Hard News by Russell Brown


The Day After Tomorrow

The Westpac McDermott Miller consumer confidence index dipped marginally this week, but, said the bank's chief economist, "households remain in good spirits". In truth, our good spirits rely on us not looking too far ahead.

New Zealanders' perception of their current financial position is up by almost exactly the same amount over this time last year that their mood about their future fortune is down.

On the evidence of the survey, we're not rushing to address these concerns about the day after tomorrow. Although household debt is at an all-time high, we're not paying it down. We're keener on spending money to make ourselves feel better right now than even on long-term consumer goods like furniture or appliances. On average, if we came by a $10,000 windfall, we'd spend it in bars and restaurants.

Bank economists are not poets, but I wonder if the survey results have a metaphorical weight. On the same day that the consumer confidence results were released, the New Zealand Herald published Kirsty Johnston's shocking revelation that malnutrition is putting twice as many New Zealand children in hospital as it was 10 years ago. One researcher quoted by Kirsty said she had heard of people taking sleeping pills on a Friday in an attempt to sleep through the weekend and avoid needing to buy food.

Although food prices have risen and food takes up a high proportion of poor families' incomes, the background factor is probably housing costs. Three weeks ago, Kirsty (again) revealed data showing that damp, overcrowded homes are killing 20 New Zealand children a year and sending 30,000 to hospital with preventable housing-related diseases, including the "third-world" disease bronchiectasis, which causes permanent lung damage. The story quotes the Royal Australasian College of Physicians as saying: "Inequities in health outcomes will persist unless such stark social inequities are urgently addressed."

Hunger in the here and now is a moral indictment, but it's also a generational calamity. Hunger impairs health and learning, it has enduring social and economic consequences. I was furious and astonished earlier this month when Bill English responded to a Checkpoint story that found two thirds of kids at a South Auckland school were turning up without lunch by venturing that "our plan" would eventually lift people out of poverty.

You can't just respond to immediate need by saying things will be sweet later. It's like responding to a ruptured fuel pipeline with an assurance that in the future everyone will be driving electric cars.

On the same day as the consumer confidence survey and Kirsty's story, Health minister Jonathan Coleman declared that unacceptable waits for cancer surgery for patients under the Southern District Health Board were not the fault of the government. The SDHB is also struggling to provide mental health services – but it's not alone there. In the last two years the number of people seen by a GP for a diagnosed mental health illness has risen 22% and the system is simply not coping.

These stories and others are not appearing simply because there's an election campaign on. They're just the shit hitting the fan.

I've been working on a story of my own in the past couple of weeks – about the sudden crisis around "synthetic cannabis", which has claimed as many as 20 mostly young lives in recent months. I was glad to finish it – it was making me angry. The sudden crisis isn't really sudden: it's been developing for at least three years.

The current government got synthetics out of the headlines three years ago (during the last election campaign) with the retail ban, and then essentially lost interest. The two formal surveys that told us the problem had not in fact gone away were de-funded this year – and nothing has been budgeted for the early-warning system touted as a solution.

I interviewed a young, Māori woman from West Auckland , clean three months after using for three years, and what she told me really shook me. But these are easy people to ignore.

The implications of this drift in "my" policy area continuing are alarming. As I've noted previously, the next Parliamentary term contains a once-in-two-generations opportunity in the compulsory review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1974.

My faith in anyone in the present goverment to get this right is roughly zero. National's belated campaign promise to put money into related health and rehab services came packaged with its pledge to ramp up beneficiary drug-testing, a policy for which it could not only not cite real evidence, but which the evidence contradicts. Like the synthetics ban three years ago, it's less policy than political marketing.

This isn't to say I'm over the moon with Labour's drug policy. Beyond welcome and appropriate sentiments about drug use being a health and a not a criminal issue, it doesn't really have one. But I'd trust a Labour-Green government to get a positive result out of the review infinitely more than I'd trust a National one, even with Kevin Hague out of the picture.

There is, of course, another policy area where Labour has welcome and appropriate sentiments but not a detailed policy – and that's the big rebalancing of the tax system, whose essential status quo has persisted despite being bluntly described by National's tax working group as "not viable" back in 2009.

Everyone knows deep down that we need to do something about the privileging of capital income and property in particular, and to broaden the tax base. The sooner the better, in fact. Which was probably what was on Jacinda Ardern's mind when she made her "captain's call" to drop Andrew Little's conservative promise to convene a working group, but delay any major reform for three more years, until the next general election.

In some ways, this made little difference. Convening the working group, letting it do its job and then getting legislation through would take most of three years anyway. Labour would still have to face the electorate with its policy.

But it had a profound effect on the campaign. National replaced its dire ad with the teal joggers – with its unnverving eugenicist undertones – with "Let's Tax This", a campaign in which any tax that could happen, would happen.

Changes which Labour had confirmed and costed – the $25 "tourist tax", for example – were presented alongside imaginary taxes, all of them at equal volume, with no context as to quantum or who they might actually impact. Labour not promising National's April 2018 tax cut became, against all logic, a "$1000 tax increase for the average New Zealander". A tax on the user of water resources that wouldn't even be paid by five out of six farmers was presented as pervasive and gargantuan.

