Jacinda Ardern

The definitive timeline of the Government's Russia fiasco

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As the Government of Jacinda Ardern heads into its third week of its foreign policy blunder regarding Russia, I thought I'd throw together what's hopefully a definitive timeline of how this has unfolded.

24 October 2017: The incoming Government releases it's coalition and confidence and supply agreements with New Zealand First and the Green Party respectively. Everyone is caught be surprise by a clause in the agreement with New Zealand First which binds the Government to "Work towards a Free Trade Agreement with the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union and initiate Closer Commonwealth Economic Relations." It comes on the back of Winston Peters pursuing the issue with 20 questions in the House over nearly three years.

31 October 2017: The European Union's Ambassador Bernard Savage takes the unprecedented step of bluntly warning the New Zealand Government that pursuing a free trade deal with Russia will be viewed in a negative light by the European Union.

1 March 2018: Jacinda Ardern delivers her first speech on foreign policy to the New Zealand Institute of Foreign Affairs. In it, Ardern talks about as a small country New Zealand puts extra importance on the rules based international order, that New Zealand needs to strengthen our partnerships with out long-standing friends, and that:

We want an international reputation New Zealanders can be proud of.  And while we are navigating a level of global uncertainty not seen for several generations, I remain firmly optimistic about New Zealand’s place in the world.

Our global standing is high: when we speak, it is with credibility; when we act, it is with decency.

They're words that in the events that would start to unfold less than two weeks later now look like a bad joke.

10 March 2018: Winston Peters appears on Newshub Nation in a bizarre interview where he claims there is no evidence Russia was involved in shooting down MH17, or that Russia had tried to interfere in the US Presidential election. He also tried to equate trading with Australia and trading with Russia as equivalent moral issues.

12 March 2018: At her post-Cabinet press conference in Wellington, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ties herself in knots in her attempts to defend her Foreign Minister. Questions are also raised about how often Foreign Minister Winston Peters might be meeting with Russian officials.

13 March 2018 (New Zealand time): British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to the House of Commons about the Salisbury attack, unequivocally blaming Russia for launching the first chemical attack on European soil since World War II. Russia is given until midnight to respond and explain their actions. Britain's allies around the world issue statements all condemning the attack and joining Britain in blaming Russia.

13 March 2018: Winston Peters issues a statement which while condemning the attack and calling for an investigation, falls short of blaming Russia for it.

14 March 2018: Russia issues a sarcastic and dismissive response to the British ultimatum. In a rare move, UK High Commissioner Laura Clarke goes on RNZ to make the case that Russia was behind the Salisbury attack. In a message clearly directed at the New Zealand Government following their watered down statement the previous day, Clarke points out that Russia has repeatedly ignored the rules based international system and that New Zealand, more than most countries, relies on that system being respected.

15 March 2018: Pressure mounts on the New Zealand Government as academics, journalists, and political commentators criticise the Government's weak response. The Australian Labor Party's Penny Wong slammed New Zealand's response, as did former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The Australian issues a highly critical editorial, while the family of a MH17 victim joins the chorus of condemnation of Peters' earlier comments denying evidence of Russian involvement in the downing of the plane.

Later afternoon 16 March 2018: Following mounting pressure, Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters issued a statement on joint letter head, but only using quotes attributed to the Prime Minister, which finally blames Russia for the Salisbury attack - a full three days after New Zealand's allies had already done this. After it's noted by media that none of the quotes in the statement are attributed to Winston Peters, the statement on the Beehive is edited. It's blamed on a mistake by staff.

17 and 18 March 2018: Jacinda Ardern, in her first appearance on Newshub Nation and Q&A for 2018 is drilled on the issue. Ardern takes the weird position that the Salisbury chemical attack "changes things", as if there hadn't been a pattern of growing Russian aggression since the Crimean invasion. Ardern is also out claiming that talks on the Russian FTA hadn't been restarted when its revealed that Russian officials, believed to be trade officials, had met with Winston Peters in Manila the previous year. Weirdly, Ardern begins to articulate the myth that all they were doing wasn't actually trying to pursue a free trade agreement with Russia, just a reduction in non-tariff barriers, even though all her comments up to that point had been about a free trade deal with Russia.

19 March 2018: Ardern is once again grilled in her post-Cabinet press conference. Again it's over why the Salisbury attack had changed whether the Russian FTA was a good idea. Oddly, Ardern claims that Winston Peters is the one who first said that the Salisbury attack changed things, that's despite the fact that the Russian FTA was still all go until Friday afternoon when Ardern was quoted in a story by Stuff's Tracy Watkins and Jo Moir that all efforts to restart talks had been halted. In all the other things that were unfolding that week, Ardern's comments at that press conference now seem at odds with both the events of Friday afternoon, and Ardern's own interviews over the weekend. It seems very likely that there was an effort underway to restart free trade talks with Russia, but it was shelved only after Ardern decided it was no longer viable for the Government to keep taking heat over Winston Peters' stance. And there's no evidence Peters ever said that Salisbury changed things with regards to the Russian FTA, the only report of it appears to be Ardern announcing it would be stopped.

20 March 2018: The House sits again and both Ardern and Peters are questioned over the Government's woeful response to Russia the previous week.

21 March 2018: Ardern is again forced to defend Winston Peters' alternative facts around there being no evidence of Russian involvement in downing MH17 or trying to interfere in the US election.

22 March 2018: Winston Peters, responding on behalf of the Prime Minister, is subjected to questions in the House about his comments on Russia.

27 March 2018: Ardern appears on RNZ. In response to questions about how 150 Russian diplomats have been expelled from 26 countries, as well as NATO, Ardern says that MFAT has advised her that there are no undeclared Russian intelligence officers operating out of the Russian embassy. Ardern refuses later to confirm to other media whether there are declared intelligence officers. The comments soon go global, with it being reported and mocked around the world that Jacinda Ardern doesn't think there are any Russian spies in New Zealand, or that New Zealand would expel Russian spies but can't find any. The exact wording of a couple of exchanges towards the end of it are very interesting. Interviewer Guyon Espiner explicitly asks twice about Russian spies, not just the distinction of undeclared intelligence officers.

Espiner: "We don't have spies, Russian spies, in New Zealand?"
Ardern: "I'm assured by MFAT, that after the checks they've done, we don't. But, again, important to say if we did, we would expel them."

and...

Espiner: "You happy with that? Do you believe that? There's no one gathering intelligence for Russia in New Zealand."
Ardern: "Well I can only rely on the advice I'm given."

Twice Guyon Espiner asked about spies, not just the diplomatic distinction of undeclared intelligence officers, and twice Ardern said there weren't any. She went on to elaborate that she wasn't surprised because we apparently wouldn't top the list for global intelligence services. Tell that to the French spies who bombed the Rainbow Warrior, or the Mossad spies caught travelling on forged passports...

It's also important to note that Ardern wasn't briefed by MFAT, it was actually the NZSIS, as was revealed by Winston Peters during question time the following day, and Ardern herself as she was caught on the microphone mentioning it.

28 March 2018: Local media picks up on the fact that overnight New Zealand has becoming an international laughing stock. Stories have run in high profile publications including Time, the Guardian, and Politico. Even Kremlin mouthpiece Russia Today mocked New Zealand's efforts.

In Question Time Foreign Minister Winston Peters is taken to task on New Zealand's lack of action in response to Salisbury. Not only that, but Winston Peters in talking about the NZSIS report given to him and the Prime Minister reveals that the NZSIS have advised him and the Prime Minister that there is Russian intelligence activity in New Zealand! A direct contradiction of what Ardern told Guyon Espiner on Morning Report.

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Along with Security Analyst Paul Buchanan rubbishing Ardern's claimsformer KGB agent Boris Karpichkov also weighed in, pointing out that as part of the Five Eyes, New Zealand was a prime target for Russian spies.

Update - 29 March 2018: Ardern finally announces that the Government is looking at implementing travel bans, and step they evidently didn't look at until Wednesday following two days of mounting pressure and international media coverage her comments regarding Russian spies.

How National can win Northcote

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While National has held Northcote since 2005, there's every indication that this time around it could switch hands back to Labour. With the Key/English era of National well and truly over, National faces an uphill battle to retain Northcote.

The key to victory in any by-election is maximising turnout by your own supporters. By-elections simply don't attract the same level of turnout as a General Election. In the nine by-elections in the past decade turnout has averaged 58% of what it was at the proceeding General Election. That's a massive drop in voter numbers and illustrates just what a difference a successful get out the vote campaign can do for a by-election. For interests sake the lowest turnout was the Mt Albert non-competition of 2017 where turnout was only 38% of what it had been in 2014, while the highest was Northland's 2015 by-election where 84% of voters from 2014 turned out.

This brings us to National's first big hurdle - getting its supporters out to vote. There's a couple of things that could dampen turnout for National. The first is supporters understandable sitting on the fence and waiting to see how National's new leadership team performs and what direction they take National in. After the successful Key/English years this is an entirely reasonable position for supporters to take, as the National Party of 2018 onwards simply can't sit on its laurels and expect warm fuzzy feelings of the Key/English era to carry them forward. Labour was somewhat guilty of that during Goff's leadership, and it's important National learns from that experience.

There's no easy way for National to earn that support other than getting runs on the board in terms of holding the Government to account and producing new ambitious policies themselves. The by-election, which seems like to hit shortly after Budget 2018, will make that latter part of the equation difficult, as Labour will have it's big set piece of the year to talk about, and National will need to have a credible alternative in place as well as acknowledging any good points in Labour's Budget. National can't be the "No" opposition party that Labour was for so long.

None of this is to say that Simon Bridges and his front bench can't secure that support, I definitely think that they're able to. But securing it within such a short time frame of becoming leader is going to be tough. That being said they've been helped by the Government's ongoing run of bad headlines which is now into its third week thanks to Clare Curran and Jenny Marcroft.

