After a year in which the Labour-NZ First coalition settled into office and those who had never expected to sight the inside of the Cabinet room were adjusting to their new riding instructions, the mood of the country is now anticipatory.
The government has generated a sense of change, if only by its ministers harping on about “ nine years of neglect”. It’s a theme that may come back to haunt them.
For change itself can be unsettling. Politically, New Zealanders prefer stability. They are not revolutionaries.
That’s why Grant Robertson has kept a steady hand on the tiller, eschewing the drastic economic reform those on the fringes call for.
The government’s achievement has been to create a softer ethos in promoting the idea of “well-being”. This year Robertson will offer a different sort of Budget with broader measures of “wellbeing” covering child poverty reduction, income equality, and environmental improvements.
But there will be other, sharper challenges, especially if the threatening global trade wars break out into real hostilities or the world slides into recession.
Those sharper challenges stem from the reviews which the coalition launched last year into the condition of key social, health, education and economic elements of the nation’s structure.
Some of the taskforces entrusted with the reviews have already reported: others are on the point of doing so — though it’s clear not all have found it plain sailing. And already, over the recommendations for change in education, there is a rising tide of protest.
Rivalling that will be the report due in February from the Tax Working Group, headed by Sir Michael Cullen. Given Cullen’s own predilection, it is almost certain the group will propose a capital gains tax, after he corralled a majority. But there has been enough dissidence within the working group to suggest the politics of implementing a capital gains tax will be highly fraught. Will Winston Peters want to be part of a government saddled with the odium of a new tax — and one which might be anathema to many of his own supporters.
It’s all very well to tax the “rich pricks”, as Sir Michael believes, but how will it go for those scions of the racing industry who poured funds into the NZ First coffers?
Then there is the issue of “Fair Pay Agreements” which a taskforce headed by former PM Jim Bolger has been examining. At the time Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway set it up, he said it would report back by the end of 2018 on the design of Fair Pay Agreements. Others thought it would herald the biggest shake-up in industrial relations “in years” (journalistic code for “we don’t know”).
Whether Bolger succeeded in getting sign-off from the other nine in the taskforce on a plan for such radical changes is far from clear. Some authorities saw the potential for conflict between Bolger and the more demanding of the trade unions as they sought a formula to implement “fair pay”.
Given there will always be a difference between what workers see as “fair” and what employers do, any new legislation will be contentious. And what may be “fair” in Auckland may not be so fair in Invercargill.
If the tax and industrial relations reports contain a few sticks of political gelignite, equally explosive could be the education reforms proposed by a taskforce headed by Bali Haque. Already it has aroused intense feelings, with news media reporting “furious principals say they will march on Parliament in protest at the most radical restructuring in 30 years, saying the proposals will destroy schooling as New Zealand knows it”.
One of the report’s key recommendations is that many of the powers held by elected school boards of trustees be handed to about 20 centralised “education hubs”, (presumably to be staffed by ministerial appointees or public servants).
Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the report reflected what he often heard from schools: that boards felt ill-equipped to manage property, especially when problems such as leaky buildings cropped up. But he will have his work cut out in tailoring the recommendations to some sort of acceptability, without provoking a backlash not just from principals but from parents — particularly of pupils attending elite schools in key Labour-held seats in Auckland, and Wellington.
Health Minister Dr David Clark has his own headache in the shape of the report from the Inquiry Panel into mental health and addiction. No-one disputes this is one of the major challenges in New Zealand, but there are no quick fixes.
Clark recognised this himself when he conceded it would take time to digest the report and the government won’t respond to it until March. And then how long will it take to implement reforms?
The machinery of government will be at full stretch handling these reports (and others Point of Order hasn’t mentioned). And for all the kindness and compassion the PM seeks to generate, there are extremely hard, complex and detailed decisions to be made, ones that may not be necessarily very popular. Winston Peters may take some persuading. And by the time legislation is written, the election will be on the horizon.
So this is the test of leadership which will determine where Ardern stands in the pantheon of Labour reformers.