Sixth Labour Government

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.

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.

Lazy Labour-led government's ponderous Parliamentary pace

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We're into the fifth Parliamentary sitting week and the new Labour-led government appears to be plumbing new depths of legislative laziness, having only managed to introduce three new bills since the 52nd Parliament commenced.

Contrast that to the Fifth National government who, across the first two sitting weeks of the 49th Parliament in December 2008, managed to introduce seven new pieces of legislation.

Things will undoubtedly change from Thursday when the government unveils the Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update along with Grant Robertson's much-hyped mini-Budget. Leader of the House Chris Hipkins has already indicated that the House will move into urgency after Question Time on the 14th to consider new legislation resulting from that mini-Budget.

That aside, the fact is that it's taken the new government more than twice as long to introduce less than half the new legislation that the previous National-led government managed in its opening stanza. It suggests that not only were the parties of the Labour-led government woefully unprepared for getting the Treasury benches, but now they have them they appear utterly clueless as to what to do with them.

The government has made a big deal about having a 100 day plan, but so far on day 49 it's more like a 100 day plod.

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.

Is Clare Curran the first Minister to breach the Cabinet Manual?

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Has Clare Curran become the first Minister of the Sixth Labour-led government to breach the Cabinet Manual? Judging by the above tweet (which you can find here) it would seem so, with Minister Curran appearing to fall foul of section 2.99 of the Cabinet Manual which states "No Minister should endorse in any media any product or service."

At first glance Curran's tweet seems innocent enough. Who doesn't have a favourite TV show at a given time? Things are a bit different though when you're a Minister of the Crown, especially so when you're the Minister for Broadcasting, Communications, and Digital Media.

The problem for Curran here arises from the fact that not only has she effectively endorsed the show Better Things by declaring it to be her "favourite thing atm", but she's also singled out the only streaming service that carries Better Things in New Zealand in the tweet - Spark's Lightbox. A quick search this afternoon reveals that none of Neon, Netflix, TVNZ On Demand, or ThreeNow carry the show.

If this had been any other Minister (other than possibly the Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister who also has some regulatory responsibility that touches on this industry), you'd be justified in just shrugging your shoulders and ignoring it. It still looks like an endorsement, but the if the Minister doesn't have any responsibility for that sector of the economy, it's not worth losing any sleep over.

Where Curran falls especially foul of the Cabinet Manual in this instance though is that through her ministerial portfolios, she's directly responsible for the industries which both Lightbox and its parent Spark operate in. In effect, Curran is endorsing a show that's exclusively on Lightbox, which could have the impact of causing potential customers of streaming services to choose Lightbox over one of its competitors.

Evidently Lightbox was pretty chuffed with having the Minister responsible for their industry endorsing a show that's exclusively on their streaming service. They ended both retweeting and liking Curran's endorsement. It's the digital equivalent of having Clare Curran holding their product and giving it a thumbs up.

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It's also worth noting that this was entirely proactive on Curran's part too. It's not like she's been invited to a Lightbox event, or a similar situation where Ministers might be photographed such as visiting or opening a business. Curran has seemingly on her own initiative, promoted her favouritism of a show that's found exclusively on Lightbox. Likewise, it's not as if she's declared her love for a specific varietal of something (e.g. saying her favourite wine is chardonnay, or that her favourite ice cream flavour is hokey pokey), she's singled out a specific product and the sole service provider of that product.

Now let's be clear: this isn't the Cabinet Manual breach of the century and I don't think Curran should resign over it. It is, however, a very bad look for a Minister who is already under significant pressure with regards to the government's commitment to being open and transparent, and who has been hidden by the government after two disastrous appearances in Question Time.

At the very least though, Curran should delete the tweet and publicly apologise.

Labour not asleep at the wheel because they're not even in the car

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The Labour-led government's horror start to the 52nd Parliament continues this evening as they've been forced to start filibustering their own legislation as the House has sped through earlier legislation on the Order Paper.