The other issue that will hit National in terms of turnout is largely dependent on who their candidate is. Reports today suggest that upwards of 10 people are potentially looking at seeking the Northcote nomination. There's rumours that a few centre-right local board politicians are looking at contesting the nomination, and speculation that there may be at least one possible contender returning from overseas, and a former mayoral candidate putting their names forward too. There's also the rumour that Air New Zealand's CEO Christopher Luxon might seek the nomination.

There's merit in either approach - either a local body politician or a high profile candidate like Luxon. A local body politician has the benefit of already being immersed in local issues, and already likely having networks in the local party and community that they can draw on during a campaign. Conversely, a high profile candidate like Luxon could be exactly what National needs to combat the hugely popular appeal of Jacinda Ardern that Labour will undoubtedly use to maximum effect in the by-election.

There's also risks in both approaches too. At a local body level the centre-right hasn't exactly covered itself in glory in recent memory with its electoral success. The conflict between competing centre-right tickets didn't help the overall cause in 2016. That failure has been the source of much debate within the National Party about whether the party should set up its own local body ticket to compete with Labour and create a conveyor belt of future MPs too. That's not to say that some of the National Party aligned local body politicians couldn't do a great job as MP for Northcote, but I simply don't know enough about any of them outside of the bigger picture of the 2016 campaign to comment further.

The high profile candidate approach from National could also look desperate too. High profile candidates either go one of two ways - be a fantastic success like John Key was, or ultimately end up being cringe-worthy like Don Brash has ended up being for the right (despite his near success in 2005). From what I've seen of Christopher Luxon it seems more likely he'd follow in John Key's footsteps, rather than follow the Brash burn bright but briefly approach. Luxon has had a pretty successful career at Air New Zealand, and would be able to hit the ground running in terms of the media commitments required of candidates, but it's harder to know how he'll relate to voters on the ground and the gruelling ground nature of day-to-day campaigning. He'll have experience dealing with a wide range of people at Air New Zealand, but being a candidate is a world apart from being the CEO of our national carrier.

Much like Labour, National should be able to deploy a fairly strong ground team to knock on doors, deliver pamphlets put up hoardings, call voters, and do all the usual campaign 101 things that keep campaigns working. In this regard the Young Nats in Auckland have excelled in recent campaigns of putting in the hard yards.

National will also benefit to some extent from Labour and New Zealand First's anti-Asian approach. With Northcote have twice the rate of people identifying as coming from an Asian background that New Zealand, National will be able to use this as an issue to drive people away from voting for the Labour candidate. As much as Labour and New Zealand First will claim their policies are about overseas people, if you read any of the reaction to Labour's "Chinese-sounding surnames" debacle of a couple of years ago you'll know how many Asian-Kiwis coped racial abuse stemming from that.

Another challenge for National is that at this point Northcote looks like it might be their first by-election without Steven Joyce, whose reputation as campaign chair is well deserved. How that might play out in terms of what unfolds in Northcote is hard to tell. Joyce, living in Albany, would have been as well placed as anyone to know first-hand what issues would and wouldn't motivate voters in Northcote. If National can get him involved in some sort of advisory capacity it will be a big help for them, though at the same time they do need to start blooding a new generation of campaign managers and campaign chairs to lead the party into the future.

The other issue National faces is that Northcote, as a bellweather seat, has shown a habit of generally voting where the largest party support is. If we went off the 2017 election results National would be a shoo-in for Northcote. However a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, with Bill English leaving and Simon Bridges taking over. The dampening impact of the end of the Key/English era can't be underestimated, and National will need to work overtime to mitigate that effect alone. Likewise with recent political polls showing Labour's support in the high 40s, and National's lurking around the mid to low 40s, my calculations have National holding a 4.5 to 5.5 percentage point advantage, and that's without taking into account the recent leadership change.

National also can't break out the cheque book in quite the same way Labour can with regards to policies. Not only are we two and a half years away from the next election, meaning it's hard to promise things that you can't credibly deliver until virtually a full Parliamentary term away, but National has had a mixed bag with those types of by-election sweeteners in the past. It also doesn't suit National's narrative that it's not just about how much a government spends, but what results they get from that spending.

One thing that is in National's favour is that regardless of whether New Zealand First runs a candidate they've probably already bled any potential National supporters from their voters back to National in annoyance over Winston Peters going with Labour. ACT also seems unlikely to take many votes from National in the seat either.

While National holds a slight advantage when looking at Northcote historically, the ongoing strong popularity of Jacinda Ardern personally, and National's own leadership change are going to make it a challenging proposition for National to win the seat again. And I say win here quite purposefully. It's not about National retaining Northcote. We're not talking about an incumbent justifying why they should still be MP. We're facing the situation where a brand new candidate needs to win the support of the Northcote community to take up that leadership role for them, and that means winning each and every vote from the ground up.

How Labour can win Northcote

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On Sunday night I wrote about how Labour has every chance to win the Northcote by-election. Now the question is - how do they go about realising that chance to make history by becoming the first Government to win a seat off the opposition in a by-election?

Winning in Northcote for Labour is more important than most people realise, and it's not just about netting themselves another MP in Parliament at National's expense. A successful campaign in Northcote for Labour would lay the foundation for it to make inroads against National's strongholds across northern Auckland. These electorates are important in that they combine both high turnout and high party votes for National. Denting that Auckland suburban firewall while maintaining their gains elsewhere could guarantee Labour the ability to govern alone in 2020. Electorates like Northcote, North Shore, and Upper Harbour, all share enough similarities with other suburban electorates where Labour has done well to suggest that Labour can make more gains in them, almost exclusively at National's expense too.

The first, and most obvious step, is choosing a good candidate. Labour is relatively fortunate in that on the North Shore they have a host of upcoming politicians who are finding their feet in local body politics. In my last blog I made it quite clear I think North Shore Councillor Richard Hills would be an ideal candidate. He's local, he's smart, he's hard working, he's likeable, and while he lost to Jonathan Coleman in Northcote 2014, he enjoyed remarkable success in the 2016 local body elections. The 2014 result isn't one anyone should put too much stock in, mainly in light of how poorly Labour did across the country in that election.

The sooner Labour does select a candidate, the sooner they're able to get their campaign proper underway. It was an advantage they put to good effect in Mt Roskill where Michael Wood his the ground running several weeks before National's Parmjeet Parmar was able to. While not faced with National in Mt Albert, it also wasn't a secret who Labour was going to run there either, with Jacinda Ardern unofficially selected in that seat as soon as David Shearer announced his resignation.

Next is Labour deploying their much hyped ground game in Northcote. As an electorate Northcote is relatively compact, measuring about 30km² - roughly 6km from east to west, and 5km from north to south. That makes putting an effective ground campaign into action much easier than the larger suburban or provincial electorates around New Zealand. Labour has talked up a big game with regards to their on the ground campaign, and if they're able to quite literally walk the talk, Northcote is an ideal electorate to do it in.

The third step is to map out plenty of visits for Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson, and Phil Twyford to campaign with Labour's candidate. Given the immense popularity of Ardern, it makes sense to use her at least once a week with the candidate, if not twice a week. The popularity and goodwill toward's Labour's top triumvirate is pretty high right now, and they'd be silly not to utilise it and hope some of it rubs off on their candidate. Ardern, Robertson, and Twyford are the Government's most capable ministers, and chances are for Twyford a lot of the issues that will pop up will be in his portfolio areas too.

As always, you have to be mindful of not taking too much of the spotlight away from the candidate, but I think at this stage in the term the benefits of being seen campaigning with Ardern outweigh any downsides of being seen to be too dependent on her star power.

The only thing that might limit this is if the by-election campaign overlaps with Ardern's baby arriving. That being said, Ardern turning up to help Labour's candidate campaign with her new baby in her arms could well be the most iconic campaign moment in our political history.

The next thing Labour will need to do is find some good initiatives to announce for not just Northcote, but to also use as tools for the 2020 campaign across the North Shore. National did this exceptionally well with transport projects in the past, and Northcote and the wider North Shore are well placed for the same sort of pork barrelling that is just close enough in the future to be worth switching your vote for, but is also far enough away that Labour can get mileage out of it for the 2020, and maybe even 2023 elections...

The most obvious of these that springs to mind is not only bringing forward the start date of the Additional Waitematā Harbour Crossing to the early to mid-2020s, but also commit to building commuter rail in the North Shore too. To some extent that decision is made by the fact that the Additional Waitematā Harbour Crossing project calls for rail tunnels to be included in the project. Actually committing to a commuter rail network on the North Shore along with the crossing, which includes more roading, would be an ideal way for Labour to create a piece of policy that should win them votes north of the Harbour Bridge.

While National will be able to attack the policy as unaffordable, and as an example of splashing cash for votes, my gut feel is that those lines play better with the electorates who aren't benefitting from said cash splashing. Whereas those who are set to be beneficiaries of that spending are generally pretty happy to be shown some love by the Government.

The one part of this that might come back to bite Labour if they bring forward these projects is where they, especially the rail network, might impact on people's homes. It'll need to be an issue that Labour and their candidate are ready to sensitively manage, and don't be surprised if National uses it as an opportunity to push for a reform of the Public Works Act to improve the way in which people are compensated for the impact a project has on their property in line with European models.

The other thing that's useful, and this is true for both Labour and National though whichever party is best resourced to utilise this remains to be seen, is that Northcote's snug geographical boundaries make it relatively easy to target with advertising on social media, especially Facebook. A quick look at Facebook's ad tool suggests there's about 58,000 people aged over 18 on Facebook who are roughly within Northcote's boundaries. Taking the estimated performance of each party in each age group from the 2017 election, Labour would appear to have the edge in the ability to target potential supporters on Facebook. With those aged 18-44 voting more for Labour than was the average across the country in 2017, Northcote on Facebook turns up a potential audience of 40,000 people. That leaves around 18,000 for National to target aged 45 and over. Of course there will also be a variety of other factors that come into play on how political parties want to target their online advertising.

