Monday, December 18, 2023

Peter Wilson: Week in Politics - A rush to repeal and the Finance Minister's surprise

The government sets a cracking pace in Parliament as it starts dismantling Labour's legislation, Winston Peters has a fine time as Acting Prime Minister and Nicola Willis springs the surprise of the week as she sinks the new ferries project.

At the end of Parliament's first working week, it seemed Prime Minister Christopher Luxon really was leading a government that's "going to get things done" as he has often vowed it would.

Three bills forced through under urgency changed the Reserve Bank Act, ended Fair Pay Agreements and removed the Clean Car Discount.

Next week, 90-day trials will be extended to cover all businesses.

The Reserve Bank Amendment Bill ended its dual mandate of controlling inflation and supporting maximum sustainable employment.

Finance Minister Nicola Willis was told the same result could be achieved through an instruction to the bank's Monetary Policy Committee, and there was no need to ram a bill through which amended the Act.

She wasn't having any of that. She wanted it to be absolutely, crystal clear that the Reserve Bank's mandate was to control inflation because she was out to beat the cost of living crisis.

Good for her. If she does, she will receive the thanks of the nation.

Debate on the bill was relatively civil and often delved into the details of the Act, which isn't light reading.

Not so the Fair Pay Agreements Act Repeal Bill.

It has repealed legislation introduced by the previous government just over a year ago, which allowed industry-wide bargaining for employment terms.

When it was brought in the then-workplace relations minister Michael Wood said it restored the rights of workers stripped from them through the Employment Contracts Act 1991.

Labour MPs were, therefore, incensed by its repeal.

Their speeches mostly boiled down to the same thing - the government was putting the boot into workers, and not for the first time.

Union protesters chanted on the lawn outside as Labour's workplace relations spokesperson Camilla Belich accused the government of wanting low wage workers and Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said it was a terrible thing to do to employees just before Christmas.

Brooke van Velden, a new minister putting her first bill through Parliament, was admirably composed.

She patiently told her impassioned critics that no fair pay agreements were actually in place yet and so nobody was going to be any worse off.

"Fair pay agreements were never about fairness, they forced a minority of union workers' views on all affected workers and businesses," she said.

Businesses have long opposed the legislation, saying it would impose extra conditions on them, increasing costs, RNZ reported.

None of van Velden's arguments cut it with opposition parties and Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori MPs continued their protests until the bill passed its final stage.

Immediately after that Transport Minister Simeon Brown introduced the Clean Car Discount Scheme Repeal Bill, which passed through all its stages.

It ends the discount brought in by the previous government to encourage people to buy electric vehicles, which became known as the Ute Tax because it put a levy on petrol-powered cars and utility vehicles.

National had vowed to remove it, which helped its farmer-friendly election campaign.

The scheme is now due to end on 31 December.

It reduced the cost of EVs by more than $7000, paid for by adding a levy to the price of high-emission vehicles such as utes.

It was successful. In October, the then-prime minister Chris Hipkins said the annual uptake of EVs and hybrids had risen by 180 percent compared with a 30 percent decrease for petrol and diesel vehicles.

During the debate, opposition MPs mocked Luxon and called on him to repay the $8625 subsidy on the Tesla his wife, Amanda, purchased, the Herald reported.

A Labour MP even put up an amendment to the bill to offer people the opportunity to pay back the subsidy. The amendment was voted down.

Brown said the bill would get rid of the "regressive" and "unfair" scheme.

"Happy New Year to our farmers and tradies who have been punished by the former government," he said.

The Greens were particularly upset about the scheme's closure, and demanded to know what new measures the government was going to bring in to replace the emission-reducing laws that were being repealed.

The surprise of the week was delivered by the finance minister, and it didn't need any legislation.

Willis announced the government had turned down KiwiRail's request for an additional $1.47 billion, which was needed to cover the cost of harbour building work in Wellington and Picton to handle the two big new ferries on order and due to arrive in 2025.

Willis said the cost of the project had nearly quadrupled from $775 million to about $3b since 2018, RNZ reported.

"It is also now the case that only 21 percent of these costs are associated with the core project of replacing ageing ferries," she said.

"Agreeing to KiwiRail's request would reduce the government's ability to address the cost pressures that are impacting on New Zealanders, fund other essential projects and get the Crown's books back in order."

So far, $435m of Crown funding has been assigned to the project, of which $63m remains.

KiwiRail chair David McLean said the project would be wound down and alternatives would be considered.

During a series of media interviews, Willis emphasised that the cost of the ferries had nothing to do with the "unimaginable" blowout and the contract with Korean shipbuilder Hyundai had been at a fixed price.

Hyundai hasn't started building the ferries but design work has been going on for several years.

Willis said the cost blowout was entirely about landside developments.