Having commenced the 52nd Parliament by having their bluff called by National over whether they had the numbers to elect Trevor Mallard Speaker, resulting in an embarrassing backdown over Select Committee places, things seem to have gone from bad to worse for Labour.

The next disaster was when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters were away for their first international summit trip, leading Labour Deputy Leader Kelvin Davis in charge. Over the course of three days Davis was torn to shreds in the House during Question Time, appearing to be completely out of his depth and inept. Prime Minister Ardern tried to brush his disastrous performance as him doing exactly what he was meant to do, which begs the question just how bad will it be when she thinks he's done a poor job?

Next was the rather inept keeping of Stuart Nash out of Question Time after he'd put his foot in his mouth over the introduction of GST on online goods. This was followed by Clare Curran bumbling of questions over openness and transparency in government, which has now seen her twice kept away from Question Time with Chris Hipkins having to take her questions instead in what appears to be an admission that Curran isn't up to her role.

In a separate incident, Labour lost an entire patsy question due to the letters of delegation for associate ministers having not been publicised yet.

Labour's ineptitude in the House appears to have been capped off this evening as Labour first deployed its backbenchers, then had to rush eight ministers to the House, including Chris Hipkins and Grant Robertson, to filibuster legislation on their own Order Paper. At the time of writing, government MPs are having to literally read subparts of the legislation they're speaking on and make up fluff around it. We've even had a speech on the meaning of the word "is".

What's phenomenal about this is that normally the government treasures House time, there's typically such a demand on it that it's difficult to get new legislation introduced because there's such a backlog to deal with. What we're seeing instead is a government who on the one hand claiming that they're busy, and on the other revealing that they're not so much asleep at the wheel, but that they're completely missing from the car of government, having fallen out of the driver's door some four miles down the round.

And while I was getting this post ready we've had a history lesson on the invention of the telephone, and the Oxford dictionary definition of email and email addresses.

Now there's not necessarily anything too bad about letting backbenchers get some House experience on technical bills, but when you're having to drag a third of your Cabinet back to the House to keep the filibuster going, it's starting to look like bad comedy.

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.

The political week ahead 28 November 2017

Here's a bit of a look ahead at the week in politics. Apologies for not posting this yesterday, my son wasn't well so had him glued to my chest snoozing most of the day.

Tuesday

  • Caucus - All the parties have their caucus meetings from around 10am, so they'll be well into it by the time I've finished writing this blog! Haven't spied anything too exciting from the morning's caucus media run either.
  • National's Amy Adams is going to try and seek leave to introduce her paid parental leave amendment bill to Parliament at the start of Question Time. Leave to introduce this bill can be denied by any MP, though indications are that Labour at the least won't object this time. National has started a petition supporting this amendment, but I feel like they should have had this petition going two weeks ago to maximise on the media exposure the issue was getting. That way, Amy Adams' move to introduce the bill today would have given them a second bite at the cherry in promoting the petition.
  • Then there's Question Time, which I imagine will take place after any motions congratulating Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their engagement. It'll be the first time that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Bill English have squared off in Question Time since the election.
  • That'll be followed by a bit more of the Address in Reply Debate before the government continues to work through the order paper.

Wednesday

  • Usual House business including Question Time. I don't think this Wednesday is a Members' Day, but I could be mistaken.

Thursday

  • Usual House business, including Question Time. Labour also expects to pass their Parental Leave and Employment Protection Amendment Bill, though this could change subject to Amy Adams' amendment bill being tabled on Tuesday afternoon.
  • Stats NZ is releasing Building Consents for October 2017, which will be interesting to see how they tracked during the post-election period while coalition negotiations took place.

Friday

  • As announced by Prime Minister Ardern, Finance Minister Grant Robertson will be giving a significant economic speech on Friday, where he'll announce when the half-year fiscal update will be released and the date of the Labour-led government's "mini-Budget".
  • Stats NZ is releasing provisional Overseas Trade Indexes for the September 2017 quarter. 

Crying a river over Parliamentary written questions

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Poor, poor Labour. How tough life in government must be for them. Or so you'd think with all the tweets over the past 48 hours regarding National submitting a whopping 6,254 written questions to Ministers.

