Week in Review

Jacinda vs Simon: Round 1 of election year

Jacinda Ardern and Simon Bridges faced off for the first time in election year yesterday, with duelling lists of achievement and failure, writes Tim Murphy

Jacinda Ardern gave her annual Prime Minister's Statement to Parliament yesterday. Simon Bridges told her it would be her last.

The pair had 20 minutes each, followed by the leaders of the minor parties, to set out their plans and path to power in September. Both are relatively new leaders. Ardern was interrupted by Speaker Trevor Mallard at the beginning to get the wording right in moving her motion on her statement to the House. Bridges received a blunt ticking off for failing to hand over his speech and his amendment to the Clerk at the end of his speech - as "any competent member" knew to do.

Ardern's statement was the expected long list of things her Government has achieved in its 27 months. Governments get to do things, so a list inevitably builds up. "What are you doing next?", she asked, recalling a question to her two weeks ago from the late Labour leader Mike Moore. The answer: "More".

Bridges, as the New Zealand First leader Winston Peters later pointed out, took 17 of his 20 minutes to get to National's plan. Before that it was National's list of where the Labour-led coalition had failed.

Neither seemed on top of their game. Ardern borrowed a chunk of her opening lines from an old Biblical riff by her deputy Kelvin Davis about there now being light after nine long years of blue-tinged darkness. It was funny the first time.

And she held up two charts - one a stark blue and red graph showing National's underspend and Labour's large investment in infrastructure over the past decade. (Bridges claimed it was 'based on Treasury' but manipulated by Labour to make it look good).

The other chart, however, was a mystery. On the livestream of Parliament, and plainly to the Opposition across the aisle, the pale red paper she waved appeared blank. When she folded it and placed it down, Peters opened and closed it again looking none the wiser.

Bridges couldn't help himself in using an apparently empty chart as a metaphor for a government of non-delivery, of style over substance. "Say black is white and white is black and hold up a graph that's blank and red and supposedly means something," he taunted. (Update: Ardern later posted the graph on social media pointing out it was covered in 4258 red dots represented public housing places Labour claims to have delivered).

Ardern with the mystery red chart. Photo: Parliament TV screenshot

Ardern, swivelling from looking at the Speaker to seeking affirmation from her Cabinet and back-bench, came up with new names for her administration: "We are the Government of infrastructure. We are the Government of housing, we're the Government of family and child wellbeing, of health and mental health, and the Government for the environment. We are a Government of progress.

"There is more to do. After nine years in blue smoke and darkness, there is plenty more to do, but this year is the chance for New Zealanders to have their say in making sure we as a Government continue to get the job done."

The two speeches duelled over the cost of living. Ardern said she was happy to talk about dropping NCEA fees, ending schools' demands for donations, cutting costs for doctors' visits, increasing housing supply and acting on the market failure in the price of fuel. Changes to benefit indexation and the minimum wage over the term would mean people affected would be $126 a week better off.

Bridges had his own list: "The cost of living, I repeat, is going through the roof, whether it's $2600 that median rent has gone up a year under this Government—$55 a week—and this Prime Minister over here talks about eighty-something dollars a week more. Well, most of it's gone in rent. Petrol is $200 more a year just in the additional tax that's been put on for a typical person."

Ardern was most forceful, fired up and looked directly at Bridges and the National benches when talking about housing. "That side of the House has nothing but a foundation of shame when it comes to housing. Homelessness rates at the worst levels we've seen in the OECD and homeownership the worst since 1951....  I understand why you're a little defensive, because we're fixing what you broke, and you broke our housing market, and you stood idly by while people lived on the streets."

She expressed pride in her Government's family package to address child poverty, in the 4 percent unemployment rate, in spending on mental health and the investment in school buildings, roads, public transport.

"Of course, underpinning all of this is the environment. None of this matters if we don't have a planet we can sustain ourselves on," Ardern said. But she'd saved the environment until the end and was running out of time. "We've had a list on climate change that is almost too long for me to read in one minute and 23 seconds—how about I have a quick go?"

The Zero Carbon Act, a deal with farmers over emissions, clean public buildings and multi-billion spends on public transport. "Next is waste, and next is fresh water. We have more to do."

The 'Year of Delivery' is so last year. But she ended with a phrase which will surely echo all election year. "We are a Government that gets the job done." 

Labour kept their heads down but his own caucus liked the Bridges show. Photo: Parliament TV screenshot

When Bridges' turn came he went immediately personal: "I can see the relief on Jacinda Ardern's face that that is going to be her last Prime Minister's Statement. And, actually, I'm not sure where the relief is more palpable: on her face or her caucus's."

And he attempted to grab the "gets things done" mantra. "After almost three years of dithering and experimenting and mismanaging the economy and failing to deliver on her promises, New Zealanders can finally see light at the end of the tunnel. Actually, they can't, because Labour cancelled it! But don't worry, because National gets things done, and we'll build it."

"We won't have to hear any more next year hollow statements from the Prime Minister. She's not going to have to stand up and make empty promises about building 100,000 KiwiBuild houses in 10 years and just hope for the best. And, by the way, did she mention KiwiBuild?"

His opening 17 minutes scorned Ardern's claims on infrastructure, on housing and on child welfare. Bridges' delivery still needs work. He gets easily diverted by interjections, his voice squeaks at times, he swallows words and names. But as the Government side, apart from Kelvin Davis and Ron Mark, studiously ignored him, his own team gave him face.

"Jacinda Ardern's Government will go down in history as a story of lost opportunities for New Zealanders, whether it will be no infrastructure projects starting anywhere in New Zealand... Not a single infrastructure project in her three years in Government—not light rail, not KiwiBuild, not roads, not nothing, and almost 30,000 people on the dole and seven out of nine child poverty indicators getting worse under this Government. And she has the temerity to start and say she's starting at the beginning because things were so bad."

In his final three minutes, a tease of what National offers: "New Zealanders know—like John Key did, like Bill English did, like I will—that we will deliver a stronger economy. We know in uncertain times what to do. We'll provide the tax relief that's required, and we've already started laying out that plan. We'll make sure there's less regulation for small businesses and we'll do the infrastructure that's required. That's the second part of this plan. We'll build some roads. We'll actually do this."

Those last words delivered without a hint of shame.

Part 2: the three minor party leaders' speeches

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