Too much of a good thing

October 9, 2019

The government has posted a $7.5 billion surplus:

The Government has unveiled a bumper $7.5 billion surplus and the lowest debt levels in almost a decade, the latest Crown accounts reveal.

That level of Government surplus has not been seen since at least 2008, just before New Zealand felt the full effect of the global financial crisis. . . 

It’s taking all that money yet failing to deliver on its promises.

Surpluses are good, but $7.5 billion looks like too much of a good thing.

The government is either taking too much, spending too little, or both.

National’s Economic Development spokesman Todd McLay says:

“The Government should be looking to stimulate the economy by letting New Zealanders keep more of what they earn.

“Instead, it has piled on more and more taxes to the point where Grant Robertson is sitting on a big surplus while those living outside Wellington’s beltway struggle with rising living costs.

“One of the reasons debt is lower than forecast is because the Government is failing to invest in the infrastructure New Zealand needs.

“It has cancelled or delayed a dozen major new roading projects right across the country and replaced them with projects that weren’t ready, and won’t be ready for some time yet.

This isn’t just taking more tax and doing less with it. Stalling new roading work risks a loss of skilled people who will head overseas if there’s a gap between current projects finishing and new ones starting.

“Meanwhile, the Government has been piling on taxes. It has legislated to milk an extra $1.7 billion from motorists through fuel tax hikes and extra GST, while its misguided housing policies have pushed up rents and burdened landlords with extra costs and regulation.

“National legislated for tax relief that would have put more than $1000 a year extra into the back pockets of New Zealanders. This Government cancelled that. 

“We will index tax thresholds to inflation so that New Zealanders aren’t taxed more by stealth every year because of the rising cost of living.”

Sound economic management requires much more than creating surpluses.

The government must take enough, but not too much, and it must scrutinise all its decisions to ensure its spending effectively and prudently.

The large surplus suggests the government could be investing more in infrastructure and filling some of the gaping holes in the health system.

It also shows it is taking far more than it needs and it could be leaving us all with a little more of our own money by way of tax cuts.


3/5s of not very much

September 23, 2019

Steven Joyce gives the government some much-needed advice:

It was confirmed this week that New Zealand is now running at little more than half speed.

From growing at rates of 3½ to 4 per cent three years ago our economy at the end of June was only 2.1 per cent larger than it was the previous June.

That’s a problem firstly because our population is growing at about 1.6 per cent a year, so if our economy grows at 2 per cent then the amount of additional wellbeing per person (to coin a phrase) is three fifths of not very much.

Not very much is far less than we need for economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing.

The second problem is that our terms of trade (the prices of our exports versus our imports) are still very strong so we should still be cranking along. It’s a problem if we are slowing down when the world really wants to buy what we are selling. What happens if the world actually falls out of bed?

What happens is recession and maybe even depression.

The government has been quick to blame the world economy for our lower growth rate this week, but our terms of trade put the lie to that.

The third problem is that there is no sign of anything on the horizon that will lead to much of an upturn, and in fact all the signs are that we are going to slow further. Our businesses are in a funk because of what is known as regulatory overhang. In short, they are too fearful to invest because the government is making lots of rule changes that could mean they don’t get much of a return for the risk they take.

It’s not just farmers, other businesses are too scared to invest.

The government for its part seems inclined to shrug its shoulders and say “nothing to see here”. They observe we are still growing (slightly) faster than Australia so what’s the problem? That story is likely to change in the next six months as Australia’s tax cuts come through and their housing market picks up. Anyway weren’t we trying to grow a lot faster than Australia so we could close the income gap with our cousins across the Tasman – what happened to that ambition?

This government has no ambition for growth, only for regulate, tax and spend.

The fourth problem is that lower growth means less to go around. If we were still growing as fast as we were then in real terms our economy would be around $5 billion bigger this year than it is. That means more money for higher pay and more jobs, and of course about 30 per cent of it goes into the government coffers – which would pay for a lot more cancer drugs, teachers or electric vehicle subsidies.

How hard is it to join the dots between higher growth and more for essential services and infrastructure?

