Grading the Government

They say a week is a long time in politics, but how about six months?

That depends greatly, if you’re the Government, on what you’re delivering.

It wasn’t that long ago when a beaming Jacinda Ardern sat next to New Zealand First leader Winston Peters as they both inked a coalition agreement that would dramatically change New Zealand’s political landscape.

Many wondered what would be in store for the country. Would there be radical policy shifts as promised? How would the gruff old man in Peters mesh with his young, female boss?

Cliches galore generally peppered those analysis pieces, so why stop - the first half-year really has been a game of two halves.

For several months, the Government was untouchable.

The Prime Minister’s popularity partnered with the shininess of something new meant the public, and media, were generally happy with the ‘give us time’ approach.

National, with most of its MPs in opposition for the first time, found little traction for its criticism.

That invulnerability cracked for the first time in February, however, when Newsroom broke the story about sexual abuse allegations at a Labour youth camp.

Putting the seriousness of the actual event aside, poor political management saw the Prime Minister caught out when asked at her weekly post-cabinet press conference.

For the first time, she looked uncertain and it was followed in rapid succession by a string of unfortunate events.

Shane Jones went rogue, lambasting Air New Zealand for deserting the regions while her deputy Winston Peters continued to talk up Russia. Soon after, Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran was caught up in a murky web regarding her dealings with an RNZ executive.

While difficult and distracting, such political machinations are unlikely to register deeply with most voters.

It will be six months tomorrow since the Ardern administration was sworn in. Voters want to know what the Government is doing for them. Are they delivering on their promises?

Newsroom’s political reporters were happy to oblige.

Economy - B

The Government inherited an unhappy and unsettled business community after almost four weeks of negotiations and a surprise ending. Business confidence slumped through the December quarter, but reassuring noises about the 90-day trial, the positive outlook for lower wage consumers and the lack of immediate migration restrictions calmed nerves. Business confidence recovered and the economy has kept cantering along, thanks to plenty of reassurances about family incomes, minimum wages and few signs of any inflation or interest rate threats. GDP growth is on track for around three percent in 2018 and positive signs for businesses’ own activities have kept the economy on an even keel - Bernard Hickey

Budget - B

The Government inherited a Budget and an economy benefiting from strong income tax and GST receipts. The surplus is running around half a billion dollars ahead of the Government’s December forecasts. It delivered on its 100-day plans for a ‘mini-Budget’ that included its new families package and unravelled National’s planned income tax cut. But it also uncovered through the 2018 Budget round that it had inherited health and education budgets stretched by years of restrained capital spending and very fast population growth. The Government has found its hands tied by its own pre-election commitment to run budget surpluses and reduce debt to 20 percent of GDP within five years. It is having to find ways around the artificial target, including putting up fuel taxes and looking for funding partners for its big transport projects - Bernard Hickey

Open government and transparency - F

Perhaps its biggest failure. Promising to be the most open and transparent government ever, the coalition has instead stumbled repeatedly over its own good intentions. Just five weeks in it found itself defending its right to withhold a crucial governing document while the Prime Minister’s plans to proactively release cabinet papers and briefings had been pushed to the side. The Official Information Act continues to be treated with disdain, with many journalists holding the opinion that their requests are taking longer, and returning poorer results, than under National who was not exactly known for its transparency. Meanwhile, the minister tasked with opening up the Government to greater transparency found herself mired in a murky case of secret coffee meetings and mysterious voicemails while the Labour Party couldn’t even be open with its own leader when news of sexual assault at a youth camp broke. Soon after the Government was formed I wrote that despite all the promises, things were unlikely to change. Of course, I hoped I would be wrong but all signs point in the other direction - Shane Cowlishaw 

Immigration - D

Is this the coalition’s most over-promised and under-delivered policy area? The annual net migration numbers remain close to those assailed in opposition as disastrous and uncontrolled. The supposed low-hanging fruit of low-value international education courses and their student work visas have largely remained in place while sober officials work out how the vast sums of money in threatened revenues might be replaced. High demand for workers in agriculture and other sectors have given pause on a bold cut to occupational groups. New Zealanders continue to return to live here. It was never going to be easy to take 30,000 or so out of the 72,000 net migrants per year but it was too easy to make that promise - Tim Murphy

Foreign Affairs - C

One of the Government’s weakest areas so far. As some have already noted, it’s difficult to get a sense of Winston Peters’ guiding principles when it comes to New Zealand’s foreign policy. His willingness to defend Russia over its reported involvement in the downing of an airliner and interference in foreign elections raised eyebrows at home and abroad, while a reluctance to condemn the country for the Skripal poisoning forced Ardern to come over the top with a harder line. The coalition agreement commitment to advance a free trade deal with Russia, odd at the time, offered further fodder to the opposition before it was put on ice. For her part, Ardern’s harder line on Australia has appeared to strain relations somewhat without any obvious benefit. Peters’ “Pacific reset” does appear a sensible plan to counter growing influence in the region from other actors (including China), while MFAT looks set for a (relative) windfall in next month’s Budget. But a bit of foreign policy coherence would go a long way - Sam Sachdeva

