100 days of action looking like 100 days of driven to distraction

100 days of distraction snippet.png

The new Labour-led government's first 23 days have been decidedly average, with their actions seldom matching the vision and values promised during the campaign.

Even before the new government was sworn in, things got off to a rocky start, with Jacinda Ardern describing capitalism as a "blatant failure." Labour clearly heard the uproar overnight, as Ardern dialled back her language to talk about market failures instead.

Running concurrently to that was a fiasco over the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, which the Green Party supported but New Zealand First opposed. Several days of confused messaging ensued, with the result that the Sanctuary, while being on the Order Paper at Parliament, appears dead in the water.

That was followed on Tuesday 24 October by the signing of coalition and confidence and supply agreements with New Zealand First and the Green Party respectively. While Ardern, Peters, and Shaw all sung from the same hymn sheet in the press conferences, it quickly became apparent in the details of the documents that NZ First had extracted a hefty price for coalition, and there were plenty of possible policy tension points in the two deals that would see NZ First and the Green Party not see eye-to-eye.

Likewise, policy promises like the $1 billion Provincial Pork Barrel (Regional Economic Development Fund), the Green Investment Bank, promises to investigate moving the port from Auckland, the planting of 100 million trees a year, the breakup of the Ministry for Primary Industries in three different ministries, and more, all lead to a realisation that Labour's ongoing commitment to both deliver all its policies too, as well as stick within its Budget Responsibility Rules, looked dubious at best.

In the NZ First deal there was the additional issue of Winston Peters' controversial Waka Jumping Bill, a blatant and undemocratic attack on one of the few checks we have on Parliamentary power in New Zealand. The inclusion of the bill was roundly criticised from all sides of the political spectrum, and once more set NZ First and the Green Party at odds with each other.

While the government got through its swearing in very successfully, the very next day NZ First's Shane Jones put his foot in his mouth by throwing his weight behind a Work for the Dole scheme, a policy staunchly opposed by both Labour and the Green Party.

That was also followed by news that not only was the Electoral Commission investigating Labour's dodgy intern scheme in Auckland, but that Labour's General Secretary Andrew Kirton didn't seem to believe former Chief of Staff Matt McCarten's story about how he'd paid for the scheme.

The weekend following the swearing in didn't improve things for the Labour-led government either. Grant Robertson gave one of his worse interviews on The Nation, where he got caught out lying that Labour hadn't had Treasury officials available to cost policy promises made to NZ First and the Greens, and refused to reveal how much those concessions were going to cost, and ended up issuing what looks to be a very hallow promise to stick to their Budget responsibility rules.

Next off the rank was the widely criticised ban on non-resident buyers, which brought up all the ghosts of Labour's xenophobic attacks on people with "Chinese sounding surnames", Indian and Chinese chefs, and international students. With the impact of the ban on house prices being minimal at best, the move as one of the new government's first substantial announcements undermined Labour's progressive credentials.

The government managed to get through the rest of that week fairly well, though Phil Twyford magically turned KiwiBuild into KiwiBuy, or KiwiResell when he appeared on the weekend media, casting doubt over Labour's commitment to build 100,000 new homes, and making it look more like they would largely be underwriting homes that were likely to be built by private developers anyway.

The government got a win on the Monday by announcing their plans to extend paid parental leave to 26 weeks by 2020, though they've rapidly burnt the political capital they gained on that in the past few days.

The government was also on the ascendancy in a battle over the number of Select Committee places, where National was caught out by an agreement made by the Business Committee in the previous Parliament.

That was overshadowed though by a disastrous appearance on Checkpoint by Minister for Children Tracey Martin, who revealed not only had she wanted to repeal the anti-smacking law, but that she too had smacked her own children. Martin said she still wanted to find ways to "improve" the legislation, though it's hard to see how you can improve the legislation when it appears to be working perfectly.

Ron Mark would also put his foot in the mouth by writing verbal cheques to the RSA despite there being no such commitment from the government. What was worse was that he did so right after his Prime Minister had spoken at the RSA's conference.

The government then found itself at odds with its Foreign Minister as Winston Peters' enthusiasm for a free trade deal with Russia resulting in across the bound condemnation, not only on the ethnics with doing a deal with one of the world's most brutal dictators, whose regime is subject to tough sanctions, but also on the motivations for him wanting such a deal.

A public stoush then followed as Statistics NZ was forced to defend its work and methods, with the coalition agreement with NZ First requiring a review of the department. This came off the back of Grant Robertson's attacks on Stats NZ under the previous government, which earned him a rebuke from the PSA.

The small gains from extending paid parental leave and the Select Committee battle were eroded at the State Opening though. As the House went to elect a Speaker, National called Labour's bluff that the government didn't have enough numbers to get Trevor Mallard elected as Speaker. With Labour clearly unaware of how many numbers they had (while people have tried to blame Ruth Dyson as Labour's Chief Whip, her role is to marshal Labour's MPs, it's traditionally the role of the Leader of the House, in this case Chris Hipkins, to liaise with other parties about their numbers), Labour was forced into making an embarrassing concession on the floor of the House to National over Select Committee places, going from 96 to 109.