Now it's fair to say that's a bloody huge number of questions. As way of comparison, the nearly ousted opposition in 2008 asked 619 questions in the first three weeks of the new Parliament - though keep in mind that the new Parliament only started on 8 December 2008, so they were pretty quickly into the holiday break.

In 2011 the Christmas break didn't curtail Labour, with the first three weeks of the 50th Parliament seeing 3,712 questions asked. In fact, those 3,712 questions were all lodged on one day - 21 December 2011.

As Newsroom's Sam Sachdeva noted, in the three weeks following the start of the 51st Parliament, 964 questions were lodged. Though what's missing from that analysis is that at the same time Labour was embroiled in its own leadership context, so evidently didn't really have much time to spend actually being an opposition. Plus they'd also been on the receiving end of one of their worst ever election defeats, so there was obviously a bit of wound licking going on. Whereas National managed a fantastic election night result for a three term government, so it makes sense that they're going to launch into opposition with a sense of vigour.

One thing that's been severely lacking from all this talk of Parliamentary questions is analysis of why there have been so many. What it's all stemmed from is a stoush between the Labour-led government and the National Party over getting answers to the question of who ministers have been meeting with during their first month in the job.

Who ministers meet with in their ministerial capacity is important, and there's a long history of both opposition parties and journalists trying to get that information released. National is just as guilty as Labour is at playing silly buggers with the release of that information in the past. But what seems to have happened this time is that National has had a host of questions about ministerial meetings knocked back as being too broad so, in retaliation and to make a point, they've gone ultra-specific instead.

As National's Chris Bishop pointed out, he was told that his day-by-day questions to Police Minister Stuart Nash were too broad, so instead he's asked for an hour-by-hour breakdown.

In many respects, the Labour-led government have only themselves to blame for the deluge of questions. If they'd played ball a bit more when the initial questions were asked of their ministerial diaries, they could have saved everyone, most importantly themselves, a lot of time.

Certainly, National isn't free of blame here, as they're going to an extreme to make a point, and weren't necessarily always forthcoming about the diaries of their own ministers during their time in the hot seat.

But the reality is that who and when ministers meet with people is important public information. We'd want to know if the Minister of Health had been meeting with pharmaceutical executives prior to a health announcement, just as it's useful to know if a Minister is guilty of white lies by professing prior engagements in avoiding Question Time.

The obvious solution is for Ministerial Services to introduce a system where by, say mid-month, a list of meetings that the Minister attended in the previous month for each of their portfolios, is released for the public. We already have a convention of sorts in play around Briefings to Incoming Ministers (BIMs) which are released around four to six weeks after they've been presented to Ministers, and a similar convention for meetings could do wonders for the openness of our government.

While New Zealand already ranks well for transparency, there's always improvements we can make, and this appears to be an easy area to make such an improvement.

Ultimately though, the reality is if the Labour-led government doesn't like the opposition asking questions about who they have, and haven't been meeting with, I'm sure the opposition would be more than happy to swap places if it's all too onerous for ministers.

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.

Grant Robertson blunders on costs, surpluses on The Nation

Newly minted Finance Minister Grant Robertson will be wanting to put this weekend's appearance on The Nation behind him very quickly. Finally subjected to some meaningful scrutiny about both the deals made by Labour to win the Government benches, as well as their own much vaunted fiscal plan, Robertson struggled to present a coherent narrative of what lies ahead for the government's books and economy under the new Labour-led Government and, it turns out, misled the public over what he knows about the cost of the new policies they'll have to fund.

I can't think of another Finance Minister who has inherited one of the strongest growing economies in the developed world, with books that are back in the black with surpluses projected to grow strongly over the next five years, who in their first major interview spent most of it trying to dampen down how well he'd do, and effectively saying that his Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters was wrong in his forecasts of economic doom and gloom.