Trade - B

An early trade test for Ardern and company came in the form of the Trans Pacific Partnership, but political veteran David Parker managed enough concessions - including a workaround for the party’s promise of a foreign buyers' ban - to allow New Zealand to sign the deal and please Kiwi exporters without much protest at home. Parker has handled the portfolio largely well, while French President Emmanuel Macron’s backing for an EU trade deal during Ardern’s Europe visit is a welcome boost. The bizarre Russia FTA proposal is now off the table, although not before causing some damage (see above). Another cloud still remains in the form of Singaporean anger over being caught up in the foreign buyers' ban, with talk of a compromise during renegotiations seemingly yet to bear fruit. The launch of public consultation for a new, “progressive and inclusive” trade agenda offers little detail as yet, but is a sign of Parker’s determination to sidestep the public sentiment overseas which in part led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump - Sam Sachdeva

Environment - B

Water quality and climate change are two areas where the Government has a chance to show itself taking effective action. The trouble is that both issues are difficult to tackle without running up against New Zealand First’s desire to cocoon rural New Zealand from economic impacts. The Prime Minister made headlines across the world with the announcement there’d be no new oil and gas exploration permits, despite the fact exploration under existing permits may continue for another 50 years. A more substantial move was setting up an interim climate change commission (featuring former Environment Commissioner Jan Wright) to advise on the shape of a Zero Carbon Act to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Longer-term, it’s hard to see how the Government can meet that target without implementing some version of Labour’s pre-election policy of including farming in the ETS, but the decision on how to handle farming has been handed to the interim commission. On water, there’s been less firm progress, with the exception of ending cash subsidies for new irrigation schemes. The Government is yet to reveal how it will help regional councils achieve faster improvements in river and lake swimmability. David Parker’s preferred option of funding a clean-up with a royalty scheme for commercial water-users is off the table for now under the coalition deal. One area to watch is what comes out of nascent plans to protect the Maui’s dolphin. If ending oil and gas exploration was heavy on symbolism, losing a sub-species of dolphin on any government’s watch would be more symbolic, in a bad way - Eloise Gibson

Education - B+

Long an area of focus due to its union ties, education has so far been a mixed bag for the Government. Chris Hipkins is a capable minister, as indicated by his heavy portfolio load alongside a role as leader of the house. He also has years of experience in opposition as education spokesperson so has hit the ground running. While still early days, his ambitious plan to review and overhaul the entire school system should be applauded. A shake-up of the floundering institutes of technology and polytechnics is also overdue, but there has been scant detail of how issues such as a chronic teacher shortage will be addressed. Suggestions the introduction of a fees-free first year of tertiary education has had little impact on student enrolments will be worrying for the Government, as will the increasingly strident calls from its union friends for a pay increase. With little money to spend, the spectre of industrial action from expectant teachers lingers over the portfolio - Shane Cowlishaw

Health - B+

Heath is a high-stakes portfolio. Few areas of Government arouse such strong feelings in the hearts of voters, nearly all of whom will come in contact with the health system between now and the next election. Cock it up, like Jonathan Coleman, and the failure will kneecap your career. Do a decent job and it can be a ticket to the big time: Jenny Shipley, Helen Clark, Bill English, and David Cunliffe were all Health Ministers before they led their parties. The current minister, David Clark, has announced a slew of working groups, committees and inquiries. Most are worthwhile. The inquiry into disgraced Waikato DHB chief Nigel Murray needed to happen, while the inquiry into mental health and addiction is likewise long overdue. To be fair to Clark, the big stuff probably has to wait for the Budget. With an extra $8 billion in health spending promised over the next four years, expect some big announcements on Budget day, May 17 - Thomas Coughlan

Transport - B-

There’s a lot to like in the Government’s transport policy, but its announcement and delivery was badly bungled and left people either scratching their heads or seriously brassed off. Considering all modes of transport equally rather than privileging roads is the sort of sensible refresh that a change of Government often delivers. Roads will still get the lion’s share of funding — New Zealand is a nation of drivers, after all — but using rail and shipping to take heavy freight off the roads and public transport to reduce congestion should make many transport users happy. Well, it might have done, had the Government been slightly cleverer about announcing the increase in excise that will pay for the new policy. There’s a chance National’s Simon Bridges would have increased the excise by a similar amount, but that’s impossible to prove and no one but Phil Twyford believes that the extra excise in Auckland will mean the city pays for its own infrastructure. This misstep left voters south of the Bombay Hills resentfully wondering what Auckland had done to deserve even more investment attention at their expense - Thomas Coughlan

