(originally published on Insight Politics March 13 2020)
Elected with 56 MP’s (since reduced to 55 with the expulsion of Jami-Lee Ross) in 2017, National is the largest opposition party in New Zealand’s political history. Labour, a long-shot prospect of winning the previous election are a collection of 46 starry-eyed incompetents whose eventual appointment to the Government benches is the equivalent of winning Lotto Powerball twice. They’re supported by the nine MPs of New Zealand First: Winston Peters being the definition of a politician for all the wrong reasons backed by eight sycophantic, econophobic and xenophobic opportunists embroiled in multiple corruption scandals. This minority coalition government survives on the goodwill of the most desperate, longest serving parliamentary opposition party; The Greens. Co-led by an in-offensive middle-aged straight white man and an ideologically torpedoed tugboat, ignorant of her three year, 360 degree roundtrip due to her single-minded focus on horn tooting.
This most recent triannual electoral cycle should have been Nationals to lose. Indeed I think National have lost it because their lacklustre, feeble and ineffective tactics betray an obvious disrespect held for the abilities of the Government and a subsequent lack of effort to land an early KO punch. Terrible for New Zealand but great for Act; a single MP party for a third consecutive term. Act has struggled to attract voter support as the David Seymour to the National Goliath during the latters’ three term Government, despite the obvious disparity in intellect-to-MP ratio between the two.
I’ve quoted former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating who referred to then Opposition Leader John Howard as “a shiver looking for a spine to run up” as a fitting description for the current National party. National has been more effective at hurting National than any of the three governing parties since 2017. Leader Simon Bridges has been unsuccessful in personally winning the hearts and minds of New Zealanders; not helped by the popular support for Judith Collins over much of that time. Only recently has his preferred Prime Minister numbers managed to break into double figures whereas previously it took his and Collins’ combined popular support to break the ten point level. Combined with the double whammy of public navel-gazing when anonymous text messages alleging corruption from a self-described mentally unwell source, Bridges chose to drag out National’s war against itself with a very public inquiry. In the long term, Bridges will have been proven to have made the right decision, but for several months in which Jami-Lee Ross was exposed and cast out, National was fighting itself, not the easy target of Labour/NZ First.
Despite having 55 MPs, there is no greater evidence that National is a “shiver looking for a spine to crawl up” than the National party itself. It isn’t even necessary to compare National with the 1 MP dynamo that is the Act party (though I’m going to do it anyway), to drive this message to voters again and again. From 2014-2017, the number of partnership schools reached 12, despite the National Party ball-and-chain deadweight assistance. David Seymour proved how inadequate the Ministry of Education model is by finding sponsors to open an alternative educational model. National proved how inadequate the status quo is by running the status quo until the 2017 election campaign, when partnership schools became the greatest idea they’d never had.
The analysis of National’s voting record during the current term, in which the largest ‘opposition’ party has voted with the Government more often than it has voted against, is not as widely known as it should be. The most obvious examples are:
- The first round of gun reforms passed 119-1 in March 2019, following their collaboration with Labour to allow a change in the normal parliamentary procedures, leading to the sole opponent of the law changes to be outside of Parliament at the time he intended to object to rushing these changes through.
- The Poverty Reduction Bill, which uses nine different measures to determine child poverty levels, including several which are equity, not poverty, measures passing 119-1.
- The Zero Carbon Bill passed 119-1 despite National heavily criticising the content and promising significant changes to it should it be in the next Government.
In recent times, the Act spine has been shamelessly impersonated by the National shiver as Coronavirus, fiscal irresponsibility and economic storm clouds have shaped political news stories. National has impersonated Act’s call for replacing the Resource Management Act with a call to reform it, despite ignoring Act and United Future’s assistance to do that in the previous Parliament. National recently impersonated Act’s policy to improve the quality of regulatory legislation starting with a “bonfire” of 100 regulations in the first six months of government. Act has had a policy to do so since 2006, which National has largely disagreed to support for 14 years. Act released a proposal for a regulatory constitution in 2019, giving New Zealanders the ability to strike down poor legislation in court, which National is yet to support.
Recently Simon Bridges has opted for visibly opportunist rhetoric on changes to the Residential Tenancies Act, recently promising to reverse restrictions on landlords giving 90 days notice to end tenancies without giving a reason, comply with expensive minimum heating standards and cancel a newly proposed right for tenants to add new minor fittings to a house, though they won’t abolish the right for landlords to set rules on pets. This is a watered-down version of Act party proposals.