As some background, the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Update released in August 2017, projected surpluses ranging from $3.7b in the current financial year, eventually rising to $6.4b in 2020/21. PREFU also projects economic growth to grow from around 3% now to 3.7% in in 2019, before easing back to 2.3% in 2021. Suffice to say these are some of the strongest numbers in the OECD, and they're numbers that New Zealand, and especially the National Party who led the country to them after inheriting a country deep in recession from Helen Clark's Labour-led Government, navigated us through the Global Finance Crisis that followed, and successfully managed the country's books through not one, but three major earthquakes.

Simply put, a lot of work has been done to ensure that New Zealand's economy and government books are in the hugely enviable position they are in now.

Robertson's first wobble was when Lisa Owen compared his rosy economic outlook with that of his Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters.

Lisa Owen: "Is Winston Peters wrong when he's predicting a downturn in the economic rockstar economy?"

Grant Robertson: "Look, there's a range of views on that, and there's certainly headwinds..."

Lisa Owen: "No no, I'm asking about his. Because he stated it very clearly on the day you guys were announced as the winners per se, he said 'Bad times around the corner', so is he wrong?"

Grant Robertson: "That is possible."

This is some fantastic ammunition for the National Party when the House resumes in a couple of weeks time. National will be able to put both the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and Finance Minister, on the spot over and over again about their disagreement with Winston Peters on the country's economic prospects.

For a politician with his experience, which includes nine years as an MP and several more working in the office of Helen Clack when she was Prime Minister where he earned the title H3, Robertson should have handled this much better. He should have acknowledge that Winston Peters is rightfully concerned about possible economic uncertainty around the world stemming from Brexit, credit issues in China, and protectionist movements in our major trading partners. Instead, Robertson set himself at odds with Labour's coalition partner. It was a dopey move on the third day of the new government.

Robertson then went on to talk about ensuring there was fat in the system to deal with economic shocks. Lisa Owen then skewered Robertson on the lack of the fat in Labour's fiscal plan now that all these additional policies need to be funded due to Labour's coalition and confidence and supply deals with New Zealand First and the Green Party respectively. 

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What's important to note is that, as per the above tweet, Robertson has already publicly committed that unless otherwise changed by the agreements, Labour's policies remain the same. E.g. Labour will be largely sticking to the spending track as outlined in their fiscal plan, so they need to find a way to fund all these new programmes, such as Winston Peters' Provincial Pork Barrel (otherwise known as the Regional Economic Development Fund) on top of the spending that they're already committed themselves to.

This exchange between Lisa Owen and Grant Robertson was telling, and may well come back to haunt Robertson yet.

Lisa Owen: "Have you costed all of those, and how much are they going to cost?"

Grant Robertson: "So in the process of the negotiations we look very carefully at each of the commitments we were putting in there, and made our best estimate of the cost. Obviously when you're in opposition you have a certain amount of resources to do that. We are absolutely confident that we can meet the expenditure that is in there and actually still meet our Budget Responsibility Rules."

Lisa: "Can you give us a number? How much do all the things that you've signed up for, how much do they cost?"

Grant: "Aw look we've got estimates but that's the,"

Lisa: "Oh come on, what's the estimate?"

Grant: "Well no because I don't want to do that till"

Lisa: "It's the public purse."

Grant: "Well that's the very point, Lisa. It is the public purse. And we now have the ability to work with the public service to refine the estimates we've made. But I can give you my assurance that it fits within the confines of our Budget Responsibility Rules."

First of all, former Finance Minister and National Party spokesperson Steven Joyce pointed out that parties have full access to the public sector for policy costings during the coalition negotiation process. So Robertson's line that he can't release the numbers because he needs the public service to look at them first doesn't seem to be factual.

That blunder aside, what do Labour's Budget Responsibility rules propose?

The first rule is that Labour has committed to delivering a surplus every year "unless there is a significant natural event or a major economic shock or crisis." So Robertson can't let the Budget slip into deficit to fund these promises, otherwise he's broken the first rule of this document, as deals to get into government hardly fit into any of the caveats Labour added to their commitment.

