Thursday, March 10, 2022

Point of Order: Poll-jumpy ministers are stung by Luxon’s tax-cut speech but can’t cover up the pressures of rising costs

National Party leader Christopher Luxon came under attack from his political opponents this week — and from some elements in the mainstream media — for proposing tax cuts to ease the pressure of what he dubbed a “cost-of-living-crisis”.

Luxon outlined his plan in his state-of-the-nation address on Sunday.

The speech might not have made an impact with the public as sharp as he would have liked, but it clearly hit a tender spot in the government. Both PM Jacinda Ardern and her deputy, Grant Robertson, came armed to Parliament on Tuesday to demolish the Luxon case.

They or their staff had also been busy briefing journalists who had been suggesting Luxon was off target, and his proposed tax cuts would be (a) inflationary and (b) ineffective.

The government’s sensitivity might have been made more acute by a political poll (the Roy Morgan sampling) which showed Labour at 32% trailing National on 38%. This was the third successive poll from the Roy Morgan outfit indicating a change of government if that mood was carried through to the election.

The difficulty for the government even as it argues that inflation may ease – next month, or in the next quarter, or in the next year – is that the fall in the standard of living is being felt across the board this very day. What’s more, the extra $6bn the government is committed to spend in the budget will only add to inflation.

The increases to benefit rates already made by the Ardern government are being gobbled up by rises in the cost of the staples of everyday living.

Almost certainly Labour’s polling is delivering the same message to the Ardern team as the respondents to the Roy Morgan poll.

ANZ Research has pointed to inflation hitting 7.4% in the second quarter. Grant Robertson contends that’s largely because of global factors, but even if they are, they are not going away any time soon.

While ministers insist inflationary pressures come from abroad, the government runs the risk of adding to them with measures such as the increase in the minimum wage and its climate change imposts, as well as some of its tax increases (on petrol, for example).

For a flavour of how exchanges on the cost of living went in Parliament, Point of Order went to Hansard for this one:

Christopher Luxon: Why won’t she (the Prime Minister) admit that New Zealand has a cost of living crisis when rent is up $140 a week and food prices are up more than 13 per cent under Labour?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: This side of the House absolutely acknowledges the increases that families across New Zealand are currently experiencing—as many other countries are—as we see the COVID recovery mean that demand is often outstripping supply. We also have the issue, of course, of the pressure on fuel prices, which have gone up over 500 per cent since April 2020 in terms of a barrel of crude oil. That is having an impact. But what I would contend is that the National Party’s proposal, for instance, to take away essentially $26 per week from someone earning under $40,000—because they voted against our increases to the family tax credit—and instead replace it with $2.15 is simply not the way to support families who need it most.

Christopher Luxon: Does she accept that with petrol now above $3 a litre in some places, Kiwis are having to pay as much as $60 more to fill up than when she took office, and if so, why won’t she admit we have a cost of living crisis?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I again will bring the member back to where we are having the debate currently, which is that the member is proposing to, for instance, cut policies that will make it easier for first-home buyers to get into the market, and to get rid of the top tax bracket, instead of focusing on support for low and middle income New Zealanders. Now, again, I would also point out that the member, at the same time as he is raising what is essentially the impacts of international fuel prices and the fact that we have now a conflict in energy-rich countries with Russia invading Ukraine—yes, it’s having an impact at the pump. But the member is well short on his proposals, because he essentially is not answering the question of how he would pay for some of the things that he is proposing. There are two options: he’s cutting health, he’s cutting education, or he’s increasing debt.

And then there was this exchange later in Question Time:

Hon SIMON BRIDGES (National—Tauranga) (remote) to the Minister of Finance: Does he agree that New Zealand has a cost of living crisis; if not, why?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON (Minister of Finance): I acknowledge that there is considerable pressure on household budgets at the moment from inflation caused largely by global factors. I don’t agree with the member’s characterisation. What the world is experiencing, what forecasters are telling us, is a spike in headline inflation primarily driven by global issues like supply chain disruptions as ports are closed due to COVID-19 and from global oil prices, which has now been exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It’s worth noting that quarterly inflation was lower in the December quarter compared to September at 1.4 percent compared to 2.2 percent and is projected by the Reserve Bank to continue trending downwards. This sees annual Consumers Price Index (CPI) inflation peaking in the March quarter and then falling across 2022 and 2023.

