Heather Roy

27 January 2019

The New Zealand Parliament begins sitting again on 12 February. It has been a longer than usual break for our politicians. Oddly, the unofficial start of the NZ political year normally coincides with Australia Day – observed on the closest Monday to 26 January. The Australian’s have a shin-dig at the High Commission to celebrate Australia Day on the last Monday of January and the kiwi politicians traditionally flood back to Wellington for this event, then politics begins in earnest for another year.

There’s been plenty of commentary over the summer break that the government has been MIA. I don’t begrudge them a decent break – everyone deserves one. But it is timely to reflect on 2018 and what we can expect for 2019.

When I think back on 2018 the theme was reviews and working groups. Ministerial working groups, advisory groups, and research groups were appointed to examine just about every conceivable issue. Public summits were held. This just highlighted that Labour didn’t expect to win the 2017 election and was totally unprepared for government. With no well-conceived plan, evidenced initially by filibustering it’s own legislative agenda to buy time, Labour’s flagship ideas like Kiwi Build took centre stage. Flawed and failing, most of the action we’ve seen couldn’t even be described as ideological. Housing assistance for the middle class isn’t traditional Labour policy. Labour supporters should be disappointed with the first year of Labour-led government.

Chris Trotter is a good barometer. I enjoy reading his Bowally Road blog. His posts are a sign of what the ‘left’ are thinking. I’ve broken my own rule in using the term ‘left’. Chris is a (self-confessed) socialist, but he’s not nasty about it as some others are. He advocates for social justice in a respectful way – just as he’s done in his recent post ‘The Jacinda Problem: Where She Goes, We Go’. It seems the gloss has gone off our Prime Minister and her agenda for Chris. He wants to see some substance. I don’t think he is alone.

If reviews and working groups summed up 2018, can we hope to see action in 2019? I’m particulary interested in health, education, defence and electoral reform and keep a close eye on these areas. The Education Review has been presented to the Minister and is now out for public consultation, due to be complete by April. The Mental Health Review has reported back – recommending the same things that have been recommended since the early 2000’s. The widesweeping Health Review (headed by Heather Simpson) however isn’t due for report back until 2020, so plenty of procrastination opportunities for the Health Minister on all health related matters. The Defence Capability Plan (to give effect to the Strategic Defence Policy Statement launched in July 2018) was supposed to have been announced in November and is late. None of these are good signs for strong political direction in 2019.

To be fair, every government has one or two workhorses. Andrew Little is Labours. He’s worked tirelessly in his portfolio areas (Justice, Courts, Treaty Negotiations, Pike River and Security Agencies) and deserves credit for getting things done, even if we don’t agree with them all.

Labour does have one (partial) valid excuse for lack of achievement – Winston Peters. Coalition government, when the bedfellows are ideologically different, makes for certain impotence in many areas. The lesson is to be careful who you coalesce with.  NZ First has far more influence than the election result warrants and despite the smiley face façade this must be frustrating many Labour policy areas – foreign policy, drug policy reform, regional development spending to name a few. We can expect much more of this in 2019.

The signs for action aren’t great. Usually by now we’d have heard from party leaders in the form of State of the Nation speeches which give an indication of parties work plans for the coming year. Maybe we’ll hear yet from the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. Perhaps also the National Party leader – Opposition after all is the place to develop comprehensive policy and to prepare to be the next government. With one month of the year gone we already seem to have done a lot of waiting.