Labour and National have splashed hundreds of millions of cash to win over student and family voters, while Winston Peters lashed out at National over the leaking of his pension details. Shane Cowlishaw, Bernard Hickey and Tim Murphy report from the campaign trail.
The two big parties were out on the hustings making big promises to woo floating voters.
Labour promised to bring forward its pledge of three years free tertiary education by a year and to increase student allowances by $50 a week. Labour costed its extra education policies at $2 billion over four years. Meanwhile, National promised to increase paid maternity leave by four weeks to 22 weeks at a cost of $352 million over four years.
Winston Peters accused National of “illicit, dirty, underhanded, unethical and illegal behaviour” over the release of his pension details to the media after it emerged Anne Tolley, Paula Bennett and Bill English’s Chief of Staff Wayne Eagleson had been told of Peters’ case under the ‘no surprises’ policy. National denied leaking the details and Bill English said he and Steven Joyce were not told. Peters rejected English’s assurances, while English said ministers should never have been told.
Elsewhere, two scandals from June and July returned to haunt National (the Todd Barclay affair) and Labour (its foreign student intern scheme).
The NZ Herald reported from documents obtained under the Official Information Act that Bill English’s office had argued strongly against the release of Bill English’s ‘smoking gun’ text to Stuart Davie that showed he knew about Barclay’s illicit recording of his staffer Glenys Dickson, and the resulting secret payout to her from the Prime Minister’s fund. Newsroom broke the Barclay story on June 20.
The documents showed English’s office repeatedly contested the Police’s view that the text should be released. Eventually, it was not released. English had previously said the decision’s was the Police’s and suggested it had not been pressured by the Prime Minister’s office.
Elsewhere, funds spent by Matt McCarten on Labour’s controversial “Campaign for Change” scheme were candidate donations and will need to be declared, the Electoral Commission has ruled. Launched in June, it was intended to encourage people to enrol to vote, but blew up in Labour’s face when accusations foreign students working on the scheme were living in poor conditions.
There are 24 days to go until the election.
‘An expensive hypocrisy’
Money spent on Labour’s Campaign for Change will have to be declared as candidate donations following an Electoral Commission investigation.
The scheme, designed to encourage people to enrol to vote, was called “industrial strength hypocrisy” by National’s Steven Joyce after claims international students working on the project were living in poor conditions.
An initial report by Politik found about 85 overseas students had held several meetings with Labour officials to complain about their accommodation at Auckland’s Awataha Marae. Those complaints included cramped dormitories, a broken shower, and unfinished construction work.
On June 28 the commission received a complaint from David Farrar regarding the election expense and donation implications.
In a statement, a commission spokesperson said that McCarten had told them he had personally paid for costs associated with the campaign and spent $65,095 up to the point where Labour stepped in to take over the campaign.
“Based on the information provided, the Electoral Commission has concluded that by personally paying for costs in support of the efforts of volunteers campaigning for Auckland Labour Party candidates, Mr McCarten made candidate donations for the purpose of the Electoral Act.
McCarten will now provide the commission with details on the exact share of the Auckland candidates involved and once determined, will make them aware that the amount must be recorded for their donations compliance and disclosure in January 2018.
Money was spent on costs such as accommodation, food, and transport rather than advertising materials, so were not by definition election expenses. Therefore, the commission concluded that no election expenses were involved.
Paid parental leave to be extended – by National
After targeting parents with a $379 million education package in the weekend, National has again targeted families by extending paid parental leave by a month.
The extension will bed in progressively over two years, rising by two weeks on 1 July 2018 and a further two weeks a year later. Currently paid parental leave sits at 18 weeks.
Flexibility will also be added to the system by allowing both parents to take some of the 22 weeks at the same time, while women will be able to access a free dental course during pregnancy and up to the baby’s first birthday.
It is expected to cost $88m per year from 2019/2020.
Labour MP Sue Moroney’s private member’s bill called for a rise to 26 weeks by 2018, but was vetoed by the Government. The Green Party wants to introduce a $220 weekly tax credit for all parents who did not get paid parental leave.
Alongside the parental leave extension, National also revealed it would extend free IVF cycles to eligible couples from two to three.
Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett said the package would make a huge difference to families, while Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse said the Government had always wanted to increase maternity leave in a responsible manner.
Free tertiary education plan accelerated
Labour pushed forward with its plan to create a youthquake centred around new leader Jacinda Ardern, announcing it would move forward its announced policy to provide free post-school education.
The party will use the extra money from Treasury’s pre-election fiscal update (which was smaller than expected) to boost its tertiary education package, bringing forward the free education initiative to begin next year. From 2018 one year will be provided free, extending to three years by 2024.
Overall the package’s cost will increase by 50 percent, from $4 billion to $6 billion while the cost of the free education scheme will almost double from just over $1b over four years to $2b.
Labour’s finance spokesman Grant Robertson said the party’s fiscal plan had been updated and all spending vetted by economic agency BERL.
“Voters have a clear choice this election between a tired National Party, bereft of ideas and running out of steam, or an energised labour party ready to deliver a better and fairer New Zealand.”
In July Labour unveiled its plan to spend $17b on health, education, and housing while staying in surplus. They would do so by using the money promised by National as tax cuts. You can read Bernard Hickey’s analysis here.
When making the announcement, Ardern told the assembly hall of senior students at Western Springs College she was sorry Labour couldn’t bring in the ‘big Kahuna’ of three years free tertiary education all at once.
“We would have loved to do that but we have done what we could,” she said. (Finance spokesman Grant Robertson said afterwards the staged timing of the second free year from 2021 and the third from 2024 “fits from a financial point of view and it also fits from a behavioural point of view” as new studies began.)