So what to do? Well if I could offer some gratuitous advice to the Finance Minister I think he should be working on baking a bigger cake, and I think the recipe is pretty straightforward. Its time to rein in some of his ministerial colleagues who are wreaking havoc with business confidence.

For example he should suggest the Minister of Immigration sort out his portfolio so that horticulturists can find seasonal workers and the international education sector can get up off its knees. He should tell the Minister for the Environment to come up with a more reasonable plan for water quality improvements and methane emissions reductions so farmers step back from the cliff edge, and the Minister of Education to stop stuffing about with the apprenticeship system.

He should encourage the Reserve Bank Governor to be less heroic on bank capital requirements, persuade his colleagues to do a backtrack on gas exploration now it is proven the ban is simply value destroying and does nothing for climate change, overrule the Greens to permit some gold mining, and stop taxing tourists more so the tourism sector starts growing again. He should cancel the return to industry-wide pay bargaining given that NZ First are never going to vote for it anyway, tell the Transport Minister to get on with building at least some of the stalled roading projects, particularly given that light rail is years away, and reverse at least one of the petrol tax increases.

Then he could watch the economy recover and start thinking about how he’s going to allocate the increased government revenues. And New Zealand will be in much better shape if the world economy does get worse. . .

He won’t of course and nor will he see that it’s the poor and the struggling middle that will be hurt the hardest by policies which hamper growth.


A question of competence

September 12, 2019

The resignation of Labour Party president Nigel Haworth could have put the lid on the controversy over serious allegations against a staff member in the Prime Minister’s office.

But it won’t when so many questions remain over the handling of the complaints which started the saga and the ongoing claims that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern didn’t know that the allegations were of sexual assault.

The Spinoff gives a timeline of the inquiry and Paula Bennett used yesterday’s general debate to  speak on it: (You can watch and listen to the speech here.)

The Prime Minister says she did not know there were sexual assault allegations against one of her staff members until Monday. I could go through the various media reports since 5 August and my own representation since being contacted by victims to show the inconsistencies in this, but they have already been well traversed in the last 24 hours.

If the allegations were serious enough to hire a QC, were they not serious enough for the PM to need, and want, to be fully informed?

Even if the allegations weren’t about sexual assault, surely they were serious enough for the PM to be fully informed about them?

Even if she wasn’t going to speak to the complainants, as she should have, surely allegations serious enough to warrant an investigation warranted someone senior talking to them and reporting back to her?

Back in 2016, Jacinda Ardern wrote an op-ed about the scandal surrounding the Chiefs rugby team. She said that a resignation is not enough: “It’s the PR quick fix—usher the source of the controversy away. But that solves nothing. After all, apologies followed by silence changes nothing, and change is what we need.”

The resignation today of Nigel Haworth cannot be, in the Prime Minister’s words, “the PR quick fix—usher the source of the controversy away.” Yes, Mr Haworth needed to go, and it should have happened weeks ago, but what is also known is that the Prime Minister’s own senior staff and a senior Minister have known the seriousness of the allegations but have not acted.

The complainants were members of the Labour Party. They genuinely believed that the party would listen to their complaints and deal with the alleged offender appropriately, but nothing happened. It clearly has taken an incredible sense of frustration, disappointment, and disillusion for these people to come to me, a National Party MP, to try and see their complaints addressed.

These are serious allegations. The Prime Minister cannot keep her head in the sand and pretend like it is happening somewhere far, far away. It is happening in her own office, in her own organisation. She is the leader of the Labour Party. The alleged perpetrator works in her leader’s office—he works for her.

Less than a year ago, the Prime Minister was in New York at the UN, trumpeting “Me too should be we too.” Well, who knew that that meant her own office was following the path well trod by all those companies who drew a curtain over sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour.

I have been told by the complainants that Jacinda Ardern’s former chief of staff Mike Munro knew about the allegations, her chief press secretary, Andrew Campbell, knew about the allegations, and the director of her leader’s office, Rob Salmond, knew about the allegations. I have been told by two victims who work in Parliament that they went to Rob Salmond around Christmas time and made a complaint about the alleged perpetrator.

