Moving targets

National used yesterday’s question time to attempt to get clarification on the government’s targets for housing and spending.

The answers weren’t helpful:

1. Rt Hon BILL ENGLISH (Leader of the Opposition) to the Prime Minister: What will the specific measurable targets be, if any, that she will use to hold her Government to account?
Hon KELVIN DAVIS (Acting Prime Minister): As Prime Minister, I will hold my Ministers to account for improving the well-being and living standards of New Zealanders.
Rt Hon Bill English: What is the appropriate measure—[Interruption] 
Mr SPEAKER: Order! Sorry, I’m just going to start right now. Who is the member who interjected then? Right, there’s an additional question to the Opposition.
Rt Hon Bill English: What is the appropriate measure we should follow to monitor progress on KiwiBuild where the Government has committed to build 100,000 houses over the next 10 years?
Hon KELVIN DAVIS: We will make decisions on appropriate targets in due course.
Rt Hon Bill English: So does that mean that the current expression of the Government’s commitment, which is “to build 100,000 houses over the next 10 years” does not necessarily mean what most people would take it to mean?
Hon KELVIN DAVIS: We will make and confirm decisions on appropriate targets in due course.
Rt Hon Bill English: Does the Government stand by—[Interruption] 
Mr SPEAKER: Order! The chief Government whip, I think, interjected, or someone around her did. There is a further supplementary to the Opposition.
Rt Hon Bill English: Does the Prime Minister stand by her Government’s commitment to “build 100,000 houses over the next 10 years”?
Hon KELVIN DAVIS: We will make and confirm decisions on appropriate targets in due course.
Rt Hon Bill English: Why did the Government commit to “build 100,000 houses over the next 10 years” if it is now not willing to re-express that commitment in this House?
Hon KELVIN DAVIS: Because the previous Government didn’t build houses.
Rt Hon Bill English: Is it possible that the Government is revising this commitment because of public statements made by the Minister of Housing and Urban Development, that the commitment may involve not building houses but buying existing houses?
Hon KELVIN DAVIS: No. 
Rt Hon Bill English: What other reason could there possibly be for not being willing to restate a commitment made by all its members right though the election campaign to “build 100,000 houses”? What other reason could there be not to make that commitment here today? 
Hon KELVIN DAVIS: We are not revising targets. We will make and confirm decisions on appropriate targets in due course.
Rt Hon Bill English: So is the commitment to build 100,000 houses an appropriate target, or one that is subject to revision or further decisions, or is it one that we should take at its word? 
Hon KELVIN DAVIS: The member will find out in due course. . . 

That sounds like the answer is if there’s a target it’s a movable one.

Hon Michael Woodhouse: Who is correct: the Minister of Housing and Urban Development, who says that there is a fixed commitment to build 100,000 extra houses, or the Prime Minister, who says such a target has not yet been set?
Hon PHIL TWYFORD: Both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Housing and Urban Development have reiterated our policy, which is to build 100,000 affordable homes to restore affordable homeownership to this country. . . 

That’s the policy but what’s the target?

The Reserve Bank also questions the number of houses that will be built:

The Government has announced an intention to build 100,000 houses
in the next decade. Our working assumption is that the programme
gradually scales up over time to a pace of 10,000 houses per year by
the end of the projection horizon. Given existing pressure on resources
in the construction sector, the aggregate boost to construction activity
from this policy will depend on how resources are allocated across public
and private sector activities. The Government intends to introduce a
‘KiwiBuild visa’ to support the supply of labour to high-need construction related
trades. While accompanying policy initiatives may alleviate
capacity constraints to some extent, our working assumption is that
around half of the proposed increase will be offset by a reduction in
private sector activity.

It could be the new house target is a movable one because there’s more than a little doubt about the finances:

