We meet at a cafe in Christchurch’s east. Not just any cafe, but Cafe Jireh, from the Hebrew word meaning provide/provider, contained in the complex of the Celebration Centre, a church investigated last year by RNZ.

We’re both early.

Peters feeds the five hundred in the north
Act chases National in the heartland

I’m scoffing a chocolate brownie topped with white chocolate, and New Conservative leader Helen Houghton, resplendent in a pink jacket, orders a pot of green tea. Her handshake is cold because of a strong wind carrying a hint of snow from the south.

New Conservative has a religious bent, she agrees, but the party comprises people of different faiths or no faith.

“We stand up for a lot of the things that are Christian,” she says. “We value life. All life.”

‘Pro-life’ when it comes to abortion, then.

Houghton (pronounced: How-tin) supported the Auckland rally of Posie Parker, and started a petition asking for people who lost their jobs because of vaccine mandates to be reinstated and compensated.

A sample of her social media posts:

  • “Co-governance is not about Maori, it is about the Elite. The powerful & the greedy. Not the regular kiwi.”
  • “United Nations should have no authority over our nation. United Nations is a propaganda institution”
  • “Yes, the climate changes centuries ago and it will in centuries to come. No, we humans will not stop the weather cycle by destroying our economy with carbon taxes.”

Where does her party sit on the political spectrum? The centre, she says, although some say its policies are right-wing.

If it wins seats at the election, it sees its natural partners as National and Act.

New Conservative is the rebranded Conservative Party, which first competed at the 2011 election, and whose support peaked at the 2014 election with 3.97 percent of the party vote. It has never won a seat in Parliament.

In 2015, Conservative founder Colin Craig quit in a messy mix of law suits, an ill-advised sauna interview, and, in Craig’s own words, acting inappropriately with a staff member. The party rebranded New Conservative, under leader Leighton Baker, after its disastrous showing in the 2017 election.

Houghton, who was co-leader with Auckland’s Ted Johnston until earlier this year, stood in the Christchurch East electorate at the 2020 election, finishing fifth with 1050 votes. (Winner: Labour’s Poto Williams with 25,234 votes.)

She was eighth in last year’s Tauranga byelection, with only 103 votes – her campaigning was hampered by having Covid-19. (Winner: National’s Sam Uffindell with 11,613 votes.)

Though she’s standing in Christchurch East in October’s election, the party is making a big drive for the party vote.

A former teacher, Houghton came to politics through her opposition to gender diversity being taught in schools. Her petition, presented to Parliament in April 2019, garnered more than 40,000 signatures.

That almost corresponds to the number of party votes New Conservative earned in the 2020 election.

New Conservative’s one big idea is Family Builder.

“The family unit is the building block of society,” Houghton says. “If we don’t get that right then it impacts every single area ... education, housing.

“All of a sudden we need twice as many houses because you’ve got mum here, and then they go to dad every alternate week.”

Under the policy, workers pay no tax on the first $20,000 earned – a $2500 tax cut, Houghton says – and they would be eligible for up to $2500 of child tax credits.

Because child tax credits are available to both parents, the total available credit would be $5000 per child. These new credits would replace the “family tax credit” and “in-work tax credit” under Working for Families.

“We believe that families and individuals should have more money in their pocket – you make the decisions where your money goes, not the government.”

Couples will be able to split their income – meaning the first $40,000 of a couple’s income is tax-free, even if only one of them works. That makes it more financially viable for one parent to stay home and care for children.

Money should follow the child, not institutions, Houghton says.

New Conservative wants to give money to parents instead of funding early learning centres. Some may choose to put their children into those centres, others may not, she says.

“If they believe that it’s best for one parent to be at home, to stay at home and educate their children, that should be encouraged.”

That said, Houghton believes two parents working, and putting their children in care “early”, is “damaging” the family.

New Conservative estimates the total impact of the Family Builder policy is $9.1 billion in the first year, taking into account an estimated $1 billion increase in GST revenue because of extra spending by families and individuals with more money in their pockets.

Asked how the next government would pay for that, Houghton says she couldn’t give a precise answer without a deep-dive into the current government’s “wasteful” spending.

Making the public service more efficient would reduce costs, she says.

“We would look to make huge cuts to the bureaucracy.

“Tax revenue increased by 85 percent over nine years, spending by 80 percent. We estimate that when this year’s numbers come out it’ll be approximately 100 percent over 10 years.

“There are no significant improvements in any area, so it is our opinion that the Government is wasting most of its money on bureaucracy.”

According to Treasury figures, core Crown expenses increased 80 percent between 2013 and 2022, and over the same period core Crown revenue rose 84 percent.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson says core Crown revenue over the last decade has largely kept track with gross domestic product, rising from 29.2 percent of GDP in 2013 to 32.7 percent last year.

“Core Crown expenditure was elevated above normal levels in response to the impacts of Covid-19 but have declined from a peak of 34.6 percent in 2021/22.