That’s a lot of people who would normally report to the PM who purportedly didn’t on this very serious matter.

The Prime Minister has constantly said her office did not receive complaints and, in fact, encouraged the victims to speak to their line managers. They did. They have told me they went to Rob Salmond and nothing was done, and we are expected to believe that none of these men in her own office told the Prime Minister about the allegations—all of this in the aftermath of the Labour summer camp scandal, when the Prime Minister made it very clear she expected to have been told. And are we really expected to believe that she didn’t know that her chief press secretary, Andrew Campbell, embarked on a witch-hunt to try and find out who in the Beehive was talking to the media about the allegations? The complainants certainly felt hunted and scared that he was trying to shut them up and stop them from talking to the media—classic bullying of victims, and hardly a victim-led response.

A victim has told me that the alleged perpetrator has deep alliances to Grant Robertson, that he was involved in his campaign for the Labour Party leadership, and that Grant Robertson has known the seriousness of these allegations. It is unbelievable that he hasn’t discussed this with his close friend and his leader.

This all smacks of a cover-up. This goes straight to the top: to the Prime Minister, to senior Cabinet Ministers, and—

SPEAKER: Order! The member’s time has expired. . . 

Haworth’s time has expired, will anyone else follow?

This debacle does go to the top and at the top we have a woman whose brand is that of compassion, empathy and caring; one who we are expected to believe is a capable leader, who is, like Prime Ministers ought to be, is fully in control.

All of that is at very grave risk as a result of the mishandling of this situation and all the questions that remain over it.

One of those questions is that of competence: if the Prime Minister, her senior colleagues and staff can’t be trusted to run her office properly and safely, how can they be trusted to run the country?


Priorities

June 20, 2019

Last month’s Budget was supposed to be focussed on wellbeing, but some of its priorities suggest otherwise:

Hon Amy Adams: Why, when Budget 2019 allocated $15.2 billion of new operating spending over four years, couldn’t he find enough funding in the Budget to ensure that Pharmac’s funding at least kept pace with inflation?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: As has been traversed in the House last week, Pharmac did receive an increase in funding. In this Budget, in the health area, based on the evidence, mental health received a massive injection of funding after being neglected for many, many years. The overall health budget has received a significant increase. On this side of the House—as I said in answer to the last question—we can’t make up for nine years of neglect in one year or even two years, but we’re making a good start.

Hon Amy Adams: How can he say that he’s used “evidence and expert advice to tell us where we could make the greatest difference to the well-being of New Zealanders”, when the Government has chosen to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into fees-free tertiary at the expense of giving Pharmac enough money to keep pace with inflation?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: The premise of that member’s question is incorrect. Money that supports education, money that supports health, and money that supports housing are all part of the Budget; one is not at the expense of the other. What we’re doing is actually making up for the enormous under-investment of the previous Government.

Money spent in one area is not at the expense of money that can’t be spent in another?

It can only be spent once.

Even if you look at different categories, you can question priorities.

Extra resources for children who get to school without the necessary pre-learning skills and for those at school and failing are only two areas of much greater need, and that would make a far greater contribution to wellbeing, than fee-free tertiary education for all students, whether or not they need that assistance.

Hon Amy Adams: How does he think the refusal to even keep Pharmac funding in line with population growth has affected the well-being of New Zealanders like 14-year-old Stella Beswick, two-year-old Otis Porter, or Bella Guybay’s four-year-old daughter, who are all waiting desperately for the funding of lifesaving medicines that are funded in almost every other OECD country?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: As the member well knows, and as with the time she was in Government, Pharmac make those decisions. We now spend nearly a billion dollars on the Pharmac budget, and we will continue to invest in that. But we will also continue to invest in the areas which the last Government completely ignored—such as mental health—because that is what New Zealanders asked us to do.

Hon Amy Adams: How does he respond, then, to Troy Elliott, whose wife is suffering from serious breast cancer, and has said that New Zealand’s medicines funding is starting to make us look like a Third World country and that “this Government has to wake up; we’re going backwards.”?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: I understand that for any family that is going through a situation where they have a family member with cancer, that is traumatic. What we know in this country is that Pharmac makes the decisions about what drugs it invests in. . . 