Finally, Labour needs to do whatever is necessary to ensure that neither New Zealand First or the Green Party stand candidates in the by-election. The easiest way for Labour to do this is to offer policy concessions to both parties. It may be what Newshub's Patrick Gower would call a dirty deal, but for Labour it might just be the deal they have to do to win Northcote.

For New Zealand First, not standing in Northcote is a no brainer. Following Winston Peters' decision to go with Labour, rather than with National, New Zealand First has already likely shed most of its supports who were sympathetic to National back to the blue team, which means in Northcote they're only going to be taking votes away from Labour's candidate.

For the Green Party though, the calculus is more complex. They're nearly exclusively in competition with Labour for support. Like other electorates with significant young and affluent populations where the Green Party has done well, Northcote does have the potential to deliver more party votes for the Green Party in 2020 than it historically has done. Running a candidate for the Greens will help their visibility going forward in a seat that can do better for them. The Greens, as a confidence and supply partner, have also made a point of displaying an independent streak to the Government at late, and running a candidate would support that. To convince the Green Party to not run a candidate in the seat will take a lot of concessions from Labour, one of which may be a deal to stand aside in a seat for them in the 2020 election.

Underpinning all of this is that Labour's path to victory relies in them maximising the turnout of every single possible voter who is going to vote for their candidate, and hoping that National isn't able to do the same. While Ardern didn't cause a youthquake, there was enough of an upturn in that demographic to suggest that in the short term, while Ardern's popularity is at its strongest, there's more Labour can gain out of that demographic, and Northcote is demographically well positioned for Labour in that regard.

That's enough delving into what Labour could do to win Northcote. I'm hopeful that next time I'll be able to write a bit about how National could win the seat. I say win, because with the incumbent MP leaving, it's not so much about defending a seat National already held as it is a new National Party candidate setting out to win it for the first time, which is a challenge for any candidate to do.

Labour has every chance to win Northcote by-election

With the resignation of National Party MP Jonathan Coleman triggering a by-election in the electorate of Northcote, I thought it'd be an interesting exercise to delve into the numbers. The objective is to try and understand a bit more about how Northcote has voted since its creation in 1996, and see whether there is anything from its history that could help determine what might happen this time around.

Northcote is generally considered to be one of New Zealand's three bellweather seat - the other two being Hamilton East and Hamilton West. As you can see from the above chart, that's generally true for Northcote other than 2005, where it voted by 2 percentage points more for National than it did for Labour in its party votes.

While National won Northcote on its creation in 1996, Labour took it in 1999 and held it in 2002. What was very interesting about 1999 was that the Alliance's Grant Gillon won 20.51% of the vote, and combined with votes for candidates from the other minor parties, had more votes than either National Ian Revell or Labour's Ann Hartley could manage. Since that high water mark in 1999 for the minor parties in Northcote, National and Labour have gobbled up the lion's share of the vote.

National took the seat again under resigning MP Jonathan Coleman and turned it into a National stronghold by taking the seat with outright majorities since 2008. At the high point Coleman's lead over the Labour candidates was 29 percentage points in 2011, though in 2017 that had been reduced to 17 percentage points.

Since 2005 on the party vote front, National has consistently over performed in Northcote relative to its performance across the rest of the country. Across 2008-2014 Northcote delivered the majority of its party votes for National. Unlike the candidate vote, on the party vote front the high point for minor parties in Northcote, much as it was the for the country more broadly, the 2002 election. National's recovery in 2005 was the first major hit to minor parties in Northcote, followed by Labour's recovery in 2017.

Interestingly, in Northcote in 2002 minor parties received a larger share of the party vote than either National (who hit their lowest ever result) or even Labour, a feat they repeated in 2014 at least in beating Labour. It's a powerful illustration of how when major parties fall on hard times their supporters flock to minor parties instead in the presumed hope that their particular interests will be better represented in opposition.

When broken down by party over the period, it's interesting to see how National's success saw it cannibalise support for New Zealand First and ACT in Northcote, while Labour's fall from its 2005 high and subsequent rise in 2017 saw the Greens benefit, and to some extent NZ First recover, until 2017 hit them both.

Taking a similar look at the candidate voting illustrates how much of a two horse race Northcote has been since 2002. Whatever Grant Gillon was doing in Northcote, he was doing it very well, because since then nobody has been able to crack double figures in challenging the National/Labour duopoly.

This leaves us with the question - what does this all mean for the Northcote by-election? I think this means that Labour is right in the game and has every chance to win Northcote off National. When Labour is performing strongly in the party vote stakes they can, and they do win Northcote.

How have I reached this conclusion? In Northcote National outperforms its New Zealand-wide party vote result by an average of 3.78 percentage points. On the flip side, Labour in Northcote underperforms by an average of -2.93 percentage points. Minor parties also underperform by an overage of 0.84 percentage points.

With that in mind, and using the latest 1News Colmar Brunton poll from February 2018 as a starting point - with Labour on 48 per cent, National on 43 per cent, and minor parties netting the remaining 9 per cent across the country - I've calculated that things staying broadly true to their historical patterns, that would translate in Northcote to National getting 46.78 per cent, Labour 45.07%, and minor parties 8.15% of the party vote.

Then, allowing for the pattern of how candidates in Northcote have gone relative to the party vote of their party in the electorate, (National overperforms by an average of 5.15 percentage points, Labour overperforms by 2.23 percentage points, and minor parties underperform by 7.43 percentage points), that would see the following results:

  1. National candidate: 51.93%
  2. Labour candidate: 47.35%
  3. Minor parties: 0.73%
    (due to rounding this does come out at 100.01% if you add those up)

That gives National a 4.58 percentage point advantage over Labour. If I use a slightly different measure - looking at the relative percentage difference rather than percentage points, it delivers a result still in favour of National, but with a 5.47 percentage point lead.

With that predicted 4.58 - 5.47 percentage point lead in favour of National, it's worth considering a few other factors that will come into play. Labour has an immensely popular leader and Prime Minister in Jacinda Ardern. Where Labour seemed to perform strongly in the 2017 election was the youth age groups, those aged 18-34. Incidentally Northcote experienced a 1.29 percentage point increase in the turnout of those voters in 2017. In terms of usually resident population, Northcote has a median age of 35, that's versus a median age of voters in the 2017 election of 48. Northcote sits within the youngest third of general electorates, and is in company with some relatively strong Labour voting seats. Advantage Labour in terms of age demographics.

Conversely, Northcote sits within the highest third of general electorates for median family income, and that places it in the company of some strongly voting National seats. So advantage National in that regard.

In terms of ethnic breakdown Northcote has below below NZ rates of people identifying as Pākehā (European), Māori, and Pacific Islanders, but it does have more than double the New Zealand rate of people identifying as being from from Asian backgrounds. How this will play out is hard to predict. Under John Key and, to a lesser extent Bill English, National was fairly confident that that Asian-New Zealanders were generally strong National supporters. This was reinforced by Labour playing several xenophobic race cards over the past few years, including the "Chinese sounding surnames" debacle, Andrew Little's attack on Indian and Chinese chefs, and the moves to ban foreign buyers - a policy that's been seen as promoting anti-Chinese sentiment which inevitably impacts Chinese-Kiwis. National should still have an advantage in this regard, but it's notoriously difficult to quantify.

Looking at religious affiliation (though admittedly this isn't a the strongest indicator of voting preferences in New Zealand largely due to Kiwis taking a relatively relaxed approach to religion, as is evidenced by having two openly non-religious Prime Ministers in recent memory, those being John Key and Helen Clark), Northcote has a slightly above average representation on non-religious people and slightly below average numbers of Christians vs New Zealand as a whole. I'll make the point again that this is a hard measure to use to predict voter patterns, especially as while National might generally be the party perceived as attracting Christian voters, Labour also has significant Christian support through its strong support in Pacific Island communities. This isn't so much of a factor in Northcote, but insofar that I'd argue that non-religious people are more likely to vote for Labour (even though I'm personally an exception to my own rule) I feel that potentially Labour might have a slight edge in this regard.

While I've written about Ardern and how she turned out the youth vote for Labour - largely at the expense of the Green Party it seemed at the time - National has a different problem. Simon Bridges, while having been a relatively high profile minister and hence having more of a public profile than most new leaders might have, is still new to the role. He doesn't have the same name recognition that John Key or Bill English had, and as such can't be counted on to bring out voters like Ardern will for Labour. That's not a criticism of Bridges, rather it's the simple reality that he's new to the job of being leader and outside of a general election campaign it's generally hard to get cut-through with voters as an opposition leader.

At the current stage of the electoral cycle, Labour does have an edge over National with regards to deploying their leader as a way to promote their candidate. I don't doubt that Simon Bridges will do as good of a job as any new leader for National could do, but it's important to acknowledge that he's also up against Jacinda Ardern who, along with being the Prime Minister, has already built a formidable media profile that's hard to match in such a short time.

The other thing that should count in Labour's favour is that in a by-election minor parties typically either don't run candidates, or struggle to get any cut through. In Northcote's case, minor party candidates have particularly struggled since the highs of Grant Gillon. In 2008 and 2014 New Zealand First didn't run a candidate in Northcote at all, and neither did the Green Party in 2005. If I were Labour, I'd of already started negotiations with New Zealand First and the Green Party to not run candidates in the Northcote by-election, and I'd offer policy concessions in return. Bumping the Government's working majority up a vote would be worth it.

If Labour were feeling especially devious, they could look at running one of their sitting List MPs in the seat, and pulling off the same trick that Winston Peters did to National in Northland in 2015, allowing Labour to bring in a replacement MP off the list if they won.

That being said, I think Labour's best chance of winning would sit with picking someone who already has proven electoral experience in the area. 2014 Northcote candidate, and sitting Auckland Councillor Richard Hills springs to mind as perhaps Labour's best chance. Hills topped the Kaipātiki Local Board results in the 2016 election, but as he placed second to Chris Darby for the North Shore Ward, was elected as an Auckland Councillor instead. Funnily enough, old Grant Gillion of 1999 fame in Northcote missed out to Hills by 128 votes.

