Week in Review

Our political metabolic rate is way, way too fast

No one comes out the Budget 2019 ‘hack’ with any credit, Bernard Hickey argues. The ‘scandal’ is symptomatic of an accelerating and more extremist form of politics in a social media-driven age of snap judgments and tribal barracking.

I thought we were all better than this until I realised I was not too much different.

It dawned on me at about 5.45 am on Budget morning that I had caught the Budget ‘hack’ fever. I was just as caught up as the next political reporter in the drama of ‘he said, he said’ and who was right and wrong, and who should resign.

The red mist of the blood sport of politics descended over my laptop in Newsroom’s windowless office in the Parliamentary Press Gallery even before the sun had risen. I bounced from one Treasury statement detailing the ‘hack’ to the latest calls from Simon Bridges for Grant Robertson and Gabriel Makhlouf to withdraw, apologise, resign and self-flagellate for telling ‘lies’ and smearing National in ‘the most contemptible moment in New Zealand politics.’

It all seemed very exciting and crucial and worthy of immediate publication at about 5.40 am. Quick, quick I thought. Let’s get this out before the others and be the amphitheatre of choice for this ‘fight to the death’ of the titans of Parliament and Government. At that moment, before I had had my morning porridge and quiet cup of coffee, this story seemed the most important in the world.

And then I turned on Radio New Zealand's First at 5 programme, expecting and wanting to hear the latest burp and fart in the saga.

Instead, I heard presenter Indira Stewart asking some year 13 students at Tamaki College in South Auckland about what they wanted from the Budget, and comments from the tuck shop lady Nanny Barb about the kids at the school arriving hungry and needing breakfast. Listen to it here.

It stopped me in my tracks.

Year 13 students Lu Faaui, Uili Tumanuvao, Sela Tukia, Francis Nimo and Efi Gaono thanked Nanny Barb for their meal. They talked about what they wanted from the Budget. They had been forced to move out of state houses in Glen Innes (Tamaki Regeneration Company) to South Auckland and their parents were working multiple jobs to pay for private rentals.

They were paying $40 a week to travel across Auckland each day to Tamaki College.

"Just like Sela said, it's forced us to move out of GI (Glen Innes) and yeah my family just decides to cope with it. It's made my Dad work even more hours. My mum gets two jobs, my sister gets two jobs. I mean, money is money you know," said Lu.

What they didn't care about

They didn't care about how an Opposition researcher had done 2,000 searches on a Treasury website to try to find Budget 2019 information four days ahead of its release.

Or that Simon Bridges had then recreated 22 pages of Budget information and released it to the public to highlight Treasury's IT system flaws and embarrass the Government. They didn't care or even know that the Treasury Secretary had jumped to the conclusion the information was 'hacked' and needed to be referred to the police.

Or that Grant Robertson had made the mistake of trusting Makhlouf and leapt to lash back at Bridges by suggesting illegal activity. Or that Bridges had then accused Robertson of lying and the Treasury of being incompetent, and that it was a deliberate smear and a threat to democracy.

They did not hear the Opposition Leader jump the shark by saying: "This is the most contemptible moment in New Zealand politics."

Really? Worse than Muldoon outing Colin Moyle? Or the Dirty Politics revelations? Or Jami-Lee Ross' allegations?

What the kids wanted

All those teenagers wanted was affordable and convenient housing and transport so they could easily go to school and their parents didn't have to work so hard.

I then took a moment and covered the news of the day in yesterday's email, determined to focus on the substance of the Budget.

Here's what I would have said to those Tamaki College kids.

The Wellbeing Budget included lots more spending on primary mental health care, rail network maintenance and a welcome indexation of benefits to wages, rather than prices. It started to focus on things like child poverty numbers, carbon emissions and suicide rates, but did little to solve their problems with housing and transport in Auckland.

I'd tell them there was very little new spending on housing. KiwiBuild was barely mentioned. The new rail lines in Auckland are still just an aspiration. I'd tell them the Government could borrow enough to start re-engineering their city to be more affordable, liveable and carbon neutral, but wasn't doing that because Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson made a promise two years ago not to borrow more than 20 percent of national income.

I'd say that's a bit like their parents earning a joint income of $100,000 a year and having debt of $20,000. And that the bank wanted to lend them the extra $20,000 they needed to build a new home and have affordable and carbon-neutral transport. That would lift their net debt to income ratio to 40 percent. And that the interest cost would be 1.7 percent per year, which would mean the extra interest costs for their parents earning $100,000 a year to afford that house and rail system would be $340 a year.

But that politicians generally and the public were so worried about that extra $20,000 in debt and what the financial markets might say that they weren't fixing Auckland's housing and transport crisis. Sorry about that.

This is how politics works now

If I had time and they were still interested in talking to me, I'd explain how politicians and the media operate now.

I'd show them my twitter feed and how news and commentary have ramped up into a blur of headlines, memes, click-bait, extreme views, abuse and a desperate game of trying to grab the attention of a distracted media and whip their own social media bubbles into a frenzy.

The best example of how this increased metabolic rate of politics has warped the public debate is to point to what has happened in America and Europe, where increasingly polarised politicians shout at each other from their own bubbles of supporters and nothing changes. Meanwhile, other forces keep screwing the scrum of democracy to further their own interests

The end result is a disengaged public, policy paralysis, a lot of noise and not much light

I understand how it happened and I've been living in it now for a decade. A political firmament driven by social media, sound bites, cheap shots and one-day-wonder stories is not going to solve the problems of South Auckland or Tamaki.

Everyone should take a chill pill, stop jumping to conclusions for a quick political hit and instead think beyond the beltway to the real world and long term concerns of citizens.

Like those three kids at Tamaki College.

Budget 2019: Read more

A budget of knotty contradictions

Real Budget delivered under ‘hack’ shadow

Pin the tail on the donkey with gun buyback costs

Rod Oram: Long on rhetoric, short on transformational funding

What the Wellbeing Budget should have said

Kids in schools? How the Budget will affect you

Mental health gets long-overdue cash injection

Transport spend-up, housing flat

Rail infrastructure gets a boost

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