Pharmac makes the decisions but the government allocates the funds which determine how much, or little, it can do.

Health inflation is many times greater than general inflation and this year’s Budget funding for Pharmac isn’t even keeping up with general inflation.

 

 

 


Budget inquiry must be widened

June 4, 2019

The National Party is calling for the Budget inquiry to be widened:

The Prime Minister must be open and transparent about what questions she has asked her Finance Minister since spurious allegations were made that National acquired Budget documents through criminal activity, Deputy Leader of the Opposition Paula Bennett says.

National has written to State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes requesting the SSC widen its Budget investigation into Treasury and its Secretary to address a number of serious questions about the behaviour of both the department and the Finance Minister.

“The GCSB’s National Cyber Security Centre has said publically that it told Treasury its computer system was not compromised, yet both Gabriel Makhlouf and Grant Robertson chose to issue statements implying National carried out a ‘systematic hack’,” Ms Bennett says.

“Among the many questions that still need answering is what information Treasury and the Finance Minister had at their disposal before they issued those statements.

“The SSC inquiry should also include a complete review of all communications between the Finance Minister’s office and the Prime Minister’s office under the ‘no surprises’ approach.

“It took 36 hours for Treasury to come clean that it was sitting on a lie, and the Prime Minister needs to explain why she allowed her Government to mislead the public for so long.

“Did she and Grant Robertson ask the right questions of Gabriel Makhlouf, or did they take a ‘see no evil, speak no evil’ approach to all of this?

“It is concerning that even after Treasury admitted the Budget information was obtained without any hacking, its statement failed to offer an apology or take responsibility, and continued to disparage the Opposition in an entirely inappropriate way. . . 

John Armstrong isn’t waiting for an investigation he’s calling for resignations:

The chief executive of the Treasury, Gabriel Makhlouf, must resign.

It might have been Budget Day, thereby making his departure hugely inopportune for the Labour-led Government. That’s just tough. Makhlouf has to go. And forthwith. His exit on the most important date in the Treasury’s calendar may have piled humiliation on embarrassment.

It left Grant Robertson’s shiny new wellbeing budget feeling somewhat sick on its first public appearance. That’s just too bad. Makhlouf has to go. He has no choice in the matter. . .

He has to go — and for two simple reasons. Budget secrecy is sacrosanct; Budget secrecy is paramount. That is the bottom-line. It is non-negotiable. Any breach is sufficient grounds alone for heads to roll.

In Makhlouf’s case, there is another factor which should have sealed his fate — competence.

The ease with which National extracted Budget-connected information from the very heart of the (usually) most infallible branch of the Wellington bureaucracy demonstrated the shocking inadequacy of the Treasury’s cyber security.

It seems it is no exaggeration to say that the protections currently in place to guard that information have been at best lax and at worst non-existent. . . .

On top of that, the department’s handling of the aftermath of the breach of security raised further questions of competence.

The rapidity with which Makhlouf referred matters to the police following the hacking which soon enough turned out not to be hacking conveyed the impression that he believed National was responsible.

Although he endeavoured to avoid making that insinuation, in process, he veered dangerously close to soiling the Treasury’s neutrality.
While he might well be as neutral as he ever was, he is no longer seen as neutral. That is unacceptable. . . .

But this isn’t the only resignation Armstrong thinks should happen:

Should Robertson also be tending his resignation as a Cabinet minister or be sacked by the Prime Minister? The answer is an emphatic “yes”.

A breach of Budget secrecy — especially one of this week’s magnitude — is something so serious that resignation is mandatory.The applicability of ministerial responsibility demands nothing less. But it ain’t going to happen.

Robertson is exempt from having to fall on his sword. That exemption is by Labour Party decree. He is just too darned valuable.

Both he and the Prime Minister have made it very clear that they will move mountains to ensure Robertson emerges from this episode as untarnished as possible by placing responsibility for the breach fairly and squarely in the Treasury’s lap. . .