Having already run in the seat in 2014, and subsequently becoming a Councillor for North Shore, I think places Hills in a strong position to help Labour take the seat from National. He also captures much of what the rejuvenated face of Labour looks like, and from what I can tell is a bloody hard working local councillor and all round nice guy. While some might criticise him if he stood for Northcote, having only become a councillor in late 2016, I'd argue that situations like this are just the nature of politics. It's probably a once in a lifetime chance to be able to represent your community at the national level, let alone potentially as a Government MP, and the subsequent by-election on North Shore is simply the cost of democracy, and it's a cost that I don't think anyone can reasonably object to paying. I don't think any reasonable person could criticise Hills for doing this.

Which leaves us with National and who they might run. Newshub's Lloyd Burr has already cheekily suggested that Air New Zealand CEO Christopher Luxon wants to enter politics with the National Party. Luxon is based on the North Shore, though I don't know if he falls within Northcote's boundaries (not that this is necessarily a barrier for someone to become an MP). Luxon also has a significant amount of name recognition through his largely successful time at Air New Zealand. That alone could well be important in helping National fight off what should be a very strong challenge from Labour.

National's other options include trying run their own List MP in the seat - with Paul Goldsmith and Melissa Lee being two possibilities if they relocated from their existing bases in Epsom and Mt Albert respectively - which would mean they could bring in another person off the List as well! Alternatively National might have a stellar local candidate in the wings who we haven't seen just yet.

It's often said that by-elections are Christmas come early for beltway watchers, and the Northcote by-election is shaping up to be just that.

Government's tough two weeks unlikely to hit poll numbers

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It's safe to say that the past two weeks have been the most difficult that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Labour-led Government have faced.

Between the sexual assaults at a Young Labour summer camp, the entire Russia fiasco, Ron Mark melting down over defence force flights, Jenny Salesa's Ministerial spending, criticism that not enough was being down to help the Nelson and Tasman regions in their recovery from Cyclone Gita, the Green Party ambushing Labour by announcing they were gifting questions to National, and Shane Jones repeatedly shoving his foot in his mouth over Air New Zealand, there's a lot that's been going wrong lately.

The public relations triumph that was Ardern's Waitangi visit must seem like an age ago, while the successful Pacific Mission has completely vanished from view.

Despite all that, when the next round of political polling is released I don't expect to see any significant change from what we saw in February. I'd expect to see Labour in the mid to high 40s, National in the mid to low 40s, and the Greens and New Zealand First struggling to reach 5 per cent.

The main reason for this is that Ardern hasn't been personally responsible for many of the issues that have played out and, where she has, they've mostly been on things that I don't think are necessarily going to sway voters. That, combined with her personal popularity, will mean that while Ardern has burnt some political capital fighting fires, she still has a deep well of support to call on.

The Labour Party's seemingly terrible handling of the sexual assaults at the Waihi camp will reflect badly on Labour's General Secretary Andrew Kirton, but as Ardern was only briefly at the camp delivering a speech, and had nothing to do with its organisation or the events in question, I doubt any voters will hold her responsible for it. A test may come further down the line when Labour's own internal investigation is complete if it finds significant failings on the part of the party organisation and Ardern doesn't demand that someone takes personal responsibility, but that's hard to preempt given there's a lot of water to go under the bridge.

The Russia fiasco - Winston Peters' alternative facts on Russian interference with the US election and Russian involvement in the downing of MH17, the bizarre focus of Peters on a Russian free trade deal, and the ham-fisted attempt by the Government to first condemn the Salisbury attack without blaming Russia, then several days later finally managing to step into line with our allies and blame Russia, as well as Ardern's bungled attempts to spin away that foreign policy disaster - while a bad look generally for Ardern and Peters, isn't the type of issue that will sway votes, even if it has lead to some questioning within the beltway of Ardern's own judgement and Peters' motives.

What has been interesting is that the Russia saga played out over 11 days. If a day is a long time in politics, then 11 days is an eternity for an issue like this to run its initial course. There's possibly more to come in this space, which could start to erode voter confidence in the Government's foreign policy and security credentials.

Ron Mark's defence force flights and Jenny Salesa's ministerial spending are similarly both minor issues. In the bigger scheme of things both are relatively minor issues. While Mark hasn't handled the pressure being questioned about the flights put him under particularly well, Ardern did the requisite telling off of Salesa and unless it becomes a pattern of overspend, the matter will rest there.

One thing that will nag at Labour's recovery of support in the regions, at least in the top of the South Island, has been the Government's sluggish response to Cyclone Gita in Nelson and Tasman. It took nearly three weeks after Cyclone Gita hit New Zealand for the Government to announce any meaningful assistance for businesses cut off by the storm. And unlike the flooding in Edgecumbe, which prompted a Prime Ministerial visit from Bill English to see first hand what had unfolded, the residents of Takaka and the surrounding areas still haven't seen or heard from Ardern.

Not that anyone is suggesting a Prime Minister visiting is somehow going to magically undo the damage done by a given disaster, but it usually serves as both a way to boost morale in the affected communities, as well as to highlight the ongoing importance of the recovery to Government agencies to ensure they keep their efforts up.

The Green Party surprising everyone by gifting questions in Question Time to National has been an interesting issue to follow the reaction to. While it feeds the Opposition's narrative that not all is well and cozy on the Government benches, any consequential reaction to it seems to be more directed at the Green Party over it, both supportive of the move and in opposition to it. While headlines of the Greens doing a deal with National aren't helpful to Labour, it seems unlikely this will translate into the polls either.

Finally, there was Shane Jones' attack on Air New Zealand. It kicked off on Friday and didn't end until Ardern finally hauled Jones back into line during Question Time on Wednesday. Jones' comments caused some concern in both the beltway and business community, as did Ardern's initial backing of Jones. Outside of the beltway, Jones' comments will have played well.

Towards the end of the past two weeks Ardern was getting visibly frustrated with both media questioning and Opposition attacks. In part this will stem from this being the first time her Government has been hauled over the coals for a significant length of time. But no doubt a lot of her annoyance will come from the fact that most of the problems she's been having to deal with aren't ones that she's been responsible for, barring her poor handling of the Russia issue.

The rough patch is set to continue too. With the Select Committee submissions soon to be heard on the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill, there will be a stream of negative headlines about the Government pushing that Bill through, as well as the Green Party's support for it. There's also lingering questions around Winston Peters' infatuation with Putin's Russia.

It shouldn't escape anyone's notice that New Zealand First, who are struggling badly in polls, have been the source of three of the issues that have dogged the Government in the past two weeks. Shane Jones' comments are perhaps the most interesting in this regard, as they point towards New Zealand First taking a much more vocal stand on issues that might not always sit well with the responsibilities and requirements of occupying the Government benches.

The good news for Labour is that with Easter fast approaching, and beyond that the beginning of pre-Budget announcements, the Government does have an opportunity to start setting the news agenda rather than reacting to it.

Ardern stumbles badly on Putin-Peters axis

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I can't think of a bigger foreign policy faux pas in New Zealand's recent political history than the absolute train wreck that unfolded this week over Russia. It started with Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters bizarre interview on Newshub Nation. In it he denied there was evidence of Russian interference in the US Presidential election, or evidence of Russian involvement in the downing of MH-17.

Those two claims fly in the face of the growing list of charges being brought against Russians by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the mounting body of evidence from the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team, the British Security and Intelligence Committee, and NGO investigators Bellingcat.

I was one of the first political commentators to call out Winston Peters indefensible and incoherent comments, suggesting to maintain credibility in her leadership and for international partners to have faith in New Zealand's membership of security and intelligence sharing arrangements, Jacinda Ardern needed to sack Winston Peters.

It's a call I stand by having made, especially in light with how badly this week has played out for the Government and the damage it will have caused for New Zealand with some of our most crucial security, intelligence, and trading partners. The source of all these issues is Winston Peters, and only by sacking him can Ardern fully restore confidence in her Government's ability to handle significant foreign policy issues.

It continued on Monday when, at her weekly post-Cabinet press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ineptly tried to avoid contradicting her Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, and defended his continued push for free trade talks with Russia.

On Tuesday things got worse.

Around the world governments moved to condemn the Salisbury chemical weapons attack and squarely point the finger of blame at Russia, with the Canadian, United States, British, Australian, French, and German governments all taking an extremely firm and united stance against Putin and Russia. All New Zealand could manage was a meekly worded statement from Foreign Minister Winston Peters that was massively out of step with New Zealand's key security partners in that it didn't blame Russia, a point that no doubt would have been noticed by our friends and allies.

A yardstick of the seriousness with which Peters' pathetic response was taken by our security partners, their growing concern about his pro-Putin apologism, and how it was going unchecked in the Beehive, was delivered on Wednesday morning when British High Commissioner Laura Clarke made a rare media appearance via RNZ's Morning Report to deliver a blunt message to Jacinda Ardern - Russia was clearly responsible for the Salisbury attack, New Zealand's refusal to publicly acknowledge that responsibility was not good enough, and New Zealand's pursuit of a free trade agreement with Russia was deeply concerning in light of Russia's increasingly brazen pattern of aggression with complete disregard for international rules based diplomacy.

While Clarke was diplomatic enough in the interview, diplomatic representatives simply do not make media appearances outside of their arrival or departure in the country, unless it is to send a very clear message to the government of the day. Clarke's appearance would only have been the tip of the iceberg, with unofficial back channels being used extensively to convey sterner messages to level nine of the Beehive about the gravity with which New Zealand's actions, or lack thereof, were being taken in Westminster.

Not constrained by the need for diplomacy, the Australian Labor Party's Penny Wong (who is staffed by a former New Zealand Labour Party staffer), and former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott slammed Winston Peters' comments, and an even more stinging editorial in The Australian.

