A mood of anticipation has been created – Ardern now must deliver

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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