That raised some interesting questions. Newshub's AM Show host Ryan Bridge wondered why KiwRail was responsible for harbour facilities and pointed out that Air New Zealand didn't have to pay to build runways.

He also didn't think Air NZ would consider buying planes that couldn't land on existing runways.

There was, inevitably, a backlash to Willis' decision.

Four unions called for her resignation - the Maritime Union of New Zealand, the Rail and Maritime Transport Union, the New Zealand Merchant Service Guild and the Aviation and Marine Engineers Association, Stuff reported.

They warned of ongoing issues with the "end of life" ferries that were used on notoriously challenging crossings and called for substantial improvements.

Marlborough Mayor Nadine Taylor said Picton people would be shocked. Many workers had been expected to be employed on the project.

KiwiRail chief executive Peter Reidy told Morning Report one option was to go ahead with the ferry build.

"Do you carry on building and sell it? Could you sell it as it is right now? There's a number of commercial options, we've got to sit down with the other players," he said.

Willis talked about cheaper alternatives, saying KiwiRail had effectively started paying for a Ferrari but it wasn't the only car in the garage. "Now we're going to go off and see whether there are any good, reliable Toyota Corollas available," she said.

Winston Peters was prime minister for a day this week while Christopher Luxon was in Australia for his daughter's graduation, and he had a fine time.

'Bigoted lefty shill': Winston Peters fires up as Acting PM,' RNZ reported.

"Winston Peters - in the role of acting prime minister - has responded with insults and accusations after opposition MPs attempted to use his previous statements against him," it said.

Peters has always believed attack is the best form of defence and he warned his opponents: "Mess with this bull, you get the horns."

Greens' co-leader Marama Davidson asked him whether he stood by his government's statements and policies. That's the usual way of opening up questions about nearly anything, and Peters knew it.

Before she got any further, he told her: "With regard to evidence and information at the time of those statements, yes. But of course when new information or evidence emerges we acknowledge that (and) don't just carry on like a bigoted lefty shill."

Labour leader Chris Hipkins pulled out a quote from NZ First's Shane Jones, who had said the Reserve Bank dual mandate (now repealed) was far-sighted and reflected international best practice.

Peters simply said the government had moved on because it was wrestling with inflation caused by "squanderous spending".

Newshub listed the insults it said he had sprayed around the House:

Among them were:

"Don't shout out like a bunch of clowns at university."

"No, on the marae Megan you keep quiet."

"Woke, idiotic left ideals."

"Words matter Mr Robertson, not just gobbledegook."

Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick caused a minor uproar in the House when she was heard to say "a demonstrable lie" while Luxon was answering a question about climate change.

"We're not weakening our actions on climate change, we're just going about it a different way," Luxon said.

It was at that point that Swarbrick made her comment.

"Swarbrick's outrage at that statement was picked up on the parliamentary microphone, as she loudly protested 'a demonstrable lie'," RNZ reported.

MPs aren't allowed to call each other liars. When it does happen, the usual consequence is for the offender to be told by the Speaker to withdraw and apologise, and they must do so or face disciplinary action.

That didn't happen because Speaker Gerry Brownlee didn't hear Swarbrick, who sits at the other end of the chamber.

Other MPs did, and ACT leader David Seymour, sitting nearby, raised it with Brownlee.

Bronwlee said if Swarbrick had said it, she should consider apologising.

Swarbrick didn't. "I was speaking to the content of the policies as put forward by this government and the fact that the content of those policies are a lie," she said.

Brownlee said the House would move on but left open the possibility of action against Swarbrick, saying "others will make a judgment on whatever the Hansard record might eventually show".

At one point, Peters said her comment might have been caught on the audio recording "and if that's the case, then we know where this goes after that".

He was apparently referring to the Privileges Committee, which deals with transgressions and can punish MPs.

Outside the House, Swarbrick told journalists she stood by what she had said and indicated she was prepared to face whatever happened next.

"We have a responsibility as parliamentarians to tell the truth, and I'll work through any of the consequences that come through," she said.

Maiden speeches have been scattered through House proceedings since it began sitting, and one gained more attention than others.

National's James Meager (Ngāi Tahu) was given a standing ovation after saying: "Members opposite do not own Māori. Members opposite do not own the poor. Members opposite do not own the workers. No party and no ideology has a right to claim ownership over anything or anyone."

This, and other comments by MPs such as Shane Jones saying: "it is preposterous that the Māori Party should think that they are the authentic voice for Māori New Zealanders", prompted Stuff's Glenn McConnell to pose the question: Who in Parliament has the mandate to represent Māori?

McConnell researched this, and to estimate Māori support for the six parties in Parliament, Stuff collated the votes from the seven Māori electorates.

McConnell reported the analysis estimated about 61 percent of Māori did not support the governing parties, and Labour dominated the Māori vote.

There's a lot of detail in the article, which helps understand how Māori voted, and is available on their website.

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

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