The growing domestic and international backlash finally forced Jacinda Ardern's hand.

Having realised how poorly she had judged the entire situation, and the damage that had been already done and the risk of even more damage had she persisted in defending Winston Peters' pro-Putin stance, late on Friday afternoon she issued a joint statement that finally got in line with the significant international outrage at Russia's actions. What was odd about the statement though was that other than Russia's sarcastic response to Britain's ultimatum for a response, nothing much else had changed.

The reason why so many governments got in behind the British position so quickly is because the British shared their intelligence on the Salisbury attack with them, intelligence that would have been shared with Ardern too. She would have had access to that intelligence much earlier in the week, most likely on Tuesday before Winston Peters made his first underwhelming statement on the attack.

The disaster continued to unfold on Newshub Nation. Drilled on whether Russian FTA negotiations had restarted, Ardern was caught out having just denied that they'd restarted, when Lisa Owen pointed out that Winston Peters had already met with Russian officials in Manila, where it's believed the FTA was announced.

What was even more incredible is that Ardern stated the reason for suspending Winston Peters' pursuit of a Russian FTA was that "Salisbury changes things." Really? In case Ardern hadn't noticed, that since invading and annexing the Crimea in 2014, Russia has:

  • Interfered with elections in the US, France, Germany, and possibly also in Italy.
  • Continued to carry out a clandestine war in Eastern Ukraine.
  • Provided military support in the form of soldiers, air power, equipment, and training to Assad's regime in Syria which is again using chemical weapons on civilians.
  • Continued to murder and harass political opponents and journalists in Russia.
  • Continued to repress ethnic and minority groups within Russia.
  • And Putin has even revealed he's antisemitic too in trying to blame Jews for any meddling in the US election!

Salisbury hasn't changed anything. Russia is still the same brutal, aggressive, and repressive dictatorship that it was in 2014 when FTA negotiations were suspended over Crimea, the only thing that changed in that time was that Winston Peters had the balance of power following the 2017 election and used that power to wring a concession for a Russian free trade deal in his coalition deal with Labour.

The height of Ardern's absurd response to her abysmal handling of the situation this week came when she tried to compare what she claims New Zealand is trying to do is just trade on a equivalent basis to how the UK and EU trade with Russia around sanctions.

I hate to tell the Prime Minister this, but essentially the only thing the EU trades with Russia for is to get oil and gas, largely to heat their homes during the European winter. It's something of a necessity, a fact the Prime Minister should be aware of from her own time working for Tony Blair. Some 65% of the EU's trade with Russia is for oil and gas, and New Zealand simply is not dependent on such a relationship in order to not freeze to death each winter. So trying to argue that Peters' FTA plan is little more than trying to trade in a similar manner to how the UK and EU do with Russia is a false analogy.

In many ways what unfolded this week was the culmination of a diplomatic disaster whose first warning signs were very clear made by European Union Ambassador Bernard Savage in November 2017.

This past week Jacinda Ardern has displayed an appalling lack of judgement with her handling of Winston Peters' incoherent comments on Russia, her week long defence of pursuing the Russian free trade deal, and her Government's failure react appropriately to the abhorrent Salisbury chemical weapon attack until late on Friday. It was all capped off by her own poor performances in her post-Cabinet press conference, as well as on Newshub Nation where she has still failed to adequately explain the complete and utter mess of our foreign relations she and her Deputy Prime Minister managed to create.

Most importantly to keep in mind is that this entire episode has damaged New Zealand's international reputation. It will cause our security and intelligence partners to think twice before passing sensitive information to New Zealand, it will make both the UK and the EU more reluctant to concede ground to New Zealand's requests as we work on free trade agreements with them, and we will see less support from them if and when New Zealand takes any international issues we might have to the world stage.

There are also now questions being rightfully asked about why Winston Peters motivations and why is he so single-mindedly obsessed with getting a Russian free trade agreement when he's historically been so fiercely opposed to deals like the TPP, the Korean FTA, and the China FTA.

Why the sudden rush now to do a deal with Putin now, Comrade Peters...?

Leaders who bring out the worst in their opposition

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If there's one thing that becoming Leader of the National Party for Simon Bridges has achieved, it's been bringing out the worst in his opposition online. Bridges seems to be, like Jacinda Ardern and Helen Clark for Labour, or John Key for National before him, a figure who provokes the very worst out of some very vocal people.

The hot takes on Simon Bridges have oscillated from just plan bad, to completely abhorrent and devoid of any rational thought. Whether it's been people criticising his Westie working class accent - a critique that comes off as little more as snobby elitism - or those mocking his hair style - shall we recall the howls of protest over other politicians being judged on aspects of their physical appearance? - a large portion of the opinions being shared aren't based on any substance about Simon Bridges the politician, but are little more than petty personal attacks against Simon Bridges the person.

Perhaps the worst I've seen since the announcement have been from people who should know a damned sight better, that both Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett aren't Māori enough to claim Māori heritage.

This absurd like of attack seems to draw on two equally as stupid measures: one being what percentage of Māori ancestry they have, and the other being whether they're either fluent in te reo or able to recite a mihi.

What makes these lines of argument absurd, and essentially racist, is that they completely ignore the fact that both Bridges and Bennett's experience of being urban Māori are largely representative of urban Māori in general over the past century. The migration of Māori from rural New Zealand to urban centres over the past century, combined with backwards policies towards Māori culture for much of that time, saw many Māori separated from their cultural identity.

Bridges and Bennett are very much part of this wider issue facing urban Māori, in that their disconnect from their cultural heritage has been created by time, geographic, socio-economics, government policy, and circumstances beyond their immediate control. These same factors have also acted as barriers towards urban Māori who seek to reconnect with their culture. It's one part of the reason why the percentage of Māori who speak fluent te reo has been stuck between 20-25%.

While that is gradually changing, with more and more urban Māori reconnecting with Tikanga Māori, it's also important to acknowledge that it's not always possible or easy for urban Māori to do this. Judging one's command of either te reo or Tikanga Māori as a an artificial measure of their "Māori-ness" is a perspective which simply holds no merit.

Much like the arbitrary standards being demanded by some for knowledge and practicing of te reo and Tikanga Māori, the notion that there's a specific percentage or fraction of ancestry that must be Māori for someone to be able to say they're Māori is an idea I had hoped we had abandoned some 30 or 40 years ago.

As I indicated at the start, the plethora of bad takes based on superficial rather than substantive issues directed at Bridges coming from the Left are eerily similar to those directed at Jacinda Ardern from the Right.

Whether it's people opining on what Ardern is wearing, her relationship with Clarke Gayford, her pregnancy, or her age, or her media appearances (which are fundamentally no different to those done by John Key) the Right has been guilty of exactly the same behaviour throughout Ardern's career, and even more so since she became first Leader of Labour, and then Prime Minister.

Interestingly, Bill English never seemed to attract quite the same level of bizarrely bad or offensive reckons on his personal attributes.

Of course, none of this is anything new. The Right and Left both suffered from what's been termed as Clark/Key-Derangement-Syndrome in the past. Yet as both Clark and Key demonstrate, petty personal attacks against politicians achieve nothing.

Unfortunately I suspect the people who most need to learn that lesson, those who continue to spout this nonsense, are also the ones least likely to ever change their ways.

In part it seems that much of this could be down to social media contributing to an increasingly partisan element to online discussion of politics, and in part giving trolls a platform to spout their nonsense that they've never had before. But it also seems that some leaders tend to polarise opinion about them based on largely on superficial elements rather than substantive issues.

Callous Hipkins undermines Ardern's claim to kindness

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's claim that she wanted to bring kindness back to Government, made on 26 October 2017, seems a long time ago in light of Education Minister Chris Hipkins' decision that it's "our way or the highway" to Charter Schools this week.

If you're one of the students, their parents, or a teacher at a Charter School, Hipkins' announcement on 8 February would have come as a bombshell. Having made previous commitments about the Ministry of Education conducting case-by-case negotiations in good faith with Charter Schools, and that such negotiations will be carried out by the Ministry rather than Ministers, this week Hipkins turned that all on its head.

In a sinister sounding press release, Hipkins has essentially told Charter Schools that if they don't agree with the Ministry of Education by May 2018 to terminate their contracts early, then Hipkins himself will intervene and tear them up for them.

Perhaps the Education Minister should visit one of those Charter Schools he's so eager to close, borrow a dictionary, and look up the meaning of the phrase "good faith". Because he'll find that telling people to agree to his his terms "or else" doesn't come under the definition.

What's interesting is that the entire approach to Charter Schools by the new government flies contrary to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's promise that she would bring kindness back to Government. There is nothing kind about her Government's handling of Charter Schools, especially given that many of the students attending them have been failed by the state school system that Chris Hipkins is so ideologically bent on forcing them back into.

Simply put, the Government's approach is callous, heartless, and Hipkins in particular has taken the tone of a schoolyard bully about it.

The thing is, it didn't have to be this way. Labour could have simply announced it wasn't going to fund the opening of anymore Charter Schools, and allowed the existing ones to keep going. It wouldn't have been quite the win that the teachers' unions were demanding on the policy, but it likely would have been enough to keep them happy, and not derail the Government's post-Waitangi Day high.

What's more, the whole announcement around forcing Charter Schools to close from Hipkins is indicative of an ongoing issue from Jacinda Ardern's Government (and one that plagued the Labour Party in opposition too), and that is their uncanny knack to do something good at the start of a news week, then spectacularly shoot themselves in the foot by the end of it, which you can read more about in 100 days of action looking like 100 days driven to distraction.

Of course, a common theme in this all appears to be Chris Hipkins. Whether it was stuffing up Labour's leadership of the House, announcing policies which he hasn't costed yet, or not being able to remember whether fee free tertiary education would apply to Australian students studying in New Zealand, Chris Hipkins seems woefully out of his depth.

