Saturday, December 9, 2023

Peter Wilson: Week in Politics - New government survives first Question Time

The government was under attack on multiple fronts during a week of relentless criticism and then faced its first Question Time in Parliament. Winston Peters launched another diatribe against the media, there were emotional speeches in the House during a debate on the war in Gaza and the new police minister expressed confidence in the commissioner after setting out what he expects from the force.

After a week of relentless criticism of its 100-day repeal policies the government's new ministers faced their first, and much anticipated, Question Time in Parliament.

Opposition MPs didn't land any hits. Labour leader Chris Hipkins took on Prime Minister Christopher Luxon over the government's attitude to a ceasefire in Gaza but there had already been an hour-long debate on that and there wasn't any sting left.

Finance Minister Nicola Willis aggressively turned questions around when she was answering Labour's finance spokesperson Grant Robertson and attacked the government's economic record.

Robertson tried to get her to confirm the government would use revenue gained from scrapping the smokefree legislation to help pay for its tax cuts.

It didn't work and Willis got away with: "We consider a range of issues around tax on an ongoing basis and information about those will be released at an appropriate time."

Health spokesperson and former minister Ayesha Verrall had a go at Health Minister Shane Reti over the delegation of the repeal of smokefree legislation to NZ First's Casey Costello, an associate health minister.

Why had he done that, she wanted to know. Reti said Costello had "expressed an interest in it".

Verrall's next question dealt with something opposition MPs have no doubt been suspicious about.

She wanted to know: "Did the minister delegate responsibility for the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products Act because he doesn't want to answer to the Cancer Society, the Stroke Foundation, the New Zealand Nurses Organisation, Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency, the Secondary Principals' Council of New Zealand and his own professional college, the College of General Practitioners, not to mention hundreds of other organisations that have condemned his actions?"

Reti simply replied: "No. I have full confidence in the minister."

Before questions, Foreign Minister Winston Peters put up a motion calling for "urgent steps" to be taken towards a ceasefire in the war in Gaza.

The full text is on RNZ's website, with a report on the debate.

Labour and the Greens wanted a straight out call for a ceasefire, with Peters and Prime Minister Christopher Luxon making their point that both sides had to agree before that could happen.

There were strong emotions in the House. Labour's Damien O'Connor spoke of genocide while the Greens Golriz Ghahraman made passionate appeals for help for the Palestinians.

Luxon would have been satisfied with the way his ministers performed in Parliament. They stuck to their lines, they didn't get tripped up and had the answers to nearly everything they were asked.

Labour can't have been satisfied, they need a more incisive performance next week.

Swearing-in of MPs

Most of Parliament's week was taken up with the swearing-in of MPs and the Speech from the Throne in which Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro set out the government's agenda.

That didn't stem the tide of fierce criticism of the new government's policies.

Repeal of the anti-smoking laws, conspiracy theories, race relations and climate change were in the mix as the government's critics ramped up their attacks.

During the debate in reply to the Speech from the Throne Hipkins accused the government of trashing New Zealand's international reputation by adopting conspiracy theories and rolling back anti-smoking legislation.

"This could well be the most shambolic beginning of any government in New Zealand's history," he said.

Luxon hit back, calling Hipkins "bitter, twisted and negative", RNZ reported.

"How has he survived when nearly half his caucus lost their jobs under his leadership, why is he still here?" he asked.

"Labour earned its loss. It worked hard for it. Labour wasted time, they squandered public money, and they made this great country and its people miss out on opportunities."

The government hasn't been fazed by all the flak it has been taking and it's not going to change anything.

"New Zealand is under new management," Luxon said, drawing applause from National's benches.

"If you want lower taxes, vote for us. If you want the government's books managed well, vote for us. And if you want to create more opportunities for everyone, vote for us."

Reaction to 100-day plan

Reaction to the 100-day plan began early in the week.

"Luxon is determined to scrap most of the previous administration's agenda," said Stuff columnist Vernon Small.

"His government is aiming to drive home the message that the Ardern-Hipkins government achieved nothing by leaving them a minimal legacy of policy reform."

Small said that differed from previous National leaders, including Sir John Key, who initially opposed policies like Working for Families, KiwiSaver and Kiwibank before accepting them.

Small said the government was getting a taste of the fights ahead with the bitter backlash against repealing the smokefree measures.

"The toxic response from health groups was a sign of what it will also face from the education sector, environmentalists, and Māoridom as it implements its policy platform," he said.

"Mind you, it didn't help itself by pointing out the extra tax would help fund its tax cuts."

He was right. The government's opponents gained considerable impetus from that and cartoonists picked it up.

Stuff published a cartoon of the health minister holding a smoking cigarette with the words "just what the doctor ordered". Shane Reti is a medical doctor.

The Herald ran a picture of a pack of cigarettes which carried the warning "this government could help you damage your health".

During the Address in Reply debate Hipkins said the idea that more young New Zealanders should take up smoking to pay for tax cuts was immoral.

The Herald published an editorial headlined 'Health progress goes up in smoke'.

"The new coalition government's plan to repeal stop-smoking legislation is an embarrassing, wheezy retreat for Aotearoa," it said.