3. Hon STEVEN JOYCE (National) to the Minister of Finance: Can he confirm it is his intention as Minister of Finance to ensure core Crown expenses do not exceed $81.9 billion in 2017/18, $86.1 billion in 2018/19, $88.2 billion in 2019/20, $91.8 billion in 2020/21, and $96.1 billion in 2021/22, as specified in the Labour Party’s pre-election Fiscal Plan?
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON (Minister of Finance): I can confirm that it is my intention for core Crown expenditure as a percentage of GDP to be within the recent historical range. As to the exact figures in the member’s question, I cannot confirm those as, of course, they are subject to detailed Budget decisions and revenue forecasts that are yet to be finalised.
Hon Steven Joyce: Can he confirm that he stands by his statement from 4 September this year, and I quote, “Labour’s Fiscal Plan is robust, the numbers are correct and we stand by them”?
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: I can confirm that the Budget that this Government is putting together will be robust and it will deliver on a commitment that this Government has made to ensure that all New Zealanders share in prosperity.
Michael Wood: What else, in addition to managing core Crown expenditure, will guide the Government’s approach to responsible fiscal management?
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: The Government will observe the Budget responsibility rules as indicated in the Speech from the Throne: namely, delivering a sustainable operating balance before gains and losses; reducing net core Crown debt to 20 percent of GDP within 5 years; and ensuring a fair and balanced progressive taxation system. We will also never forget that the purpose of a strong economy is to give every New Zealander the chance to share in prosperity, and we will never be satisfied while children live in poverty or families sleep in cars.
Hon Steven Joyce: Does he stand by his statement also on 4 September, and I quote, that “Our operating expenses are above the line and are clearly stated.”?
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: The Budget that this Government will prepare will be clear about what we are spending and where the revenue for that is coming from.
Hon Steven Joyce: So that’s a no. Can I also ask: does he stand by his statement, and I quote, “We have quite clearly put in the spending requirements to meet the promises we have made. Our fiscal plan adds up. We are absolutely clear that we have the money to meet the commitments that we’ve made.”, also on 4 September?
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: The Government will prepare a Budget that shows how we will pay for the important commitments that we have made to ensure that every New Zealander benefits from economic prosperity.
Hon Steven Joyce: Can the Minister of Finance then confirm that it is not his intention to necessarily ensure core Crown expenditure does not exceed $81.9 billion this current financial year, $86.1 billion in the next financial year, $88.2 billion in 2019-20, $91.8 billion in 2020-21, and $96.1 billion in 2021-22? Can he confirm that’s not his intention, even though it was specified in the Labour Party’s pre-election fiscal plan?
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: I can confirm that we will keep Government expenditure as a percentage of GDP in line with the historical range.
Hon Steven Joyce: Can the finance Minister then confirm that he doesn’t at all stand by the numbers he presented in the Labour Party’s fiscal plan prior to the election?
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: The Government is currently going through the usual process of putting together a Budget. We are absolutely confident that we will deliver a Budget that is in line with the Budget responsibility rules that were outlined in the Speech from the Throne and that will deliver to New Zealanders a fair share in prosperity. As I said in my primary answer, the final numbers are the subject of the normal Budget process. . . 

Hon Steven Joyce: Is he saying that the actual numbers written on the Labour Party’s fiscal plan prior to this election, which he and his colleagues defended vigorously during the election campaign, are no longer relevant? The comments he has made suggest that he will put whatever numbers he likes in front of the public in due course in the next Budget.
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: I have been absolutely clear that the commitment that we have made is that Government expenditure as a percentage of GDP will remain in line with the long-run historical trend. Members on the other side of the House well know that we will now be looking at new revenue forecasts and, indeed, new growth forecasts. They will determine the exact numbers that are presented. But we are very clear on this side of the House: our number add up. . . 

Hon Steven Joyce: Has he noted how often the Reserve Bank mentioned policy uncertainty in their Monetary Policy Statement this morning, and has he considered how his statements in the House this afternoon and his responses to questions will not help with that policy uncertainty when the Reserve Bank was obviously placing some credence on his previous statements about Government expenditure and now he is not even standing by those?
Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: The Reserve Bank Governor noted today that his thinking was preliminary, and, just like the member opposite, when the Half Yearly Economic and Fiscal Update and Budget Policy Statement are released before the end of the year, there will be significant certainty about our spending plans. If the member can’t wait, I’ll make up a special advent calendar for him so that he can count down to the half yearly update.

In opposition you might be able to get away with vagueness, but governments need to be much clearer on its spending plans so that public institutions like Treasury and the Reserve Bank have sufficient information to perform their roles effectively.

“This morning’s Monetary Policy Statement from the Reserve Bank makes numerous mentions of domestic policy uncertainty including ‘uncertainty around tax policy’, uncertainty around the ‘future impact of these policy changes’ and ‘heightened uncertainty regarding the domestic outlook,” Mr Joyce says.

“While the Bank is taking a steady as she goes approach at this point, it is clear that their economic forecasting is affected by a lack of clarity from the new Government as to their fiscal and economic plans.

“This is not a surprise as we are all still yet to see the figures underpinning the coalition agreement between Labour and New Zealand First, which was signed over two weeks ago, and we are all still yet to see the Government’s mythical final 100 Day Plan.

“Yesterday’s Speech from the Throne contained 51 new spending commitments, which will put significant pressure on the Government’s spending track and net debt.

“The first Bill In Parliament this week seeks to legislate for $325 million of extra spending, without any reference to how this fits in to the government’s wider spending plan.

“The public will rightly be concerned that the large number of spending promises they have heard about could sacrifice New Zealand’s hard work to get back into surplus and start paying down debt.

“The irony is that in recent years all the economic risks have been offshore. Now just as the world economic outlook is strengthening, all the risk and uncertainty is being generated domestically by the economic opaqueness of the new Government.

“It is time for the Government to be much more transparent and start releasing more details of their fiscal plans.”

It’s possible they haven’t got any fixed ones, like their housing target they’re movable.

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