The minimum wage is scheduled to increase from $17.70 to $18.80 on April first, while the New Zealand economy faces a slowdown led in part by the impact of Coronavirus upon the tourism and export education industries. Act has called upon Labour to cancel this heavy burden upon small business. National has only echoed that call following Act.
Act’s criticisms of recently implemented employment legislation have also been replicated by Simon Bridges. Included in a list of 29 regulations released by Finance Spokesman Paul Goldsmith were:
- Scrapping the requirement that new employees be automatically covered by the provisions of a collective agreement for 30 days
- Employers can deduct wages of staff participating in partial strike action.
- Allow all employers to use 90 day trials when hiring new staff (something Act implemented over a decade ago).
- Restore “flexible” rest and meal breaks currently stipulated in Employment regulation.
For voters wanting to elect a genuinely centre-right government this year, a party vote for Act is the only tool they have to ensure a change from the status quo is more than cosmetic. Even when National copies or imitates Act, they rarely follow through on that imitation as their expansion of Working for Families (described as “communism by stealth” by John Key in opposition), failure to cancel interest-free student loans and superior management of Helen Clark’s legacy demonstrated.
David Seymour has done an incredible job in demonstrating just how much better value for vote Act MPs are than our friends in the National Party. David Seymour’s revolutionary reforms in the primary and secondary school sector were the biggest success since Tomorrow’s Schools and have only been reversed because National ensured they were too small to survive the predictable teacher union onslaught that accompanies a Labour government. In turning down a $50,000 pay rise and promotion to Cabinet, Seymour ensured his End of Life Choice bill stayed in the Members’ ballot and could be guided to an eventual referendum this year, which polls have repeatedly shown will pass by an overwhelming majority this year.
Seymour continues to be the solitary sensible voice in Parliament opposing new regulation on vaping products; the single biggest free-market solution to reducing smoking levels we have ever seen. Despite lifting the price for some packs of 20 cigarettes to over $35, annual taxation increases have long stopped making an impact on the number of daily smokers. Alternatively, vaping levels were 2.6% of the population in the most recent New Zealand Health Survey of 2017/18 and are widely expected to have grown when the 2018/19 survey is released. While Labour proposes bans on advertising this silver bullet solution to smoking and reducing access to flavours enjoyed by over 94% of vapers, National attacks the reforms as “taking too long.”
Freedom of Speech moved from being a non-issue to one which will define the 2020 election and it started with Act’s unflinching defense of free speech for all when “nuttier than squirrel-poo” provocateurs Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneaux visited New Zealand in 2018. National was happy to voice support for free speech when Don Brash faced dubious de-platforming, but unlike Act, spoke in favour of blocking those with unpopular views when Chelsea Manning and Clementine “All Men Must Die” Ford also visited New Zealand.
On Tuesday, the one-MP Act band scored another victory for free speech as numerous Supplementary Order Papers were proposed and voted upon during the final Committee of the Whole House process that precedes the Third Reading of the Abortion Legislation Bill. David Seymour has faced criticism for his support of the bill which removes abortion from the Crimes Act, partially due to a clause which establishes 150 metre “safe zones” in which the Ministry of Health can apply to exclude protestors from opposing abortion. Seymour has opposed the safe-zones saying “People that want to start banning speech in a particular area for, I agree a noble purpose, should think very carefully about the precedent that it sets.”
A vote on his amendment to remove the establishment of safe-zones was narrowly beaten 59-56, however a second part of his amendment on the process establishing and making them function passed the voice vote, in which MPs vote by saying “aye” or “no”, after no MP voice a call for conscience votes to be subsequently voted. While this dangerous threat to free speech survives in the abortion bill, the ability to implent and govern them has been deleted in the biggest victory for free speech in recent memory.
New Zealand First is unlikely to survive the 2020 election; though they have survived predictions of demise in every MMP election except 2008, so it would be naive to be complacent. Should they fail to survive 2020, then it is very likely that the next Parliament will feature just National, Labour, Act and the Greens should the Maori party strategy to win a racial electorate fail. A party vote for National in 2017 elected lightweight List MPs Maureen “f***ing useless” Pugh and Nuk Korako but could have been used to elect Act’s 2nd and 3rd ranked Beth Houlbrooke and Brooke van Velden. That would have been an undeniable improvement to the parliamentary opposition.
Even when National says what Act says, they cannot be relied upon to do what Act does. To make a change in government worthwhile this year, the most powerful party vote to cast will be a party vote for Act.