It's also interesting that for all the apparent experience in the Prime Minister's Office, such as Heather Simpson, Mike Munro, and Mike Jaspers, that simple political mistakes and mismanagement seem to keep plaguing Labour. Either everyone's just not very good at their jobs (which in the case of Simpson, Munro, and Jaspers I don't believe, because they're all extremely good operators), or - the more likely option - people like Chris Hipkins are failing to communicate or coordinate with the PMO at all. 

The net result of Chris Hipkins' bully-boy tactics towards Charter Schools is that it's taken all the gloss off the Government's successful visit to Waitangi. Instead the narrative for the week ahead will be people asking what students in Charter Schools did to deserve to be so directly threatened by Chris Hipkins, and where did Jacinda Ardern's promise to be kind get lost over the summer?

From sizzle to fizzle? Labour creates sky-high expectations

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"Despite promises of a new dawn in Crown-Māori relations just two years ago, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's anticipated final visit to Waitangi has been marred by protesters preventing Ardern from making it to Waitangi at all. At the heart of the protesters' grievances is a sense of having been misled and betrayed by the Labour-led government, whose actions, in the protesters' eyes, haven't lived up to the rhetoric Ardern used on her first visit in 2018."

While imagining a possible Waitangi Day visit for Ardern going poorly in 2020 is purely a work of speculative fiction, it's not without precedent. In 2002 Helen Clark was widely hailed for a successful visit to Waitangi which received not dissimilar plaudits to Jacinda Ardern's just completed visit.

Clark had had a difficult relationship with Waitangi Day up to that point. Reduced to tears in 1998 and then refused permission to speak in 1999, Clark avoided Waitangi for the first two years of her Government. When she returned in 2002, the tone of reports was largely similar to what we've read over the past week. Clark's visit was seen as a turning point in Crown-Māori relations, and the beginning of a new, more productive relationship between Labour and Māori.

All that goodwill, all that talk of turning a corner in the relationship was gone by 2004. Off the back of the controversial foreshore and seabed proposals, Clark was abused and her group physically jostled by protesters. Despite a last minute decision to visit Waitangi in 2005, Labour would go on to lose four of the seven Māori electorate seats in the 2005 election.

Watching and reading the coverage of Jacinda Ardern's visit to Waitangi, I'm struck with the similarities between 2002 and 2018. Both Helen Clark being escorted by Titewhai Harawira and Jacinda Ardern's BBQ were touted as turning points.

The reality is though, for all the sizzling of the BBQ and the accompanying coverage of what was a fantastic PR event, Jacinda Ardern has set expectations for the relationship between the Crown and Māori at sky high levels. If the Labour-led Government fails to meet them, we could well see a re-run of 2004 in 2020.

In many respects the past week of Waitangi coverage highlights a bigger problem for the Government going forward. In the next 10 years the Government has promised to halve the rate of child poverty, build 100,000 houses, and (between the private sector and Government) plant 1 billion trees. They're all very ambitious targets, and other than the Government's families package, they're yet to make substantive progress on any of them.

Not that there's anything wrong with ambitious targets. It's good to see the Government continuing to challenge itself just as the previous National-led Government did with its Better Public Service targets. Even if Labour falls short on those targets, so long as it's not wildly short, they'll still be able to claim a measure of success.

The problem for Labour is that through all their hype and ambitious targets, they're creating an expectation that they're going to solve all of New Zealand's problems, even if they haven't specifically stated so. One of the best, and most subtle pieces of commentary on this was ventured by RNZ's and Pundit's Tim Watkin.

Newsroom's Tim Murphy also hit the nail on the head too, pointing out that much of the coverage had descended into gushing praise.

There's nothing wrong with people being excited about what was a very successful visit to Waitangi for Ardern's Government. The problem is that we've been here before, and there seems to have been little acknowledgement of the massive weight of expectation that the Government has created for itself, or the pitfalls, especially for the Crown-Māori relationship, if reality falls short of those expectations.

Part of the problem will also be that I can't think of when New Zealand last had a new Government that had stoked expectations and hype to such high levels. When John Key and National came to power in 2008 there were expectations, but they were always tempered by the reality that things were going to get worse before they got better, by virtue of the country being in the middle of one of our deepest and longest ever recessions since the Great Depression, and the Global Financial Crisis still raging. Even in 1999, with the 1998 recession and 1997 Asian Financial Crisis still fresh in people's minds, and the final term of the Fourth National Government being something of a political mess, Helen Clark and Michael Cullen carefully managed expectations throughout that first year until it was clear the economy was roaring back to life.

In that respect, the Government doesn't live up to those expectations, the moment Jacinda Ardern's BBQ ran out of bacon at Waitangi may end up being a metaphor for how this term is office is viewed - started off with plenty of sizzling, ended up just fizzling.

Previewing 2018: Labour

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The summer break couldn't have come at a better time for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party. Their performance over their first two months in government didn't set the world alight. For every step forward that the government made, there also seemed to be a step backwards.

In many respects, the end of year political polls which showed no major change in support since the election would have come as a relief for the parties of government, despite the norm for these polls being a significant boost in support for them.

The challenge for 2018 for Labour is to hit the ground running. With Bill English and National having already locked in the opposition's State of the Nation speech for late January, Labour will no doubt be lining theirs up already. Previously this speech has been used by the government to both set their agenda for the year ahead, and to announce some sort of spending package or policy.

The problem for the government is that as indicated by the half year economic and fiscal update, there isn't much headroom for new policies outside of those already outlined in coalition and confidence and supply agreements. 

My suspicion is that in Prime Minister Ardern's State of the Nation we might see some firmer details announced about the $1 billion Regional Development (Provincial Growth) Fund, such as the criteria and types of projects that will be considered by Cabinet. Another option would be the formal setting up of the Green Party's flagship Green Investment Fund.

It's important that for Labour to find some positive initiatives to highlight, because they're also in for some pain in the first half of the year too. With legislation banning foreign buyers already before the House, and the Appeasement of Winston Peters (Anti-Waka Jumping) Bill - not actually it's name, but it may as well be - also to be introduced, Labour will both take heat and be forced to expend some political capital to manage the process.

Prime Minister Ardern will also have some potential tests of her leadership ahead. Clare Curran appears to be a disaster waiting to happen based off her poor performances in late 2017 while Willie Jackson didn't appear to do prep work before taking questions in the House. Kelvin Davis may have struggled badly when filling in for the Prime Minister. Davis, but at least in his case has shown he's a strong performer, especially in his own portfolios. Ardern will also be expecting much better management of the government's activities in the House from Chris Hipkins to avoid any more embarrassing process stories.

There's also some economic uncertainty on the horizon too, with the housing market appearing to plateau, business confidence dropping, and projections of global growth trending lower too. On the first two of these, it's important to keep in mind that the Clark government faced similar issues leading to the "winter of discontent" that saw them savaged in the polls. It prompted them to take a much more proactive approach to their relationship with business and, coupled with an upswing in the economy, saw things improve markedly by the 2002 election.

In terms of their partners in government - New Zealand First and the Green Party - there's a possibility, as there always is, that Ardern will need to discipline or sack a misbehaving or incompetent minister which will test those relationships. That aside, I wouldn't expect any major issues unless, in the case of New Zealand First, the issue is with Winston Peters then all cards are off the table.

What will be interesting is how Labour keeps the momentum of the government going after Budget 2018. The first half of the year largely writes itself. The Prime Minister's State of the Nation and any associated announcement sets the tone for February, March and April are usually focused around promoting polices that can into effect from 1 April each year. From late April until the Budget in late May, the government can usually set the agenda each week with pre-Budget announcements. Then June is spent promoting any announcements from the Budget as much as possible before politicians, and the press gallery, catch a breather in July.

How the Labour-led government, with it's relatively green staff beyond Heather Simpson and Mike Munro - deal with this will be worth watching. KiwiBuild might offer some respite if and when it gets underway. And it won't be the end of the government's popularity if they're flatfooted in the second half of the year. But after an indifferent start to their term in 2017, a poor second half to 2018 could frame the second half of their term in a less than ideal light.

Clare Curran seemingly in breach of Cabinet Manual again

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Cabinet Minister Clare current looks to have fallen foul of the Cabinet Manual for the second time this month, with a tweet that appears to simultaneously question the Police's decision not to prosecute as well as imply that they were somehow involved in a conspiracy.

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Section 4.14 of the Cabinet Manual is a hugely important one, in that it prohibits Ministers from commenting on, or involving themselves in Police investigations or the decision on whether or not to prosecute someone. As far as I'm aware, that prohibition extends to decisions that have been made, as it's entirely possible for Police to reopen an investigation, or revisit a decision to prosecute and as such, any comment made by a Minister on a previous decision, could be seen as an act of political interference in an operational matter for the police.

Regardless of whatever your personal viewpoint on whether Todd Barclay should have been charged or not, one of the most fundamental rules of government in New Zealand is that politicians do not seek to influence or interfere with the operational work of Police. As an example of that, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern followed the Cabinet Manual correctly when asked about the decision of Police not to prosecute anyone over the collapse of the CTV building in the 22 February 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Despite emotions running very high, and many people, including the families of those who died in the tragedy, being angered by that decision, Ardern correctly said that she couldn't comment on the prosecution decision due to it being an operational matter.

As former Beehive advisor Hamish Price tweeted last night, the Cabinet Manual acts as a check on the formidable powers of Ministers and government to not unduly influence the operations of the Police. Commenting, critiquing, and insinuating as Curran has done risks turning the police from non-partisan arbiters of the law, to enforces of political whims. Doubly so in this case given that the subject of the Police decision is a former politician from the opposite side of the House to Curran.

Combined with her previous minor breach of the Cabinet Manual, as well as a generally incompetent performance in the House fronting up about her portfolios in Question Time, which has seen her not once, but twice, hidden away from scrutiny from the opposition, Clare Curran's time in the Ardern Ministry appears to be on its final countdown.

