With respect, the Minister was in the process of explaining why he believes that some percentage of New Zealanders will be able to afford to own them. He was talking about the Government owning 51 percent; I think he was going on to talk about funds owning some of these shares. When the member asks that kind of question, which is a hypothetical question, he cannot expect a precise answer. I think the Minister has some latitude in how he answers it. So far he has been answering the question in terms of why some percentage of New Zealanders should be able to own those shares.
Hon Trevor Mallard: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. With all due respect, the question was about direct ownership, not about indirect ownership via funds or via the taxpayer.
Mr SPEAKER: I do not recollect the question being quite so specific. It talked about, if I remember correctly, where people with $4,000 could be found to own these shares. The question was hypothetical. It is not the kind of question for which I can insist on any particular answer. I think the Minister was not criticising the questioner; he was explaining why he believes New Zealanders will be able to own these shares. I do not know whether he was arriving at an estimate, but I cannot stop him at this stage when he has not departed from the Standing Orders in answering the question so far. I ask the Hon Bill English to finish his answer.
Hon BILL ENGLISH: Using the term the member uses, that New Zealanders already “own” these shares, then any of those who do not actually put up cash to buy some of the shares will already own the shares that the Government already owns.
11. NIKKI KAYE (National—Auckland Central) to the Minister of Internal Affairs: What announcements has he made regarding the igovt scheme, and increasing online access to government services?
Hon NATHAN GUY (Minister of Internal Affairs): Last week the Electronic Identity Verification Bill was introduced to Parliament, which will allow the igovt identity verification service to be used widely across Government and by the private sector. The igovt log-on identity verification services provide an easy and secure way of accessing Government services online and proving identity. They have great potential to deliver better, more secure, and cost-effective online services to the public. I also announced last week an agreement that has been signed between the Department of Internal Affairs and New Zealand Post to develop and promote these services, which will help make these services much more accessible to the public.
Nikki Kaye: What kinds of services can the igovt log-on and verification services be used for?
Hon NATHAN GUY: Currently about 30 services are available, such as booking swimming lessons via the Wellington City Council or ordering a birth certificate through the Department of Internal Affairs. There are more than 320,000 igovt log-ons in use. This is far more convenient for the public, because they have to remember only one log-on detail rather than a whole bunch, and they do not have to queue in line with different forms of ID. With New Zealand Post coming on board and ultra-fast broadband rolling out across the country, we expect more and more services to become available in the future.
Veterans—Government Response to Law Commission Report
12. Hon RICK BARKER (Labour) to the Minister of Veterans’ Affairs: When can veterans expect a full response from the Government in response to the Law Commission report titled A New Support Scheme for Veterans: A Report on the Review of the War Pensions Act 1954 that was presented to Parliament on 1 June 2010?
Hon JUDITH COLLINS (Minister of Veterans’ Affairs): When it is ready. For the member’s information, it took 3 years for the Law Commission to present its report, with 170 recommendations. It did not provide draft legislation and it did not provide costings. It could not even tell us how many veterans there are in the community. But as the Law Commission noted, it has proposed significant changes, and it would not be possible to implement the proposed changes quickly.
Hon Rick Barker: Does the Minister disagree with the contention of the Law Commission that, in instances, a veteran has less support by way of the War Pensions Act than a comparable ordinary citizen who is supported by ACC; how can this disadvantage to the veteran be justified, and when is the Minister going to put right this injustice by implementing the provisions of the Law Commission report?
Hon JUDITH COLLINS: The member is quite right. The situation is unfair, and we are aware that 39 veterans, if we were able to proceed with the Law Commission’s report, would transfer to the veterans’ weekly income compensation. However, I note that this anomaly is not new, and the previous Government was in the situation where it could have rectified that. It is certainly one of the recommendations that we are taking very seriously.
Hon Rick Barker: Does the Minister agree with the Law Commission on the establishment of an expert panel to develop prescriptive decision-making processes and guidance; if so, why has the Minister disbanded the expert panel this year, how does this demonstrate good faith to the veteran community, and, if the Minister disagrees with having an expert panel, why?
Hon JUDITH COLLINS: Because one of the proposals is that I put forward another expert panel, which will be able to assist us in a much greater way. The fact is that this Government brought in the expert panel. The previous Government promised it; we brought it in. It has now fulfilled its requirements, and we wish to have another one that will better meet the needs of veterans. But after 9 long years of the Labour Government I think we have made a lot of progress.
Hon Rick Barker: Is it correct that the delay in responding to the Law Commission report on the review of the War Pensions Act is because of the cost to the Crown, which in reality means a financial loss to the veteran community, and how can this be justified as being fair to veterans?
Hon JUDITH COLLINS: No.
QUESTIONS TO MEMBERS
1. CLARE CURRAN (Labour—Dunedin South) to the Chairperson of the Transport and
Industrial Relations Committee: Has he requested any written submissions on the petition of George Laird, signed by nearly 14,000 people, calling the Government to retain the Hillside and Woburn workshops?
DAVID BENNETT (Chairperson of the Transport and Industrial Relations Committee): I have not requested any written submissions on this petition.
Clare Curran: Did he, as chair, put a motion to the committee that a submission be called for from the petitioner, and did he rule that Michael Woodhouse voted against it?
Mr SPEAKER: What the member may have done as chair within the committee is a matter for the committee, and it is not in order for the member to be questioned on that. The workings of the committee are not matters that the member can be questioned on in the House.