It was brutally effective and flagrantly dishonest. I worry about the implications of the lesson here: that anything you say about changing the tax system will be weaponised and used against you.

Bill English came into the campaign with the burden of the Todd Barclay affair, a miserable business over which even his stoutest supporters would privately admit he had repeatedly lied. He then inherited the campaign's Big Lie: the alleged "$11.7 billion hole".

Even his back-up lie on that – that a Labour-led government had already promised everything and would have to run three years of "zero budgets" – was, well, a lie. The truth is that the unhappy PREFU made things very tight, but, as Dr Oliver Hartwich of the New Zealand Institute pointed out, $4.1 billion is not zero. The PREFU makes things tight for National too, of course – and it's probably the great failing of the coverage of this campaign that we've never actually found out out how tight. Labour and the Greens remain the only two parties with independent costings.

We're left with the paradox that English has on one level surrendered a huge amount of personal integrity – he told another barefaced lie in last night's debate, about the non-existent "constitutional convention" that would give him the first right to try and form a government – he has also run a very good campaign, in which he has actually earned people's trust. As Ben Uffindel noted on Twitter, English became Prime Minister in a way he hadn't been before in the course of the campaign. His party should be very, very grateful to him.

For her part, Ardern seized her destiny with that remarkable day-one press conference. She showed on that day and those that followed that she understood the principles of political leadership, and people responded to that. She has discovered in herself a rare ability to relate to people. She's been witty, authentic, a feminist.

But the big win in National's rejigged campaign has been to force her to talk about tax all the time, an area where she has constantly had to deny the wildest claims, doesn't have every fact, is always defending. Every hour she does that is one where she's not talking about poverty and need – an area where she has remained cogent and compelling, right up to her interview with John Campbell this week and last night's debate. I chanced on her maiden speech in Parliament recently: it's notably and impressively congruent with her platform now. She talks about and believes the same things.

But as the campaign's gone on, I've wondered whether even she's getting sick of the sound of her own voice. She's lost some of the sharpness of her early weeks as leader and resorts more often to blather. The death of her grandmother in the final week of the campaign can't have helped.

I've left the largest of the looming deficits facing New Zealand until last: climate change and the environment. It's another area where National has often refused to acknowledge the problem – English's claim that his party has led the way on the quality of our waterways and everyone else is a come-lately is bizarrely untrue.

But it's also one where National has resisted even acknowledging solutions.  Early in the campaign it was dragged into a light rail promise, but its transport policy has increasingly consisted of not only ignoring but actively trying to bury evidence. The East-West motorway, which Infrastructure New Zealand says is shaping up to be the most expensive road per kilometre in human history is being shepherded through with an economic analysis which says the benefits stack up if you just don't count the costs. There's a pattern to this: Transport minister Simon Bridges asked NZTA to delete the business case for the proposed Auckland-Whangarei motorway so no one could read it. The business case on a third (freight) rail main for Auckland had to be dragged out of Bridges office via the Ombudsman, and when it was finally released, it proved not only to be compelling, it destroyed the case for the East-West motorway, on NZTA's own modelling.

And still, the party that has lately promised to spend $10.5 billion on hazily-funded, poorly justified new Roads of National Significance can't find less than 1% of that sum to continue the Urban Cycleways programme.

The roads are, of course, the baby of Steven Joyce. As Joyce's predecessor as Finance minister, English had an aura of stewardship – Joyce just reeks of arrogance. He's a Muldoonist in the worst way. I think English genuinely believes that his "social investment" strategy is a visionary intervention rather than an accounting system (or worse, another National Standards – a policy that satifies ideological cravings but wastes sector resources to no effective purpose). I'm not sure Joyce even cares.

I'm not clear on how any of it addresses the reality of declining productivity and flat real wages in New Zealand, and in the short term at least both National and Labour are relying on the tax system and Working for Families as a kind of grand ATM (or, as Ben Thomas put it, "a cool dad who gives us money") to deliver personal gains that aren't coming in real incomes. That can't go on indefinitely.

One of the shames of this campaign is that the new party that could have made evidence-based policy an item, The Opportunities Party, has been kneecapped by the egos of Gareth Morgan and his frequently ridiculous communications advisor Sean Plunket. They've driven away the voters who might have delivered them and their ideas to Parliament. (If you're planning on voting TOP because you like their drug policy, consider the consequences of your wasted vote.)

Nearly everyone else has, in one way or another, had a good campaign. Ardern has galvanised her party and its its supporters and should stay on as leader whether or not she's Prime Minister. Green Party leader James Shaw has recovered from the disastrous political gamble that lost him his co-leader and been consistently impressive. He'll be back, whether in government or not. The same, sadly, can't be said for Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox, who has again demonstrated what an extraordinary politician she is.

It's been a wild, volatile campaign, one in which ordinary people have been engaged and journalists have largely done a very good job – take a particular bow Guyon Espiner and a collective curtsy everyone at The Spinoff. And I'm not alone in just wanting the bloody thing to be over.

In another giant lurch yesterday, the Colmar Brunton poll showed a dramatic reversal in fortune for the two big parties. One which, were it translated to to votes in the election, would produce a hung Parliament.

The stakes on which side of that line things go are very  high indeed.

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