It will be telling to see how Jacinda Ardern responds to this, and whether she's able to match all her rhetoric of integrity and doing things differently by sacking Curran, or whether she'll gamble that this breach gets swept under the holiday carpet.

As an interesting post-script, Green Party Minister Julie Anne Genter also briefly seemed to run foul of the Cabinet Manual too, as she tweeted her criticism of Police for raiding, and destroying $16,000 worth of hemp (for which the Police were apologising for). Unlike Curran, Genter appears to have realised her mistake very quickly, and deleted the tweet within a minute.

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Labour scrambles to scale up digital communications

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With the new Labour-led government's first major set piece announcement only days away, it appears that Labour's leader's office has only just woken up to the demands of government and are poised to significantly upscale the digital communications and research focus in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's Labour leader's office.

In a number of roles posted to Parliament's careers site yesterday, the Labour leader's office is launching a significant recruiting drive with a particular focus on digital channels. New roles include:

Labour are also recruiting a Senior Researcher and four Researchers.

Now Labour have had a pretty solid approach to digital communications while they were in opposition, but the reality of being in government is that there's simply so much more you have to do. What I am finding surprising is that it's taken to the seventh week of the new government for them to start recruiting for these roles.

While it's obviously important for Labour to ensure they have the right structure for their leader's office, the lack of staffing has clearly hurt their ability to operate over the past few weeks, as evidenced by their bumbling approach to the House and announcements.

As I alluded to in the opening paragraph, the ideal would have been to have these staff in place prior to the mini-Budget. From personal experience, I know how demanding major set pieces can be on the content creators in a team, and having more resourcing in that area opens up big opportunities for the type of content you can produce.

When it comes to an announcement like this, which on day 50 of the new government will set the tone for the coming six months, you really do only get one bite at the cherry, and a lack of resourcing will make executing that successfully all the more difficult.

Additionally, I've also heard rumour's that on the ministerial office front, Labour has been struggling to attract talent. Apparently they've been offering far below the market rate for ministerial press secretaries and advisors, which is resulting in their offers being turned down. While it's true that you take a pay cut to work at Parliament versus what you can get in the private or broader public service, at the same time the work is hugely demanding and can be personally quite draining, so it surprises me that Labour is getting this so wrong.

All that being said and done, I can definitely recommend working at Parliament. No two days are ever the same and, as the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics. Your party can be top of the pops one week, and down in the dumps the next, and all of it usually beyond your ability to control, so it makes for a very exciting ride. The work is immensely satisfying, you'll get to work with some of the most talented and passionate people you'll ever meet, and when things are going well, you do feel like you're making a positive difference for your country.

The selective bringing back of kindness

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Having made a big deal about wanting to bring kindness back to government, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her government have been a bit hit and miss about how they apply that kindness.

On the one hand, if you're a university student you're set to benefit from that kindness. Student allowances are going to be increased and fee free tertiary education is being progressively reintroduced from 1 January 2018. Likewise, single mums will no longer face benefit sanctions for refusing to name the father of their child on the birth certificate. There's new standards for rental accommodation, and paid parental leave will be increasing to 22 weeks in 2018 and 26 weeks by 2020.

While the government will introduce their own legislation to enable sharing of paid parental leave, the petty political games they played over knocking back sensible amendments and declining leave for Amy Adams' stand along bill wasn't so kind.

So that's the kindness out of the way.

On the flip side things are a bit darker. The new government has continued on the xenophobia that it displayed in opposition, with it seeking to introduce legislation to ban foreign buyers from purchasing existing properties, despite the evidence showing this will largely have no impact on prices given the small role foreign buyers have in our market. Factor in the pending immigration crackdown championed by both Labour and New Zealand First, and anti-immigrant sentiment is being stoked by the new government.

If you're a student at a partnership school, you and your family face a summer of uncertainty with Education Minister Chris Hipkins hovering like the sword of Damocles over their futures. Prime Minister Ardern added to this, effectively telling partnership schools it was her way or the highway for their future, with no acknowledgement of the fact that partnership schools are providing a productive alternative for students who aren't thriving in the state school system.

Then there's the "it's not called work for the dole" work for the dole scheme. Despite Shane Jones and Prime Minister Ardern dressing it up as a scheme that will pay the minimum wage, we've seen how these compulsory work schemes have failed in the past, and there's little to suggest this will be any different.

A few questions for Jacinda Ardern...

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Prime Minister, a few moments of your time please.

Why, when you told New Zealand that your government was a "new beginning" and that in this Parliament you'd "like to do things differently" does your government act in exactly the same way as previous governments have done, as you deny the amendment making shared paid parental leave possible?

Why, when you've said you want to lead a government focused on the future, do you instead focus on what hasn't been done in the past, replaying the same lines we've seen from previous governments? Yes, it is National's fault that they didn't think of the policy of shared paid parental leave earlier, but you're now the person who can do something about it. Why won't you?

Why, when you made a commitment in front of New Zealand that you would "be a champion for good ideas" even if they came from the opposition benches, will you not allow the Parental Leave and Employment Protection Amendment Bill to be referred back to Select Committee so that the amendment can be incorporated?

Why, when you have admitted that allowing parents to share paid parental leave is an idea with merit, will you not save time in the House, and that there is clearly time for the bill to progress through the House before paid parental leave would increase to 22 weeks, will you not allow the New Zealand public to have their input into this legislation?

Why did you mislead the House when you said that the Parental Leave and Employment Protection Amendment Bill had already been through a Select Committee? Previous bills on this topic may have been, but this is a new bill, and it has not been through Select Committee, which would allow the new idea of shared paid parental leave, which was only brought into the policy debate during the 2017 election, to be properly discussed and implemented?

Why, when your campaign slogan was "Let's do this", is one of the first actions of your government to say "Don't do this," to an idea that's won broad support from across the country?

Why, when you remarked to Bill English during one of the election debates that you didn't want to look like bickering politicians, are you doing just that in the opening weeks of your government?

Why, when you promised to be different, when you committed to champion good ideas, when you agree it is a good idea, when your entire campaign was about "Let's do this", why don't you just get on with making shared paid parental leave a reality, instead of wasting the valuable time of the House, and New Zealanders, by playing politics?

Why, when you've promised to be a different kind of leader, is that leadership stumbling at its first test? New Zealand's families deserve better.

Why, Prime Minister? Why?


If you believe shared paid parental leave should be a priority for this government, I encourage you to sign and share my petition. It may be small, but hopefully it'll send an important message.

Jacinda risks empty promises over denying shared parental leave

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In her speech to the Address in Reply debate, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made two commitments to New Zealanders: "I promise you that things will be done differently," and "to be a champion for good ideas wherever they are found, even if they're found over there," to which she pointed to National's opposition benches.

Yet, in the past 24 hours, we've seen that the new Labour-led government intends to carry on in exactly the same manner that they were so critical of the previous National-led government for employing similar methods.

As Labour pushes through its legislation to extend paid parental leave to 26 weeks by 2020, National's Amy Adams proposed an amendment to the legislation that would have allowed both parents to choose how they split those 26 weeks between them, rather than one parent having to use all 26 weeks themselves.

The idea is simple, the cookie cutter approach of one parent taking 26 weeks on their own simply doesn't meet the often complex needs of modern families. By allowing parents to decide between them how to split the 26 week paid parental leave allocation, it would allow parents to come up with a solution that best met their needs. Whether it was having both parents at home for slightly longer after the arrival of baby, allowing a new mum to return to work sooner if she wanted to, or allowing a new dad to spend more time at home during those crucial and busy first few weeks. Likewise the idea of shared paid parental leave would recognise  for same sex couples too, allowing both mothers, or both fathers, to take take off as best suited their specific needs.

The amendment holds virtually no extra cost for the government, bar some small administrative changes required to make it happen. The amendment is also universally regarded as a good idea, recognising that, as a modern society, we want to view all roles in our lives as ones that women and men can do equally, and see them acknowledged and paid equally for those roles too.

So why, given the Prime Minister's promise to do things differently and champion good ideas, even those from the opposition, do Labour, the Green Party, and New Zealand First oppose this? While they protest it's because the change is too complex, we all know that's simply not the case. Bar introducing a new form to apply for a shared paid parental leave arrangement, the change would not come into effect until 2020, giving the government plenty of time to make any of system changes might be required.

Instead, the only way to explain the behaviour of the Labour-led government in rejecting the amendment is that it is an act of political spite. Critics have claimed that National had nine years that they could have introduced this change, but that ignores the fact that National was the only party that had this as a policy going into the 2017 election. In the prior nine years, nobody had thought of this as a policy solution, largely because we were all singularly focused on how quickly the paid parental leave entitlement should be raised.

It's a sad indictment on the new Labour-led government that barely a month into their first term, and not even a week since Jacinda Ardern made those promises to New Zealand in her first speech to the House as Prime Minister, they're already demonstrating that they were little more than empty words bandied about for show.

The real losers in this are New Zealand's parents. As I write this, I'm watching on our baby monitor as our son Alex takes his morning nap. As a stay-at-home dad, who has always wanted to be able to take as equal a role in possible in raising my children as is practical, the ability to share paid parental leave means a hell of a lot to me. We're fortunate that we were in a financial position for my wife and I to swap roles, but that's not the reality for all parents.

So often, one parent has to go back to work within a week or two, if not days, of their child being born. Amy Adams' amendment would have given these families so much more choice and flexibility about how they managed that transition back to work for one of the parents.

If this Labour-led government is to truly live up to Jacinda's promise to do things differently and champion good ideas regardless of where they've come from, they must reconsider their position on this amendment or, at the very least, commit to supporting shared paid parental leave should it come up in a Members' Bill.

At an even more fundamental level, if Jacinda Ardern is serious about her claim that she would bring kindness back, starting with supporting families through something as simple as shared paid parental leave is a perfect place to start.