It’s been fascinating following commentary from the left which is trying to paint Simon Bridges as the wrong-doer in the botched Budget saga.

While we are mentioning Bridges, let’s deal with the bogus claims of his critics that his accessing of Budget documents was unethical, even if it was not unlawful. That is nonsense. Since the dawn of time, it has been incumbent on Opposition parties that they expose faults and failings in the policies and procedures adopted by the government of the day.

In revealing that the Treasury’s notion of what passes for Budget secrecy is screamingly flawed, Bridges has acted in the public interest.

Can his critics in Labour’s ranks put their hands on their hearts and affirm they would do things differently if they faced the same circumstances in Opposition? Of course not.

Bridges has simply been doing his job. On this week’s form, it is conceivable that he is going to be doing it a lot longer than both friend and foe have been predicting.

The machinations may be of little interest to any but political tragics but the botched Budget provided the Leader of the Opposition with an opportunity to shine in a week when the spotlight ought to have been on the Finance Minister and his leader, and shine he did.


Just when you think it can’t get worse

May 30, 2019

Treasury allowing Budget information to be found from a simple search on its own website was bad enough.

Calling it hacking and involving the police without properly investigating first was worse.

And just when the organisation ought to be showing it’s learned a lesson and taking extra care it does the opposite:

. . . 10:30am – In a major blunder, Treasury staff mistakenly handed out copies of the budget to journalists and political commentators.

Newshub’s Political Editor Tova O’Brien tweeted that she was given one of the top secret documents. When the recipients questioned whether they were supposed to see them before going into the lock-up, she says an official asked “Are you not Treasury?” before hurriedly taking the copies back. . . 

It’s a simple human error but given the lead-up it shouldn’t have happened.

So will heads roll?

Treasury bungled badly and Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Winston Peters made baseless accusations against Simon Bridges.

Will there be resignations or even apologies?

Don’t hold your breath.


There are three kinds of people in the world . . .

May 24, 2019

There are three kinds of people in the world, those who can count and those who can’t . . .

It’s more than a little concerning that this exchange in parliament on Wednesday shows the Minister of Finance appears to be in the second group.

. . .Hon Paul Goldsmith: To the nearest billion dollars, what is an additional 1 percent GDP growth worth to New Zealand?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: I believe it’s about $800 million.

Hon Paul Goldsmith: $800 million?

Hon GRANT ROBERTSON: About that.

Hon Paul Goldsmith: Does he think that the people of New Zealand would expect their Minister of Finance to know that 1 percent of GDP is about $3 billion and that’s the amount of money that we’ve missed out on given the sharp decline in growth in the past year? . . .

Even those who struggle with numbers would recognise that there is a significant difference between $800 million and $3 billion.

We should also be concerned that the Minister has conceded defeat on Budget responsibility rules:

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has today thrown in the towel by scrapping his self-imposed debt target, National’s Finance Spokesperson Amy Adams says.

“Grant Robertson has been backed into a corner by allowing the economy to slow, over promising and making poor spending choices. Now, instead of a fixed target Grant Robertson has lifted the debt limit by 5 per cent. That loosens the purse strings by tens of billions of dollars.

“This is a blunt admission the Government can’t manage the books properly, it is not wriggle-room. This makes the fiscal hole look like a puddle.

“You can almost guarantee that means debt at the upper end of the range of 25 per cent. This is an admission of defeat from a Finance Minister who has repeatedly used these rules to give himself the appearance of being fiscally responsible.

“This decision will mean billions of dollars more debt because the Government can’t manage the books properly and wants to spend up on big wasteful promises in election year.

“This will pay for things like Shane Jones’ slush fund, fees-free tertiary and KiwiBuild – in other words, it’s wasteful spending.

“Debt isn’t free. It will have to be paid for by higher taxes in the future. . . 

The economy is slowing and its poor policies are, at least in part, responsible for that.

Reducing wasteful spending should come before more borrowing.

If the government had concentrated on value for money, measured success by the quality of its spending rather than the quantity and enacted policies which promoted growth it wouldn’t have to even contemplate more debt.


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