Week in Politics: Triumph and disaster, but no austerity

Analysis – A triumphant announcement of a solution to Auckland’s water woes is followed the next day by a chaotic press conference about prison capacity, Nicola Willis rules out an austerity budget and the future of school lunches isn’t as dire as critics had anticipated.

The week began well for the government.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, Local Government Minister Simeon Brown and Auckland’s Mayor Wayne Brown announced an agreement over water infrastructure that would avoid steep increases in charges.

It was a triumph for the government after it repealed Labour’s ill-fated Three Waters scheme and promised to do better.

There was a joint statement from the two Browns.

“Some said Local Water Done Well could not be done,” they said.

“But within the space of just six months, the coalition government has worked with Auckland Council on designing a new model for Watercare.”

Local Water Done Well is the government’s scheme that replaced Three Waters. An important aspect is that it leaves water infrastructure in council ownership and control.

Mayor Brown, not known as a fan of the government, said: “This outcome is exactly what we’ve been looking to achieve. The new government asked us to come up with a preferred model and they’ve agreed to implement it.”

It meant Aucklanders would be paying just 7.2 percent more, and would avoid the previously projected 25.8 percent increase in water rates, the Herald reported.

The key to the new plan is that Watercare will be able to borrow more over a longer period through legislative changes that separate its balance sheet from the council.

Labour MP Kieren McAnulty

The same water infrastructure problems afflict nearly all the councils, and Labour said Auckland’s plan wouldn’t work anywhere else.

Local government spokesman Kieran McAnulty told Morning Report: “My beef isn’t with the mayor. He’s doing his job, he’s representing his council, but the Minister of Local Government is responsible for all councils and this model that was announced yesterday will not work anywhere else. They don’t have the scale.”

Simeon Brown said the government was working to settle solutions for other areas.

“We’re working on legislation which will come to Parliament in the middle of this year which will provide for councils to be able to set up regional CCOs (council-controlled organisations), joint CCOs – and so the legislation will help enable that,” he said.

“We’re going to require all councils to put forward their plans for a financially sustainable approach to water infrastructure in their communities, so they’ll have 12 months to do that from the passing of that legislation.”

Key announcement backfires

National MP Mark Mitchell

The next day Luxon and another member of his cabinet, Corrections Minister Mark Mitchell, strode onto the stage in the Beehive Theatrette to make what they clearly intended to be another blockbuster announcement, this time about law and order.

The Budget would give Corrections $1.9 billion to increase capacity at Waikeria prison by 810 beds, increase staff by 685 new frontline officers and improve support programmes for inmates and prisoners on remand, they said.

Luxon reeled off well-used figures proving there had been dramatic increases in violent crime, gang membership, ram raids and retail crime under the “soft on crime” Labour government.

Mitchell said the government was serious about restoring law and order and New Zealanders could have confidence they would be safer in their homes and workplaces.

They had rehearsed the spin, no problem with that part of it, but question time began badly and the press conference deteriorated from there.

“The prime minister and the corrections minister repeatedly provided incorrect information about their planned prison spend-up,” RNZ’s political editor Jo Moir reported.

“The near 40-minute press conference raised almost more questions than answers – with Christopher Luxon and Mark Mitchell at times contradicting each other.”

Moir said both claimed some of the money would go towards an 810-bed extension to Waikeria prison but then said that figure included 600 beds already funded and previously announced by the Labour government – which was wrong.

Her report details the amazing muddle they got themselves into.

Shortly after the press conference ended a clarifying statement was issued and the next day Luxon told Morning Report the facts were straightforward: “There’s 455 beds today, there’s 600 going in next year and there’s another 810 coming with this funding.”

If he or Mitchell had said that at the press conference there wouldn’t have been a problem and they would have escaped the roasting they deserved and received.

Stuff’s Tova O’Brien said it was extremely unusual – possibly unheard of – for a clarifying correction to be sent out about a subject which occupied almost an entire post-cabinet press conference.

O’Brien detailed the confusion and tracked through the different bed numbers stated during the press conference.

“So to be clear the calculation at this stage looks something a bit like this,” she said.

“600+810-600+220+800-400 = absolutely baffled.”

Christopher Luxon

The Herald’s Audrey Young said after 40 minutes of questions and answers everybody was more confused than when they entered the theatrette, including Luxon and Mitchell.

“It was not Luxon’s fault,” she said.

“As prime minister he is not expected to know the detail of every portfolio. He could have got away with the tub-thumping political statements about the previous government having been soft on crime if Mitchell had been on top of the detail.”