The omnishambles from Labour was compouned a few hours later when both Chris Hipkins and Jacinda Ardern fronted media in a barefaced lie as they tried to claim they knew they had the numbers, but wanted Trevor Mallard elected unopposed. Not only did the photos from the Press Gallery tell a different story, but it was quickly pointed out that in 2013 Labour had opposed David Carter's nomination as Speaker, with Chris Hipkins himself seconding Trevor Mallard's nomination. The desperate attempt to spin their way out of embarrassment by Hipkins and Jacinda lacked any credibility.

Chris Hipkins also continued to create issues for the new government with conflicting statements on both National Standards and the fate of Partnership Schools. On the latter, in one interview he'd reassure parents of students at Partnership Schools to sit tight and no decisions would be made in a hurry, and then he'd make a statement suggesting that contracts were under review, and that the government would be looking to close down the schools.

Somewhere along the way, Ardern managed a generally successful trip to Sydney to meet with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The trip, however, was overshadowed in part thanks to the clumsy actions of - you guessed it - Chris Hipkins, who had appeared to be assisting the Australian Labor Party in finding ways to expose Coalition MPs and Senators who might be in breach of Section 44 of the Australian Constitution.

Winston Peters then dropped a bomb shell, serving legal documents on nine people, including journalists, MPs, and a former staffer, as he sought to find out who was responsible for leaking his superannuation over-payments, forcing Ardern into a difficult position and leading to questions being asked about whether Peters was embarking on an attack on freedom of the press.

At some point, Police Minister Stuart Nash found himself pitted against Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta over whether to meet the government's commitment for 1,800 new Police officers the government would have to recruit Police officers from overseas. Nash was in favour, Mahuta opposed, Nash was forced to back down.

As Ardern kicked off her first major overseas trip to APEC, ASEAN, and the East Asia Summit, Kelvin Davis struggled in Question Time, though most of the focus was on the refreshing approach new Speaker Trevor Mallard brought to the role.

APEC, ASEAN, and the East Asia Summit went generally pretty well for the new government. A new Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership deal was virtually agreed to, seemingly after the deal was dead in the water following a Canadian withdrawal on the Friday (NZ time). However, Ardern overplayed her hand when she tried to claim responsibility for things that had either already be negotiated, such as a side-letter between Australia and New Zealand on ISDS provisions, and the removal from the CPTPP of concessions that had been originally made to the United States, which looked likely to be removed regardless given the US was no longer in the deal.

It's also emerged that Ardern made what was a bloody funny joke about Donald Trump's election "at least people didn't march in the streets" directly to him. While it doesn't seem to have done any damage, it was diplomatically sloppy. Though it was a damned funny quip!

While Ardern wrapped up her overseas summits, trouble was once more brewing back here. Ardern's claim that New Zealand was well behind the OECD average on paid parental leave was comprehensively unpicked. Where Ardern claimed the OECD average was 48 weeks. It's not. It turns out that it's 17.7 weeks, meaning New Zealand is slightly above average.

Paid parental leave continued to haunt Labour too, as they rejected National's amendment to enable the full 26 weeks paid parental leave to be shared by parents in a way that worked for their individual family. Instead of adopting the idea, which most of Labour, NZ First, and the Greens all admit is a good policy idea, Labour has instead played politics on the issue, preferring to act in the same manner which the previous National government acted on paid parental leave. This wouldn't have been so much of an issue, had Jacinda Ardern not made such a show of her approach to politics being different to past governments, and promising to champion new ideas regardless of where they came from - even the opposition.

Ardern's relentlessly positive and new style of politics brand was serious undermined in the House when she was questioned on this, and resorted to blaming the National Party for having not introduced the policy themselves. While that may be true, it was also very illustrative of Ardern being a practitioner of politics as usual, a stark contrast to how she promised New Zealand her government would act.

While that fiasco played out, Labour also stumbled badly in the House. Kelvin Davis found himself lost at sea answering questions on the Prime Minister and Police Minister's behalf, notably saying that it would cost only $40 million extra to fund the extra police officers - a statement he eventually had to correct before the House.

Grant Robertson then found himself under attack by economists for, remarkably, an $11b debt hole in Labour's financial numbers.

This was followed by Robertson being forced to throw his Revenue Minister Stuart Nash under the bus when Nash committed the government to introducing GST on goods purchased from overseas online. Robertson all put publicly flogged his junior minister as he said any such move would be a part of Labour's all encompassing Tax Working Group.

And finally, it's emerged recently that seemingly nobody is happy about the prospective of horse trading taking place for Winston Peters' Waka Jumping Bill to get over the line, with someone in the Green Party leaking an internal email discussion about possible trade offs to the media.

While this isn't a complete list of all the trips and stumbles of the new government, what all this points to is a eerily similar pattern to how Labour operated in opposition. Every time they'd get momentum on an issue, they'd seemingly find a way to shoot themselves in the foot and be back to square one.

For all the talk from the Labour-led government on 100 days of action, all they've managed so far is four weeks of being driven to distraction.