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Labour's second rule is that they'll reduce net core Crown debt to 20% within five years of taking office - meaning they'd hit the target two years later than National had planned to. There's no caveats explicitly mentioned on this one, but I don't think anyone would begrudge those from Rule 1 being applied here. That still means Labour can't push out there debt reduction target beyond 2021/22 to fund the new policies from their deal making.

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Rule 3 is one area where Labour might have some wiggle room, so long as Labour is able to get the NZ Super Fund to over $63b by 2022/23, they could play around with the scale of their contributions to the NZ Super Fund, reducing the amount in early years and compensating that with larger amounts in later years, as well as relying on the fund continuing its impressive return on its investments too.

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In Rule 4 Labour has committed itself to $8b in additional health spending, $6b more in education, and $5b in income assistance for families. They'll have some room to move here, though they have boxed themselves into a corner with their perpetual (and dubious) claims of a $1.7b hole in the health budget. So as to not make a mockery of themselves, they'll need to at least maintain that as they readjust their numbers to accommodate their spending promises.

The other issues is that Labour has committed to keeping government expenditure as a share of the economy to within the 29%. Again there's some room for movement here, but it needs to balanced against Labour staying in surplus each year too.

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Rule 5 is all about tax and, it's important to note, there's no anticipated additional revenues forecast from changes to personal tax rates, and Labour did explicitly rule these out during the campaign. It's hard to see where Robertson would manage to break Rule 5 during his mini-Budget, but stranger things have happened.

Lisa Owen: "It's a four year Budget, looking out - forecast - so how much gets sucked up in the first year, second year, third year, fourth year?"

Grant Robertson: "That's exactly what you'll find when we produce our detailed budget. What we know is that we have the funding to do this."

Lisa: "So are you not confident of the estimates that you've already done?"

Grant: "Well as an opposition party you've only got so many resources and we're confident that with the information we have they're correct. The beauty of now being in government is that we actually get to test those estimates, but I am completely confident."

Oh, there we are again. Robertson again stumbles repeating that little white lie about not having access to the public service to cost your coalition and confidence and supply agreements.

Lisa Owen: "Would you agree that it's an accurate reflection to say that your budget is tight, really tight?"

Grant Robertson: "Look, I've never denied the fact that we're ambitious about what we want to do, and we want to make investments. But Lisa if we just look at this in a one..."

Lisa: "So it's tight?"

Grant: "I've never denied that, I've never denied that."

Lisa: "If your economic premises that you base it on, for example if growth doesn't peak out at 3.7%. If we have the 10 year downward slum that some predict for 2018, then you're in trouble with your money?"

Grant: "No I don't think we are."

Actually Grant, you are in trouble. Where you start to run into problems is that whereas the PREFU's forecasts are based on immigration numbers naturally returning to historic rates, Labour is actively looking to slash immigration numbers by nearly half. Labour's changes may actually have an even greater impact than intended, especially when combined with Labour, New Zealand First, and the Green Party all looking to restrict foreign investment in New Zealand, and renegotiate crucial free trade agreements. Treasury's PREFU takes into account the potential for external economic risks from events like Brexit and the like, but it hasn't taken into impact what will happen when Labour starts introducing the changes required by their own policies and their coalition agreement.

There's also the question of KiwiBuild, Labour's assumptions behind the capital recycling of the $2b investment into it rest on the housing market remaining relatively buoyant over that 10 year period. The problem here is that we're already seeing Auckland's property market cool off significantly, and if immigration is slashed as they're proposing to do, demand is going to drop off as well. Labour is more than likely going to have to pump more money into KiwiBuild to deliver their promises 100,000 new houses, or they're going to have to downscale it. Something will have to give.

What this suggests is that far from Labour's numbers being tight, Labour is going to either have to massage the numbers in such a way as to make a farce of both their mini-Budget and their Budget Responsibility Rules, or they're going to have to start breaking promises.

My guess is that unless Grant Robertson pulls off a miracle in the next few weeks, he is going to regret giving assurances that his numbers add up and still fit within his Budget responsibility rules, or he'll burn a lot of political capital by pulling off some very questionable financial contortions to make everything work. My pick is on the later, and when he does it, National will have a field day with him in the House.