Young included her own memo to ministers and press secretaries: “If you missed it, sit down and watch yesterday’s press conference for a lesson in how not to make a budget announcement.”

Newshub’s political editor Jenna Lynch said it was the government’s worst press conference performance.

“Nothing was clear and, in fact, nothing they said was right,” she said.

“This was supposed to be one of National’s strong suits – crime, crackdowns and numbers.

“Mitchell had clearly done his homework on the spin but not the substance.”

The following morning Luxon did his round of radio and TV interviews. By then the botched press conference was a bigger story than the $1.9 billion boost for Corrections. That must have irked him but he didn’t show it.

Mitchell had “got it mixed up yesterday in the moment,” he told RNZ.

“We had a quick chat on the way out of the press conference and he very quickly clarified the numbers immediately.”

Luxon backed the minister, as he did during interviews on other media outlets.

Mitchell did a great job strongly advocating for restoring law and order, he said. “He cares about the frontline police (Mitchell is also police minister), he cares about the frontline Corrections officers… he’s doing a good job.”

Willis shares some Budget insights

Nicola Willis gives a pre-budget speech to the Hutt Valley Chamber of Commerce

The media had something else to make headlines with on Thursday when Finance Minister Nicola Willis gave a glimpse of the Budget she’ll deliver at the end of this month.

“Nicola Willis has ruled out an austerity budget, although she says the economic challenges mean the country is in a ‘darkest before dawn’ position,” RNZ reported.

Willis promised her Budget would not “run long on good intentions but fall short on delivery”, saying it would reflect the reality that every dollar counted.

She said she would not be delivering a big-spending Budget, but nor would she follow the advice of some commentators and take an austere approach.

“Our government knows how devastating it would be if we were to give up on overdue tax relief, to drastically cut back on investment and public services, and to downsize our ambitions for growing New Zealand’s economy,” she said.

Instead, she would deliver a moderate, responsible budget that charted “a sensible middle course”.

Willis revealed the government’s savings target had been achieved.

She said that since taking office the government had aimed to find $1.5 billion in annual savings across government agencies.

“I am confirming today that we have met that savings target,” she said.

School lunches fare better than expected

Associate Education Minister David Seymour speaks to media following a free school lunch announcement on 8 May 2024.

Associate Education Minister David Seymour this week cleared up the uncertainty over the future of schools lunches, which the government put under review.

It wasn’t as bad as some of his critics had anticipated.

Primary school students already benefiting from free school lunches would continue to do so in the same way for the next two-and-a-half years, while older students would shift to an alternative model, RNZ reported.

Seymour said the government had found about $107 million a year in savings in the programme, some of which would be used to provide free morning tea and lunches for pre-schoolers.

Labour claimed the outcome was a win for its campaign to keep funding free school lunches.

Education spokesperson Jan Tinetti said Seymour had failed to get the sweeping cuts he wanted.

Newshub reported that according to a social media post by Seymour’s ACT Party students were going to get fruit and sandwiches – not “woke” food like quinoa and sushi.

“If you don’t get that sushi’s woke, I don’t know how to wake you up,” Seymour was quoted as saying.

That led to a question being put to Luxon which, according to the Herald, had the prime minister “in a huff”.

“Prime Minister Christopher Luxon was irked by questions from journalists following the government’s announced of funding for free school lunches on Wednesday, making a dig at a reporter for asking what foods were or were not ‘woke’,” the report said.

Luxon’s response: “It’s all the big questions from TVNZ today, isn’t it. Fantastic.

“I’d just say, given everything that’s going on in this country, do you think that’s the most sensible question to be asking?”

He had a point.

Genter complaints being taken up

When Parliament resumed on Tuesday, Speaker Gerry Brownlee’s first act was to tell the House he had referred complaints about Green Party MP Julie Anne Genter to the Privileges Committee.

The complaints came from National and ACT, RNZ reported.

Genter last week apologised after National accused her of intimidating and attacking one of its ministers, Matt Doocey, in the debating chamber.

While a debate on roading was underway, Genter walked across the floor, waved a book in his face, and repeatedly yelled “read the report”.

The Privileges Committee is Parliament’s court and can impose penalties on MPs for misbehaving.

Since the event in Parliament another allegation of intimidation has surfaced.

Newshub reported accusations against Genter by Wellington florist Laura Newcombe.

She described a heated exchange over a cycleway in front of her Newtown shop and said she felt intimidated.

The last word goes to David Seymour, reacting to Transpower’s warning of possible power cuts on the coldest morning of the year because of insufficient generation: “Third world stuff.”

He got that right.

*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.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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