Finally, if you're still here reading, I'd encourage you to sign and share a simple petition I've put together about this issue. I won't pretend that this petition is going to change the world, and being a stay-at-home parent on limited resources, I'll do what I can to promote. But ultimately the success of making this happen for New Zealand's parents rests with you.

Please head on over and sign and share the petition to show your support for shared paid parental leave in New Zealand.

The political week ahead - 13 November 2017

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Here's a few highlights to keep an eye out for this week in politics:

Monday 13 November

  • Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Foreign Minister Winston Peters, and Trade Minister David Parker (I think!) are in Manila on Monday for the East Asia Summit. At this stage it looks like PM Ardern will hold formal talks with Canada's Justin Trudeau, the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte, China's Li Keqiang, India's Narendra Modi, Indonesia's Joko Widodo and the European Union's Donald Tusk. PM Ardern is also looking at catching up with Australia's Malcolm Turnbull, who is currently looking down the barrel of his worst poll results ever and the potential of a spill within the Liberal Party or an early election rearing their heads.
  • Due to so many Cabinet Ministers being away, I don't think Cabinet will be meeting today.

Tuesday 14 November

  • With PM Ardern's East Asia Summit wrapping up, she won't be back in the country until Wednesday at the earliest (but more realistically Thursday).
  • The House is sitting, so there'll be caucus runs from between 9.30am and 10am, and the provisional Order Paper has Questoin Time, the continuation of the Address in Reply debate with maiden speeches (there's still 12 hours and 2 minutes remaining of this debate).
  • Iain Lees-Galloway's Parental Leave and Employment Protection Amendment Bill is likely to be debated in the evening, with the bill going through urgency. 
  • Stats NZ have their National Population Estimates to 30 September 2017 being released, this is the NZ-wide figure, subnational estimates are released on Thursday, but expect this to kick off a debate about immigration and population growth.

Wednesday 15 November

  • The House is sitting again, so Question Time as per usual, and I believe this may be the first Member's Day of the 52nd Parliament, so hopefully we might see Chris Bishop's Films, Videos, and Publication (Interim Restriction Orders) Amendment Bill passed. There's 90 minutes of debate left on this, so it should get through as it did have plenty of support in the previous Parliament.
  • Stats NZ releases include:
    • Māori Population Estimates - a good chance for new Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta to articulate her vision for Māori Development in the Labour-led Government.

Thursday 16 November

  • PM Ardern should be back from the East Asia Summit, but she won't be in the House, and more likely will be doing engagements in Auckland.
  • The House continues to sit, so Question Time.
  • Stats NZ releases include:
    • Ready mixed concrete, secondary production - an indicator for the construction industry
    • Transport vehicle registrations - this will likely trigger debates about the mix of investment in New Zealand's transport infrastructure
    • Births and deaths: Year ended September 2017
    • Subnational Population Estimates at 30 June 2017 - this will likely be a catalyst for discussion about which regions are doing well/poorly, so look for Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones to be asked what he's doing about it.

Friday 17 November

  • Stats NZ releases Business Price Indexes - an indicator of inflation specifically related to the cost of doing business.

The political week ahead - 6 November 2017

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Some highlights to look ahead to this week in politics. This isn't a complete list, just bits and bobs that have sprung to mind. Feel free to email me at info@libertas.digital, tweet at @libertasnz, or send a Facebook message.

Monday 6 November 2017

  • Post-Cabinet press conference. This is usually held around 4pm and Labour looks like they're continuing Bill English and John Key's practice of live streaming it on their Facebook page. Several of the other main media outlets also live stream it too. It's good to get a view on what's in the week ahead for the government, as well as some of the themes journalists might explore that week. It's just a pity that the Beehive Theartrette  isn't microphoned so you can better hear the questions being asked.

Tuesday 7 November 2017

  • Commission Opening of Parliament: I won't go into the details of this, but it's an interesting process to watch, including the election of Trevor Mallard as Speaker (who else is it really going to be?). Find out more about what happens here.

Wednesday 8 November 2017

  • State Opening of Parliament: This is the where the Governor-General turns up and gives the speech from the throne that outlines the Government's legislative programme. The speech itself isn't that exciting, though it's a useful document to refer back to over the term. That's followed by the Address in Reply debate which, if it follows previous years, will see the new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in action for the chamber for the first time. The Address in Reply debate will carry on for a few weeks as time in the House allows. More information on this is available here.
  • Maiden speeches: I'm anticipating the Address in Reply debate will be halted around 4 or 5pm to allow new MPs to deliver their maiden speeches. These can be quite a mix of quality, so expect a few brilliant speeches, and a few train wrecks too! Like all Parliamentary business in the House you can watch this on Parliament On Demand or on Parliament TV.
  • We might also see the first pieces of Government legislation introduced this day too.

Thursday 9 November 2017

  • The first Question Time for the new Government! Traditionally The Prime Minister and party leaders aren't in the House on Thursdays for Question Time, and in this case the Prime Minister will be departing for APEC on Thursday morning.
  • The Reserve Bank will release its Quarterly Monetary Policy Statement on Thursday morning. It'll likely contain new forecasts for economic growth over the coming years, which are already tipped to ease off from the buoyant ones in the PREFU. Specifically look for warnings around inflation and economic growth not peaking at 3.7% in 2019 anymore. That being said, it's hard for the Reserve Bank to make these forecasts about the impact of policy without that detail from the Labour-led Government being available until we see their first mini-Budget later this year.
  • There'll also be more maiden speeches from around 5pm.

Friday 10 November 2017

  • Statistics NZ have two releases scheduled for Friday, both useful economic indicators too. There's Electronic Card Transactions for October 2017 and the Accommodation Survey for September 2017. The election and post-election negotiations may have impacted negatively on these, though I wouldn't expect that to be enough to offset the growth in these off the back of a relatively confident economy.

Saturday 11 and Sunday 12 November 2017

  • After a solid first international trip to Sydney to meet with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern heads to Vietnam for APEC. Over the two days there she'll conduct a range of bilateral talks, including possibly with US President Donald Trump. These will be announced either closer to the weekend or as they happen.

Stop equating market failure with capitalism being a failure

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Ever since the rise of populist left wing leaders such as Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Justin Trudeau, and Jacinda Ardern, it's become fashionable to claim that capitalism has been a failure. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern went so far as to describe capitalism as a "blatant failure" due to New Zealand's high rate of homelessness.

The problem with this analysis is that it falsely equates market failure - where the free market fails to provide a good or service at an affordable rate for people - as the entire capitalist system failing, which clearly isn't the case.

A useful way to think of this is that a prop mightn't be able to drop kick the ball particularly well (Australia's Matt Dunning excepted), but that doesn't necessarily make them a bad rugby player. It's just that capitalism is good at some things, and not so good at others.

It's worth pointing out that either Jacinda Ardern realised, or was told, that she had made a mistake, and dialled back her rhetoric the following day by correctly describing what was happening as a market failure, rather than capitalism itself failing.

That's not to say that capitalism is perfect, because it's demonstrably not. But it's also not the blatant failure that seems to be the popular narrative of the zeitgeist.

There are things that capitalism doesn't do well, especially when it comes to the supply of goods and services that provide a social good rather than a profit, or factoring in the environmental costs of production and consumption into its pricing.

Likewise there are things that government intervention doesn't do well either, as it often results in stifling innovation, entrenches economic inefficiencies, and is particularly vulnerable to the whims of publicly pressure even when that pressure flies in the face of the rational thing to do.

The pointlessness of a foreign buyer ban

None. Zilch. Nada. That's the effect Labour's ridiculous decision to ban non-residents from buying existing residential houses will have. How do we know? Australia implemented the same thing in December 2008 it had no impact there either. In fact, much like New Zealand's prices, house prices in Sydney and Melbourne have nearly doubled since 2008.

All the non-resident ban achieves is shifting the two or three per cent of property investment that comes from overseas from existing homes to new builds instead. The small resulting increase in prices there pushes citizens and residents back into the existing home market, and thus increases competition there by the same amount.

The overall result? You're no better off than you were before, unless you're a property developer. Because the other lesson to come out of Australia's experience was that overseas investors are much more comfortable buying off the plan developments than local house hunters are, largely because they're able to absorb and afford the wait between the units selling and construction being completed, whereas local house hunters aren't able to as much, as they're in need of a place to live.

Given Labour's previous racist dog-whistling over Chinese surnames, Labour should probably be aware (but I suspect they're not) that as Chinese regulators seek to limit the amount of Chinese capital moving offshore to be invested in property, whatever the small impact that non-resident buyers were having on house prices will be further minimised by changes afoot overseas.

What's also concerning is that at her first post-Cabinet press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern admitted that there was no advice on the potential economic impact of a ban on non-residents. It's rather incredible isn't it? The new Labour-led government was able to get legal advice that said their non-resident ban wouldn't breach free trade agreements, other than the Singaporean FTA, but not on the potential economic impact of this action, which undoubtedly sends negative signals to some of our most important trading partners.

With a timeline of introducing the legislation before the end of the year and having it passed in early 2018, so it can take effect before the earliest date that Trans-Pacific Partnership comes into effect (which would be February 2018), suggests that Labour will be ramming through the legislation under urgency.

It's disappointing that after two terms where urgency was largely reserved for genuinely urgent legislation, such as responding to natural disasters or fixing major legislative mistakes (like the ability for local authorities to set speed limits), Labour is throwing that all out the window to appease the xenophobic itch that New Zealand First represents.

It's also the height of hypocrisy that having stupidly agitated against TPP negotiations being conducted behind closed doors (which has been the norm for FTA negotiations for quite some time) Labour is now looking to stop, or minimise any public input into the amendments they're proposing to make to the Overseas Investment Act.

The reality is that there are much more factors that are influencing New Zealand, and especially Auckland's, property market. These have to do with immigration, economic growth, and a historic failure across nearly three decades to adequately balance out urban intensification and urban sprawl with decent investments in transport infrastructure (both roads and public transport).