Political management - C+

In the grading system used for the NCEA, the coalition Government has scored an ‘achieved’: one-sixth of the way through its first term and the cabinet and wider executive are intact. No one from New Zealand First has had to be jettisoned, no Labour or Greens ministers stood down or inquired into. But that would be success from low expectations and the country deserves better than that. On too many subjects the governing parties or their ministers have been less-than-cohesive and seamless: the draft transport policy, the provincial $1 billion fund, Russia, oil and gas exploration, and sticking to budget rules over reducing debt. The first 100 days were the thrill of the new, the next 80 or so have burned some political capital. PM Jacinda Ardern drags her team up by avoiding over-reaction and remaining calm, if vexed by the failings of those in her ministry or party - Tim Murphy

First 100 Days - A

Sneaking in just two days before its self-imposed deadline, it’s hard to view the 100-day checklist of to-dos as anything but a resounding success. Labour announced the plan pre-election, then suddenly found itself having to deliver after making it into power. After some minor tweaks to accommodate its partner New Zealand First, new Ministers worked like beavers as the clock ticked down. A year of free tertiary education - check. Ban foreign home buyers - success despite claims it couldn’t be done. Boost the minimum wage - easy. How important was this first 100 days? In the scheme of things, not very. Some of those achievements may have been as simple as setting up a working group but to the public, it would have resounded strongly as a new government sticking to its promises - Shane Cowlishaw

Housing - B-

Labour had a clear plan to launch Kiwibuild, ban foreign buying of homes and extend the two-year bright-line test to five years. It struck it lucky early in its term with some unexpected advice allowing it to ban foreign buying without sabotaging its major free trade agreements. Labour also delivered on its promise to stop selling state houses and soften the harder edges of Housing New Zealand’s approach to tenants. It has also started the policy work for its new Housing Commission and the myriad transport and infrastructure funding decisions needed to unleash 100,000 affordable houses in 10 years. But details of the plan and laying of concrete remains short on the ground as the Government approaches the six-month mark. The Budget will reveal more of the capital commitments needed and new houses will need to be started later this year to win confidence that it can be delivered - Bernard Hickey

Families Package/child poverty - B

Axing National’s tax cuts in favour of a families package designed to lift children out of poverty was a key pre-election policy for Labour. The Prime Minister’s personal interest in child welfare heaped importance on its success, which is integral to the Government’s goals - 70,000 children lifted out of poverty within three years and the numbers halved in a decade. They are bold numbers, but in an unfortunate mistake they had to be revised after Treasury announced it had miscalculated. The finer points of the package itself have been met with a mixed response. A boost to Working for Families and the Accommodation Supplement, however modest, will be welcomed by those on lower incomes and the introduction of a new baby payment alongside an extension to paid parental leave is an easy win. More controversial is a winter energy payment to help people pay their heating bills. While beneficiaries can claim the payment, low income workers are excluded and will have to watch on as rich retirees pocket the cash - Shane Cowlishaw

Strong regions - B

The Provincial Growth Fund continues to surprise. Some of its investments - an expensive roundabout in Northland, the ‘Chardonnay Express’ in Gisborne, and the Cathedral restoration in Taranaki - seem to stretch the remit of provincial economic growth but the fund has yet to cause serious damage to Regional Development Minister Shane Jones’s reputation. Perhaps examples of spurious government spending in the main centres are so plentiful no one minds terribly if the regions get their fair share of the pork. Jones has made some marginal calls. His biggest slip-up was forgetting that bureaucrats had warned him off a waste-to-energy plant on the West Coast after one its shareholders, Gerard Gallagher, was referred to the Serious Fraud Office. The Minister commissioned a $350,000 feasibility study anyway. Admitting his mistake, Jones said, “I find there’s a connection between bureaucratic dross and political amnesia from time to time”. His verbal takedown of Air New Zealand is likely to be remembered positively by voters. Jones threatened the board of Air New Zealand after it withdrew its Auckland to Paraparaumu service. Though it smacks of inappropriate interference by a politician in a majority state-owned company, Jones was given the briefest dressing-down by the Prime Minister. Perhaps she knows New Zealand First’s appeal in the regions is central to her Government’s ongoing success - Thomas Coughlan

Workplace Relations - B-

Business confidence usually plummets when a Labour government takes over and this time was no exception. This pessimism has yet to blow over, with uneasiness over more substantial industrial relations legislation currently being developed. In its first tranche of employment law announcements in January, Minister Iain Lees-Galloway surprised many by softening, rather than abolishing, the often-criticised 90-day trial periods. Making them available only to businesses with fewer than 20 staff meant the majority of employers could continue using them. In other moves, a coalition concession means the minimum wage will rise rapidly to $20 by 2020, while an inquiry into migrant abuse looks set to be announced soon. But generating the most talk are plans to introduce Fair Pay Agreements. These would see wage negotiations triggered in an industry once a certain percentage of employees called for one. Many on the right have described the idea as a throwback to the volatile national awards system and until the details are announced unease in the business community will continue to ferment - Shane Cowlishaw

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