Alongside the attraction of free tertiary education for new students, Labour would also boost student allowances.
Costing $275m a year, allowances would rise by $50 per week from about $170 to $220 from next year.
The policy will certainly be popular with young voters and the party will be hoping it has similar success to removing interest from student loans.
Labour Leader Jacinda Ardern said students had told her that living costs were a priority and that getting by each week had become a barrier to study.
“Right now a typical student receives an allowance of around $170, but many tell me that’s not enough to even cover their rent.”
The party would also restore the ability for people studying long courses, such as medicine, to access student allowances and loans.
She told Western Springs students that Labour had in her time around politics “got rid of interest while you are studying” in 1999, “got rid of interest full stop” in 2005 but had had unfinished business over free education which it was now addressing.
Ardern acknowledged to a student’s question that the party would not be changing the eligibility to that allowance, so means testing would remain. However by making the first year free, the need for borrowing for fees reduced and therefore borrowing to live on could be more manageable.
On the cost of the Student Allowance move, she said: “Anyone who says it is a cynical move or you should not be announcing this… well it is unreasonable that those who are furthering themselves for our benefit should have to, or should try to live on $170 a week. This is about addressing an inequality.”
Ardern did not think the measures were unfair to those who did not undertake any tertiary education. “They get the chance for their kids to be able to go to university, too.”
Increasing the youth vote was not “my primary consideration” she said. “I hope young people vote but I do not think they sit down and think what’s in it for them.”
What did the Government know about Winston?
Winston Peters has jumped on the warpath over the leaking of his superannuation details to the media, saying he would make a complaint to the Privacy Commissioner and had investigators working on uncovering the source of the leak.
Without accusing anyone in the Government, Peters said last night the affairs smacked of “Dirty Politics.”
The issue has the potential to be awkward for the Government as the Minister of Social Development, Anne Tolley, confirmed to Newsroom this morning that MSD’s chief executive Brendan Boyle had briefed her on August 15 about the meeting between MSD officials and Peters under the ‘no surprises’ policy.
Tolley then briefed the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Wayne Eagleson. The NZ Herald reported Eagleson had not told Bill English or anyone else in the office about the issue.
Tolley’s office has denied the leak came from her office.
In a statement this morning, State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes said Boyle had discussed the issue with him and both sought advice from the Solicitor-General on “the appropriate way to ensure decisions were made independently and the requirement to ensure Ministers were not surprised was met”.
Hughes said he advised Boyle MSD should deal with Peters’ case exactly how it would for any New Zealander. No briefings were given to Ministers until after any decisions were made, and when they were provided they contained only limited details.
Both MSD and Inland Revenue have launched investigations into any possible leak of the information.
National’s Campaign Manager Steven Joyce has denied knowing about issue until it was reported late on Sunday.
“All I know is it’s got nothing to do with us. I have no idea where it came from so I’m not going to suddenly blame people,” Joyce said.
Fairfax reported this morning that Paula Bennett had also been briefed about the issue by the State Services Commission.
Peters told reporters in Northland last night that he had “deep suspicions” about who had leaked the information.
“Someone decided they would break the law and leak it in a political way and some of those tweets and other comments point to knowledge out there that it was malicious and politically dirty,” he was reported as saying by Fairfax.
“I’m not going to stand by and let someone get away with blatant dirty politics and breaking the law,” he said.
Fairfax reported this morning that Peters said he had been warned that someone in the National Party was “trying to take him down.”
Newshub’s Paddy Gower said this morning Newshub was tipped off three days after the Government was briefed.
Major leaders step carefully
Both Jacinda Ardern and English were cautious late yesterday and this morning to not criticise Peters.
Ardern was sympathetic to Peters and the Government in interviews on Newshub and Morning Report this morning. She said it would be disappointing if National had leaked the information and she didn’t want to be part of that sort of politics.
“But I want to be really clear here – just because Anne Tolley received the information doesn’t mean she is the source of the leak,” she said.
Ardern later told Morning Report that the Metiria Turei and Winston Peters situations were different. She said she had ruled Turei out of being in her cabinet after seeing a lot of information, while she said Peters’ situation looked like a mistake.
Following her education announcement this morning Ardern was again questions about the Peters issue.
The revelation that several ministers had been told of Peters’ superannuation overpayment raised issues of “discretion and sensitivity” Ardern said.
“Rightfully questions are being asked about how this came to be in the public light.”
She believed the controversy put politicians in a bad light.” People just look at it and say: ‘politicians as per usual’.
Asked if it might to be to Labour’s advantage if Peters believed someone in National had leaked his details, she was dismissive.
“I have just launched a major education policy and here I am talking about Winston Peters. I don’t think it’s helpful to Labour.”
Bill English told media in Hamilton where he was opening the new Rototuna High School that Peters’ comments had not given him cause for concern, although there were still questions to be answered.
“People make mistakes, we’re all human. It’s just a matter of what the particular circumstances are,” English said.
Prime Minister Bill English is in Nelson and is set to make two announcements, one at 10am with Paula Bennett and Jonathan Coleman and another at 1.30pm with Simon Bridges and Nick Smith. The Green party will make an environment policy announcement later this morning.
August 31 – The first leaders debate on TVNZ.
September 4 – TV3 has its leaders debate.
September 7 – The Press/Stuff leaders debate will be held in Christchurch
September 11 – Polling booths open for early voting.
September 20 – The final leaders debate on TVNZ.
September 23 – The General Election.
October 12 – Winston Peters has said he will make a decision about which party he ‘crowns’ to be in Government by October 12, which is when the writs with the final election results are returned.
Updated: 5 pm