Shane Jones

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.

One billion trees of embarrassment

In October 2017 Shane Jones' distinctive Shakespearean voice could be heard booming throughout the land as he crowed triumphantly about his 1 billion trees in the Billion Trees Planting Programme. Less than three months later, not a single tree has been planted and the government is on track to come up 90% short of their target of doubling the rate of planting over 10 years.

The issue isn't so much that there isn't enough land available for Forestry Minister Shane Jones to plant these trees on. Rather it's that neither New Zealand First or Labour bothered to ask the public service during the coalition negotiation process whether it was in fact possible.

The "Billion Trees Planting Programme" has been a bit of a disaster right from the get go. The ambiguously worded coalition agreement between Labour and NZ First had everyone thinking that 100 million new trees would be planted each year by the government. Within days, and after realising they'd massively over promised what they were going to do, the government had to walk back the 1 billion trees figure. They hastily tried to explain that what they really meant all along was that they wanted to double the rate of existing planting across both the forestry and conversation sectors. It was now going to be 500 million additional trees on top of the 500 million trees those sectors were already expected to plant over the next decade.

That was still a big, ambitious goal, but it was half of what the coalition agreement had led everyone to believe was going to happen.

Now it looks like the government is going to struggle to even make 10% of that revised target over that decade. It's hardly surprising, with the government believed to have costed the programme at $2 billion over the 10 years, the economic of it look a little tight.

With the Billion Trees Planting Programme expected to need an additional 500,000 hectares, and forestry land selling in December 2017 for an average of $7,713 per hectare, the value of the land alone for those 500 million trees is around $3.8 billion, well over double the $2 billion figure being floated around. That's also before we take a conservative 2005 figure of each hectare of forestry planted in radiata pine costing around $1500 by its first prune - we're looking at a total cost of $4.6 billion.

Thankfully, the reality is that the government isn't likely to have to shell out $4.6 billion. Instead they're more likely to try and subsidise existing land owners, whether it's forest owners, farmers, DOC, or Iwi. Taking that figure of $1500 per hectare of radiata pine, with the $2 billion the government could effectively offer a subsidy of around $4 per tree, effectively meeting half of the value of the land - providing it's only land suitable for forestry that we're talking about.

That all starts to fall apart if there's not enough spare forestry land available. More broadly around the primary sector, the average land sell price per hectare was $29,000. At a shade under four times the price of forestry land, the cost of the Billion Trees Planting Programme is going to rapidly spiral out of control or, much more likely, the Billion Trees Planting Programme is going to fall flat on its face with landowners unwilling to convert more productive land to tree plantings given the increasing opportunity cost involved. I also doubt the inclusion of agriculture into the ETS will be enough to mitigate this.

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Previewing 2018: New Zealand First

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New Zealand First should have one priority in 2018 - launch their new website. It's hugely embarrassing for Winston Peters that three months into the new government, the coalition's junior partner still doesn't have a website.

It's almost as if NZ First's website's issues as symptomatic of the problems facing the party so far this year. Already Forestry Minister Shane Jones has been forced to confess that the party didn't due any research into their 1 billion tree policy, with it turning out that there's only enough available land current for around 5 million additional trees to be planted each year. One of NZ First's big signature wins of the coalition agreement and they're going to struggle to deliver even 5% of what they promised.

Likewise Deputy Prime Minister is also coming under pressure with regards to NZ First's changing position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Despite having a new name - the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership - and a few minor changes to the text, it's largely the same deal that NZ First has adamantly opposed for some time. Even Foreign Minister David Parker has conceded on RNZ's Morning Report that, for a trade agreement made up of thousands of pages, the changes amount to only a "few pages".

Winston Peters' flip flopping isn't surprising, it's politically expediency on his part in order to not cause tension for Labour. The problem is, much of NZ First's support stems from a small group of conservative voters who want a far more protectionist trade policy for New Zealand. One of Winston Peters' biggest challenges this year, especially as the CPTPP goes through Parliament, will be to not haemorrhage too much support as a result of his changing position on the CPTPP.

Other pitfalls lurk ahead for New Zealand First too. The eventual launch of the $1 billion a year Provincial Growth (Regional Development) Fund is going to see Shane Jones come under immense scrutiny. He's already demonstrated a fairly slack approach to the fund, having gloated that he'd been approached by numerous political figures about projects in their regions late last year, which turned out to only be two people when I OIAed it.

Jones has already hinted that the fund will also largely be an exercise in pork barrelling, singling out Northland and the Wairarapa as likely recipient regions, without either of those regions having approached him with ideas. That's not to say that those regions don't need investment, but rather given NZ FIrst's representation in those regions, I'm wagering that Shane Jones is going to get caught out badly on this.

The controversial Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill - the Waka Jumping legislation specified in NZ First's coalition agreement with Labour - likely won't hurt NZ First much, but it will stoke internal pressure within the Green Party, who have historically been strongly opposed to such legislation.

The party will also need to find a way to manage several competing personalities in its caucus. While Ron Mark may currently be deputy leader, it's no secret that Shane Jones fancies that role for himself, with a view to eventually succeeding Winston Peters as leader of the party. Shane Jones will also have the benefit of the Provincial Growth (Regional Development) Fund to build his profile with over the year, while Ron Mark won't get the same opportunities with Defence. There's also the question of where people like Tracey Martin and Clayton Mitchell fit in, with Martin having previously been deputy leader, and Mitchell looking for more rewards for his fundraising abilities for the party.

The End of Life Choice Bill and associated referendum, as well as that for legalising marijuana, will also require NZ First's MPs to navigate potentially controversial waters for its supporters.

The biggest risk to NZ First's year will be during June and July while Winston Peters is acting Prime Minister while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has her first child. If anything goes wrong during this time (and there's no reason to suspect it will, as during the post-Budget period it'll be Finance Minister Grant Robertson doing most of the heavy lifting for the government) it'll be Winston Peters and NZ First's credibility that takes a hit, not Jacinda Ardern or Labour.

Peters should manage those six weeks well. He's been acting Prime Minister before. But with that expectation that he'll do well, it does create a risk that should it not be all plain sailing, it'll further hurt his party's prospects for 2020.

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.