Hon Simon Bridges: Does he agree with the Prime Minister, as reported by Newshub, on the cost of living that “While things are bad now, they are expected to improve soon.”?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: As I just said to the member, the forecasts from the Reserve Bank and others are that inflation will peak in the March quarter and then fall across 2022 and 2023. That does not in any way undermine the fact that for many households, it is tough when there are rising prices. That’s why this side of the House has supported those on low and middle incomes, with things such as increases to benefits and the minimum wage—opposed by the National Party.

Hon Simon Bridges: On what basis does he expect New Zealand’s cost of living crisis to improve soon?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: On the basis of a number of forecasts that indicate that while inflation will spike up and is spiking up, there will be a reduction in that over the course of 2022 and 2023.

Hon Simon Bridges: With banks predicting inflation may go to 7 percent or higher and the Reserve Bank signalling consistent interest rate hikes over the next couple of years, isn’t the chance of New Zealand’s cost of living crisis improving soon very low?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: As I’ve said now three times in my answers, the forecasts that we have from the Reserve Bank and the Treasury are to see that the CPI inflation will begin falling across 2022 and 2023. No one is underestimating that this is a challenging period for many households and indeed for New Zealand when we are faced with the global supply chain constraints that we are and the rising cost of oil. What a Government can do in the face of this is look after the most vulnerable, our low and middle-income earners. That is what the Government is doing. Also, a Government that has overseen wage increases outstripping inflation in the period leading up to this time. This Government stands by our record in that regard.

Hon Simon Bridges: Given rents are up $140, food prices more than 13 percent, petrol is hitting $3 a litre, the real wages are now going backwards under his Government’s watch, don’t New Zealand need meaningful tax relief at Budget 2022?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: What New Zealanders need is a Government that has the consistency to look after them, to make sure that we invest in supporting those on low and middle incomes, to make sure we see jobs created so that the way that people have money in their pockets is through wages and higher wages. The kind of proposals that the member is supporting not only will be inflationary right now but they also will mean that we underinvest again in health and education, as he did the last time he was in office.

Hon Simon Bridges: In light of the upcoming Budget’s historic $6 billion in new spending, why can’t a portion of it go on tax relief to hurting New Zealanders as the cost of living crisis continues to worsen?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: The problem that the member has is that his proposal’s not just about this Budget, because his leader said on the weekend that this approach that they want to take to taxation will now continue into future Budgets, which means it has to be priced in there, which means there will be further cuts in public services or higher debt. The member is falling into the same trap of his predecessors. He can’t have all three things happening at once—taxes going down, debt going down, and spending staying the same or going up. And I would note, the member has spent several weeks telling me that I shouldn’t have a $6 billion one-off operating allowance in Budget 2022. And now he wants to spend all of it. He should try to be a bit more consistent.

As the debate intensifies, as surely it will, so too may the pain in the wallet being felt by New Zealanders temper the political mood.

While the government has been careful to do what it can to ease the pressure on lower income people, that pain has now spread to the middle income groups, where general elections these days are mainly fought and won.

Point of Order is a blog focused on politics and the economy run by veteran newspaper reporters Bob Edlin and Ian Templeton.

1 comment:

Charles said...

My house increased in value to the tune of 180,000 dollars in 2 years. Wow I am so fortunate! This means while nothing has changed in my circumstances, I now pay increasing rates, I have just had an increase in my 'phone and power bills yet my income is fixed. Labour govmints have one consistent talent- that of spending other people's money. It is indeed their only talent. Mouthing inanities of 'getting people into houses' means nothing when over the period of 2 years one is required to find nearly 200,000 thousand dollars for a small 2 bedroom house on 800 metres in a one horse town. As the bard famously stated "Something is rotten in the state of New Zealand!"