What Labour may well be counting on is that in three years' time, nobody will remember the potential omnishambles that we might be about to see.

If there's a minor party split, when is it likely to happen?

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New Zealand has a mixed bag when it comes to minor parties surviving a full Parliamentary term if they've entered into a coalition or confidence and supply agreement. Since the first of these was signed in 1996, if you exclude agreements with single MP parties, five have failed and five have succeeded. Though the United Future split in 2005 nearly made it to the election, falling about a month short.

Survived

Progressives 2002 - 2005

NZ First 2005 - 2008

ACT 2008-2011

Māori Party 2011-2014

Māori Party 2014-2017

Failed

NZ First 1996 - 1998

Alliance 1999 - 2002

United Future 2002 - 2005

United Future 2005 - 2007

Māori Party 2008 - 2011

That makes for a 50% chance that either NZ First or the Green Party will experience a schism during this Parliamentary term. That being said, We haven't had a minor party combust in Parliament since the 2011 election. This might suggest parties are learning to manage the pressures of these arrangements better, but then again the Māori Party had three MPs in the 50th Parliament and two in the 51st Parliament, which likely lends itself to better stability.

Here's the length that each of the five failed coalition or confidence and supply agreements have lasted.

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Given that the Labour and United Future confidence and supply agreement did nearly last the term, if you exclude this from the results, it drops both averages for agreements with the Labour Party and overall agreements to 711 days.

If there is a split, and there's a roughly 50% chance* one of the two parties will splinter, when is it likely to happen? Using the averages in the above table we're looking at a period anytime from 7 October 2019 through to 12 February 2020. Excluding the United Future 2005 split, leaves us squarely on 7 October 2019.

When you think about it, this makes sense as to when a split might occur. It's roughly 12 months out from the next election and both the major and minor parties in the agreement, but especially the minor parties, are beginning to flex their muscles to differentiate themselves from their partner and demonstrate some independence to get attention and show voters why they still matter.

If you want to look at a broader time period on the above numbers, the earliest a split might occur is 24 May 2019, and the latest (excluding the 2002-2005 United Future split which did run for three full years if not the full Parliamentary term) would be 19 February 2020.

It's also likely that by this point, most, if not all, of the undertakings made in the coalition or confidence and supply agreement have been, or are being delivered, and the two parties are having to negotiate on a policy-by-policy basis.

Usually it's taken a specific policy decision or external event to cause underlying tensions to erupt into a schism. In 1998 it was the sale of Wellington airport that triggered NZ First's breakup, for the Alliance in 2002 it was the build up of tension following a string of poor poll numbers and an internal party perception of subservience to Labour, and for the Māori Party in 2011 it was Hone Harawira's objection to National Party policies.

As the issues over the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary this weekend past illustrated, there are differences in policy and ideological approaches between NZ First and the Green Party that Labour is going to be stuck in the middle of trying to bridge. While these will be easy to manage in the early days as each of the minor partners is this agreement focus on getting there policy wins on the board, as we close in on the 2020 election, the pressure on the two minor parties will grow, especially if Labour remains, as I expect they will, very popular under Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

While National will struggle to put pressure on the Greens, they will be able to squeeze NZ First's support by targeting their voters in rural areas and provincial cities. If National is successful in doing that, and they could very well be, then with the added combination of Winston Peters' advancing years NZ First may well be the ones to give out first.

Which is why Winston Peters is pushing so hard for his Waka Jumping Bill. He can see the dangers that lie ahead for his party, and he's trying to nullify them before it's too late.

*In terms of the 50% chance of a split, I've calculated this off the five failed and five successful agreements featuring parties of more than one MP. If you drop the United Future confidence and supply agreement of 2002 - 2005 from this list, as it very did nearly run the full Parliamentary term, you could also argue that the Māori Party agreements from 2011 to 2014 and 2014 to 2017 should be considered as one and the same, largely because there was significant continuity between them.