Coalition Grinds Out First Six Months

Published: Thu 6 Jun 2024 08:23 AM
Last week’s Budget marks the final stage of the political transformation that began with the election and the change of government. Until now, the coalition government had been working on the budget set by the previous government for the 2023/24 Budget. That is why so much of the new government’s activity has focused on the obliteration of the previous government’s record and reputation.
From now on, however, the government will be operating on its own Budget settings, so its attention should likely shift from dismantling what Labour did to putting in place the coalition’s alternatives. The Budget’s income tax changes signal a shift towards greater self-reliance. Recent policy announcements in education and housing, controversial though they may be, reflect a shift in emphasis away from what happened before to what the government intends for the future.
But the government’s appalling handling of the cancer medicines funding question in the Budget, coming on top of the earlier fiasco over smokefree legislation, will raise questions about its capability to effectively manage difficult political situations and to deliver effectively its policy outcomes. Its tin-ear approach to public sector redundancies reinforces those questions.
Therefore, the government will need to get on top of both these situations in the next few months, to restore its currently teetering credibility. Failure to do so soon, will simply spill over into wider doubts about its capabilities in other areas, to the potential detriment of the attainment of its wider goals.
There have, however, been some positives for the government. On the international front, both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, along with the Minister of Defence have been busy shoring up traditional relationships, and trying to move on from the ambivalence that has been clouding such relationships in recent years. While the “New Zealand is open for business again” message they have been conveying has ruffled a few feathers at home, it does appear to have been positively received on the international front.
Nevertheless, much work remains to be done in this field, with the still-to-be-resolved question of whether New Zealand joins Pillar Two of the AUKUS agreement, and how the domestic politics surrounding any such move will be managed. And China remains a delicate matter, both in terms of our near-total economic dependence on Chinese markets and the increasing Western unease that led to the formation of AUKUS in the first place.
On the domestic front, the first six months have burnished the reputations of several National Ministers, aside from the Ministers from Zealand First and ACT. In particular, three Ministers – Nicola Willis, Chris Bishop and Erica Stanford – have impressed as potential successors to the Prime Minister at some point in the future. Special mention must be made of former leader Judith Collins. She is working tirelessly across a range of heavy portfolios without rancour or grandstanding and is one the government’s most successful quiet achievers.
Winston Peters has slipped seamlessly back into his third stint as Foreign Minister, and ACT Ministers David Seymour, Brooke van Velden, and Karen Chhour have generally been on top of their game.
For Labour, leader Chris Hipkins has been its best performer so far, often appearing to be the sole Labour MP taking the fight to the government. Hipkins has so far defied speculation that he would be merely hanging on as leader, until a suitable replacement could be found. Given the paucity of talent in Labour’s ranks that is likely to last longer than many first imagined. Indeed, it seems not unlikely at this stage that he will lead Labour into the next election, something few would have imagined after last year’s election defeat.
One impressive find for Labour has been new finance spokesperson, Barbara Edmonds. While still learning the ropes of Opposition, this former highly skilled tax lawyer, who was briefly a Minister last year, is beginning to demonstrate that she might be the long-term answer to Labour’s leadership question.
Elsewhere, since the election, there have been other significant changes. Three former Labour Ministers – Andrew Little, Kelvin Davis and Rino Tirikatene – have already resigned and been replaced by three Labour retreads – one-term list MPs defeated at the last election. Two Greens MPs have resigned and been replaced by new list MPs. There has been the tragic, sudden death of Efeso Collins, the first sitting MP to die in a decade, and his replacement by another new Greens list MP. And there is the still unresolved case of Greens MP Darleen Tana and her lengthy “gardening leave” while her, and her partner’s business practices are investigated.
The government’s first six months have also seen a significant level of public protest against various government policies. While much of this has been organised by traditional opponents of the current government, the level of response has been far greater than in recent years, with the notable exception of the 2022 prolonged occupation of Parliament grounds.
Various allegations about Te Pāti Māori and potential misuse of Census data and Covid19 vaccination records and the confirmation of subsequent official investigations into these alleged malpractices, round out what has been a often chaotic start to New Zealand’s 54th Parliament and fifth MMP government.
The next six months will be telling for the government. There will be a greater expectation following the Budget that it will now turn its focus more to implementing its own policy agenda than dismantling what went before it. To do so successfully, and notwithstanding the shortcomings of other parties, it will need to lift its game substantially to retain the political initiative.
The government still has a long way to go.

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