Business leaders at an election conference were given a sneak preview of the policies a Labour-New Zealand First Government might pursue. Shane Cowlishaw reports they didn’t like everything they saw, and faced hostility from both Labour and New Zealand First.
With an election little more than four weeks away, politicians’ time is at a premium. But it was a veritable ‘who’s who’ of New Zealand politics at BusinessNZ’s election conference, held at Te Papa.
The leaders were all there to give their vision of New Zealand, including current rockstar Jacinda Ardern and her opponent, Bill “The Rock” English.
Kingmaker Winston, of course, took centre stage (amidst warnings from the party to expect it to play a bigger role in business following the election), alongside appearances from other major players including Steven Joyce, Grant Robertson, and even former Labour leader Andrew Little.
Why were they all taking time away from the campaign trail to gather in one place? To get the business world onside.
Alongside all the politicians the room was filled with current and former power players of the economy, such as Katherine Rich from the Food and Grocery Council. Even Don Brash was there.
The event’s morning was split into segments, with a panel of politicians pitching to the crowd and answering a set of five questions before taking queries from the crowd followed by leader’s speeches in the afternoon.
An economic warning
New Zealand First will almost certainly hold the balance of power after September 23, and they know it.
Candidate Fletcher Tabuteau said a flood of immigration had made long-term decision making perilous for businesses, and many business owners had told him they were ashamed of the homelessness and poverty in New Zealand.
After the election, the business community could expect the party to have a far greater involvement in economic decision-making, he said.
“I hope I have conveyed to you … that a New Zealand First Government would have a larger role to play in the economy.”
Finance Minister Steven Joyce boasted New Zealand had the fifth-fastest-growing economy in the OECD, while pledging to introduce no new taxes, keep spending below 30 percent of GDP, and sign a revamped TPP trade agreement.
His Labour counterpart, Grant Robertson, said a strong economy should mean sharing the benefits across the population.
He argued wages were not rising with inflation, while GDP per hour worked was flat.
“In the end, relying on population growth and relying on selling housing to each other is not an economic plan, or certainly not a sustainable one.”
Geoff Simmons, of The Opportunities Party (TOP), got a few chuckles after saying he was disappointed the election was descending into an episode of The Bachelor, with Winston Peters left holding the last rose.
He argued housing was the elephant in the room and until politicians had the guts to address the problem by introducing a comprehensive asset tax that included the family home, the problem would continue to grow.
“It’s the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme and it will come tumbling down.”
A shocking plan
The biggest gasp of the day came from an unexpected place – the resources panel.
Again it was New Zealand First at the centre of the hubub, with MP Richard Prosser reiterating his party’s plan to buy back the parts of electricity companies that were privatised under National. Prosser advised the audience to get rid of Contact shares if they had them.
A representative of Mercury Energy inquired about how exactly New Zealand First planned to pay for their plan, considering it would cost in the vicinity of $11-12 billion.
Prosser responded, to audible gasps, that the shares would be bought back for the same price as they were originally sold for, although he did not go into detail about how that would work.
Later in the day, ACT leader David Seymour would tell the crowd what he thought of the idea: “What a f**king idiot”.
‘Get with the programme’
Andrew Little was dubbed “angry Andy” by the Government during his time as leader and he certainly didn’t hold back when addressing the crowd.
He told business leaders they had a choice: continue to whinge on the sidelines or become part of the solution.
Calling some of the questions being asked of all members of the panel “loaded and dumb”, he told the business crowd it was “not all about you”.
“For BusinessNZ, you’re either part of the problem and you’re sitting on the sidelines whinging and moaning, or you’re part of the solution – and I just invite you to get with the programme.”
Little said the 90-day new employee trial period would stay under Labour, but a fairness requirement would be introduced requiring employers to give feedback to any staff member they let go.
One of Labour’s main priorities would be lifting wages, he said.
“We should not have charity after charity after charity step up to fund kids in New Zealand. We have a real problem with wages.”
The Government’s representative, Michael Woodhouse, said he was sick of the “immigration alchemy” spun by both NZ First and Labour about reducing the rate of net immigration.
But he also sounded a warning to industries such as farming, which he promised would have access to the labour they needed as long as they treated workers appropriately.
There were some employers who were treating immigrant workers poorly and this posed a great risk to New Zealand exports that could potentially be barred from countries if employment standards were lacking, which was a great worry, he said.
‘It’s Pepsi or Coke’
When the afternoon came, it was the leaders’ time to shine, and with the crowd lulled by a full lunch they were ripe for the picking.
Seymour had the crowd laughing with his aforementioned assessment of Prosser, while Gareth Morgan railed against “career politicians” making decisions that weren’t in the best interests of the country.
Morgan used the opportunity to officially launch TOP’s economic policy, while telling the crowd that he “didn’t give a toss” who he gave confidence and supply to if he made it into government, although it would be either a centre-right or centre-left party.
“I will not resonate at all with the far left or the far right, and I’m quite happy about that.”
Greens leader James Shaw used his time to mend the damage caused to the party in the past month, telling the audience that the party still stood for what it always had and boasted a stellar line-up of candidates who would make great MPs.
Then, it was time for the kingmaker.
Flanked at the conference by new recruit Shane Jones, Winston Peters warmed up the audience with his usual dig at the media and the decision of television networks to only host debates with English and Ardern.
Within minutes he was regaling the crowd with a series of metaphors that would have made, as he referred to it as, the “Granny Herald” proud.
“Red or blue, you’ll get nothing new. It’s Pepsi or Coke.”
National’s economic credentials were 90 percent spin and 10 percent substance, or “all smoke and no barbecue”, he said – while comments from English that Peters would not be allowed to influence monetary policy in any new government displayed “arrogance in the extreme”.
Immigration was too high, leading to hospital queues, DHB funding shortages and long surgery waiting lists, he said.
“It’s about giving Kiwi voters a fair shake of the stick … we know money doesn’t grow on trees but we also recognise we are our brother’s keeper.”
Amongst all the bluster, there was a nugget of interest for the audience, with the announcement NZ First would cut company tax rates to 25 percent over three years from 2019.
The audience was too timid to ask Peters any questions, so it was Labour leader Jacinda Ardern’s turn to take the stage.
In one of the longest speeches of the day, she spoke initially about dealing with the preconceptions that Labour could not handle the economy, despite its previous strong record.
It was also irresponsible to artificially create a surplus and celebrate it year after year while core services such as health languished, she said.
“I will always maintain that a successful economy is one that serves our people, not the other way round.”
Rounding out the day came Prime Minister Bill English.
He began by joking that he was quite enjoying travelling the country as Prime Minister, and taking credit for the hard work of the Finance Minister.
Then it was on to hammering home the strong performance of New Zealand’s economy and the huge infrastructure projects that would be funded in the next decade.
“Nobody dreamed 10 years ago that Hawke’s Bay would have so much growth that they would need four lanes between Napier and Hastings. But they do,” he said.