"The next generation ban was hailed internationally, with other countries including Britain looking to follow our brave lead.

"But news that the new Christopher Luxon-led government will stub out the move has landed another blow to Aotearoa's ailing clean, green image."

The government's defence of its repeal of the legislation has from the start been that cutting down the number of sales outlets - one of its provisions - would make remaining dairies the target of burglars and ram raiders.

Luxon has often pointed out that the new laws have not yet taken effect, although they have been passed, and his government simply believes they aren't the best way to go.

He has pledged his government will continue the fight against smoking and get the numbers down.

Policies affecting Māori slammed

Te Pāti Māori used the Debate in Reply to the Speech from the Throne to fiercely criticise the government's policies to wind back the use of te reo Māori and put up a bill which identified the principles of the Treaty.

It had "opened the floodgates of hatred against Māori", co-leader Rawiri Waititi said.

The other co-leader, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, said the government's attacks on Māori had only encouraged unity.

"We will not be bullied or stood over by men on that side of the House, who embarrass themselves, who ridicule our culture," she said.

Luxon's response throughout to criticism such as that has been to lay out the statistics around Māori wellbeing and say they went backwards under Labour in every metric.

He has vowed Māori will do better under his government which, he keeps pointing out, has only been in power for about a week.

What he's saying is that it deserves to be cut some slack and given a chance to prove itself before being relentlessly attacked.

'Winston Peters hates the media. What's new?'

Then there was Winston Peters.

He delivered another diatribe against the media in his speech during the Debate in Reply.

Peters didn't mention the $55 million bribe which raised such strong responses last week but he repeated another of his familiar criticisms - the media ignored him during the election campaign, that wasn't democratic, and if he had been given more attention NZ First would have won more votes.

Peters said his public meetings drew huge crowds around the country - he mentioned the cities where he said halls were packed with 700 or more people - but there wasn't a journalist in sight.

Sunday Star Times editor Tracy Watkins had a response to that in an article published before Peters' latest broadside.

"Winston Peters hates the media. What's new?" she said.

"I could point out that he's wrong about the media ignoring him on the campaign trail, a tired piece of nonsense that he pulls out whenever he can, usually accompanied by menacing noises about payback now he's back in power.

"The truth is he got more coverage than a 6 percent party deserved."

Watkins said Peters knew this.

"He's not saying it because it's true, he's saying it because his supporters believe it and truth is no longer something they want to be proven or disproven by facts. Because the world we reflect back at them is one they feel excluded from and they blame us for that."

Watkins said the media was increasingly the target of ugly threats, including death threats, and Peters was fanning those flames.

"I've had abuse shouted at me in the street by complete strangers, and emails warning me I'm on a list for trial and execution," she said.

"But I have to believe Peters knows this and his words are deliberate.

"It just happens to suit his purpose to make the media an enemy of the people. And actually most people think that's just fine. It's just Winston being Winston, they laugh."

Watkins' article delves into the reasons politicians don't like the media - she said it might surprise her readers to know that Jacinda Ardern "strongly disliked" it.

She makes some important points. It's on Stuff's website.

Herald columnist Heather du Plessis-Allan also dealt with Peters' attacks on the media, from a different angle.

"The media should remember that hardly anyone really actually likes the media anymore," she said.

"That automatically makes Peters a hero to some and kind of fun to many when he attacks the media."

Du Plessis-Allan said judging by the media outrage over his attacks "it's quite apparent many have not registered generally how unpopular we are and specifically how much unease there is about the $55 million journalism fund he's calling a bribe".

She said Peters was "preaching to a fringe element" by using that word but that didn't mean anyone should pretend his hits weren't landing.

Her article also covered the way Peters grabbed the limelight during the government's first week and it was titled 'How Peters is undermining Luxon'.

"He's making it quite obvious Luxon can't or won't reprimand him. That won't bother the public too much. Voters have come to expect nothing less after years of watching various PMs try and fail to force Winston and his more bombastic MPs like Shane Jones to pull in their horns," she said.

"Much worse for Luxon is having to defend Peters' silly policies - the smokefree repeal, the plan to force government departments to switch the priority of their Māori and English names, and the policies around trans communities.

"All these policies are controversial and Peters' ideas. But Luxon has to own them and defend them because he's the PM who agreed to them."

Police Minister Mark Mitchell finally declared his full confidence in Police Commissioner Andrew Coster this week after repeatedly dodging the question, RNZ reported.

Mitchell set out what he expected from Coster, laying it out in a letter, and the pair agreed to the terms when they met on Wednesday.

Mitchell told Coster in the letter he wanted a more visible police presence and new legislation used to crack down on gangs.

He told Morning Report he released the letter so he could have full confidence in the commissioner: "Which I do".

Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire. This article was first published HERE


Kiwialan said...

Peter Wilson, why do you quote your woke socialist mainstream media comrades when we all know that they are corrupted by the filthy money of the PIJF so they never have an unbiased view. Kiwialan.

Terry Morrissey said...

This red reporter is as bitter, twisted and negative as any of the labour cult losers, but that is to be expected as the PIJF life support is on it's way out the door and he and his ilk face a rather grim future.