“Though this is forecast to increase moderately in 2023/24 with the impact of Cyclone Gabrielle, it then is expected to decline across the forecast period toward the level that New Zealand has operated around over recent decades.”

“The idea that there’s $9 billion of waste sitting around in government departments just waiting to be cut is fanciful.” – Researcher Max Rashbrooke

A key reason for Family Builder, Houghton says, is to restore the value of the family, and try to keep families together.

Research shows the best outcome for children is to have a mum and dad – her words – together at home in a healthy relationship, she says.

“We feel like the Government is letting the communities down because it is so easy for people to just separate.”

Home environments are a factor in youth crime, Houghton says.

In 2021, 101,026 men paid child support, she says. (IRD confirms this figure is correct.)

“That’s at least 100,000 children who are without a father in the family home.”

This policy is deeply personal for Houghton, who came from a broken home and was a solo parent. “It was a huge struggle. We lived week-to-week, financially.”

Successive governments have made it too easy for families to split up, she says, through financial support for sole parents. She characterises New Conservative’s proposed tax changes as an investment in families.

“We don’t believe it’s about us telling them what to do; to stay together. We believe it’s about setting them up with really good supports.”

Houghton says rather than the Government paying for school lunches, New Conservative wants to equip families to stand on their own feet.

A few questions come to mind.

Tax changes are financial. How do you, at the same time, instil family values?

“To have a healthy home you need to have the resources there,” Houghton says. “You need to have food in your cupboards.”

But if parents were already making what might be considered poor spending choices with a smaller pot, how will they magically make better choices with a bigger one?

“There are other factors we’re concerned about,” she says, adding education is key but economics is the biggest factor.

If Family Builder were around when Houghton’s relationship with her children’s father was struggling, would it have made a difference?

“My situation goes back further; deeper,” she says. “There are other factors that we need to address around the dysfunction of families.”

For Houghton, the former teacher and champion of free speech, it comes back to education. A child should be taught early that marriage is important, she says.

“We need to revamp the education curriculum.”

Petition considered

The Education and Workforce select committee considered Houghton’s 2019 petition on gender diversity in schools.

The Ministry of Education told the committee schools have a duty of care to keep students safe, and that includes safety from homophobic and transphobic bullying. The curriculum is broad and not prescriptive, meaning boards and schools design their own programmes.

The committee’s final report in 2020 said young people need information about sexuality, with gender being a key area.

“All teachers and communities have the right to make representations to their boards of trustees every two years when the localised health curriculum is up for review.”

Houghton says some schools are inappropriately pushing gender diversity, which is confusing children and leading to “social contagion” and emotional harm. Referring to a student using a pronoun other than their biological sex is lying, she says.

Tabby Besley is managing director of InsideOUT, a national charity supporting rainbow young people.

Besley says most schools need to improve their teaching of sexuality and diversity – which helps to reduce bullying and discrimination of marginalised communities.

“It’s really important that we teach about diversity in schools from a young age, because it promotes acceptance and a society where people can be who they are, and be affirmed in that.

“When we use young people’s chosen name and pronouns, for them it has a direct link to decreasing suicidality and depressive symptoms.”

Max Rashbrooke is a senior associate of the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University of Wellington who researches economic inequality and open government.

He says unpicking the intended and unintended consequences of New Conservative’s policies is complex.

Having a $20,000 tax-free threshold would narrow economic inequality, Rashbrooke says, but be very expensive. It’s hard to see how the country could afford it.

“The idea that there’s $9 billion of waste sitting around in government departments just waiting to be cut is fanciful.”

People with an annual salary of $200,000 would also benefit – “it’s not the most targeted way to help people at the bottom”.

Income splitting would worsen economic disparities, Rashbrooke says.

Take for example a couple in which one person earns $150,000, paying the top tax rate, and their partner doesn’t work.

Under income splitting they’d both earn $75,000, and most of that income would be taxed at lower rates, he says – “even though with a family income of $150,000 they’re very well-off by New Zealand standards”.

“What their system would do, as far as I can tell, is give more resources to those who already have more resources.”

It’s ideal for parents to stay together and bring up their children, Rashbrooke says, but the reality is people need to split up, often. It’s important for women to be able to leave violent, abusive partners, he says.

“There is a reason that the current system works the way it does, in that if you are a sole parent then you need more support from the state than a two-parent family just because your income-earning capacity as a household is obviously diminished.”

If the New Conservative policy took the focus off supporting sole-parent families it could harm some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable households, he says.

Many people would support making it easier for families with two parents to get by on one salary, Rashbrooke says, “as long as it’s not reintroducing the idea that women should stay at home, just with more modern language”.

Whose responsibility is it to ensure a family can live on one income? Not the state, Rashbrooke says. His fundamental question is: why is that salary so low?

“The New Zealand economy over the last 20-30 years has shifted in the direction of more company revenue going to shareholders and company owners, and a lower proportion of it going to wage earners.

“So the way that we solve that problem of there being lots of two-earner families who would rather be one-earner families is to find ways to ensure that employers actually pay higher wages.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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