Leaders of the five parties doing best in the polls each made speeches to a who’s who audience of business leaders in Wellington on Tuesday.
The Deloitte and Chapman Tripp Election Conference – hosted by BusinessNZ – saw panels on finance, the environment and jobs and skills before the addresses from Chris Hipkins, Christopher Luxon, David Seymour, James Shaw and Winston Peters.
Deloitte New Zealand’s chief executive Mike Horne also revealed the results of a triennial survey of Business NZ members on the state of the country. Just 6 percent of the 876 respondents said they felt the Government had a plan of action to raise New Zealand’s economic performance, compared to 85 percent who said there was no plan.
The mood was worse than the previous survey in 2020, in which six in 10 said the Government had no plan for economic recovery.
Respondents also said the Government had raised the cost of doing business through red tape and intervention in the economy.
Party leaders put on their most business-friendly faces for the event, with even the Green Party’s Shaw favourably citing two different reports from free market think tank the New Zealand Initiative during the panels.
Peters led off the round of speeches, launching an attack on the Roy Morgan poll released that morning (which did show his party returning to Parliament).
“By the way, that poll is junk,” he said, to a chorus of laughter from the audience. “It’s actually 8 percent different for one of the parties than the last poll that came out. That’s the kind of stuff we’ve been putting up with in this country – banana republic reports on polls.”
The New Zealand First leader announced former Wellington Mayor Andy Foster would be running for the party in the Mana seat. He said the state of the Government’s books when opened in the pre-election fiscal update next Tuesday “will not be pretty”.
Fiscal restraint was needed, particularly as the Chinese economy was beginning to flag, Peters said. Meanwhile, parties were making unrealistic campaign promises.
“It begs the question, in this environment with the uncertainty that we truly face, and warnings both internationally and locally by those who should know, why are we having an election campaign where we are tossing money around, giving out promises like an eight-armed octopus. And they haven’t got a hope of delivering any of it.”
For the next speech, Shaw began with an impromptu title: “And now, for something completely different”.
The Greens co-leader said the transition to a low-emissions economy was “the single greatest opportunity that we have in at least a generation to grow and develop our economy, upgrade our infrastructure, attract investment and drive innovation”.
Urban development, electricity infrastructure, transport networks and more would be re-worked for the transition.
“We know that in order to decarbonise the economy, electrify our transport, electrify our heavy industry and deal with population growth, that we’re going to need roughly 70 percent additional electricity generation on top of what we already have,” he said.
“When you consider it took about 100 years to build the 100 percent that we currently have, the idea of building two thirds of that again in the next two decades is a significant challenge but also an enormous opportunity for investment.”
Shaw also discussed climate finance and the $2 billion fund from BlackRock for renewable energy. He said the fund manager told him New Zealand was viewed as the most innovative country in the world when it came to the energy transition.
“For them, that’s worth investing in. Not just because it provides a great return on investment for them and the funds that they’re a part of, but because that then gives them access to that IP and the ability to transfer that to elsewhere in the world. In other words, it becomes an export opportunity for this country.”
Act’s Seymour started off his pitch by assessing the state of the country. New Zealand’s image of itself as “a plucky First World nation with First World living standards and a can-do attitude safely down here nestled in the South Pacific … is under some challenge”.
The Government had spent too much (expenditure per capita is up 29 percent since 2017), the trade deficit was too large and productivity was lagging, he said.
“I don’t mean to stand here and point out all the negatives but these are the basic facts of the last six years,” he said. “And if we are going to turn that around, then we are going to have to change the approach to government.”
That would come through eliminating whole government departments and trimming staffing at others. The party would also implement performance pay for public sector chief executives.
Seymour also spoke about law and order, saying the approach of “saying if we’re kinder to criminals and we acknowledge that most people who commit crimes have not had a very good run in life, maybe if we’re a bit kinder they’ll start being kinder back” had failed.
On Māori issues, the Act leader said many people had a false understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi.
“When you have a belief that has grown up through the tribunal and the courts over the past 40 years that the Treaty requires, in the words of Dame Anne Salmond, a partnership between races rather than a compact that gives the same rights and duties or ngā tikanga katoa rite tahi to all people – if you start going down that track, it becomes very, very difficult to have serious discussions about, say, genetics, when you have to labour under the belief that there are actually two types of science.”
Luxon, like Peters and Seymour before him, started his speech by criticising the Government. New Zealand is “totally, utterly, completely heading in the wrong direction” but it didn’t have to.
“If we are really honest with ourselves and take a step back, we’re not actually realising the potential that we have,” he said.
“We’re not solving the problems and the challenges that we’ve got. And we certainly are not maximising the opportunities that are in front of us.”
The former Air New Zealand CEO said the country needed a turnaround and he had “done a lot of turnaround jobs in my life”.
Next week’s fiscal update, he said, would show the “financial position in New Zealand is deteriorating very quickly”.
Luxon shared an anecdote, which he also used at the launch of the party’s tax announcement last week, about a boy who approached him after a recent speech to ask if National would pay for his braces. The child’s parents told Luxon their mortgage had moved from a 2.7 percent to a 6.7 percent rate and they were now down $700 a fortnight and couldn’t afford the braces.
“I thought to myself: Yep, I understand economics, I understand the dollars and the cents and we’ll manage that really well. But if you actually care about people, you actually have good economic management, otherwise you create the pain and suffering that we’re seeing emerging across the country.”
Luxon said National’s two big goals if in government after the election were to rein in inflation and grow the economy.
That latter was tougher, he said, because New Zealand had “a productivity disease”. He pointed to National’s education and infrastructure policies, as well as improving commercialisation of research and development and wooing overseas investors as parts of the cure.
Finally, Hipkins offered a more hopeful vision of where the economy is going. He said Labour had had to deal with “one major event after another” over the past six years, running into this year with the extreme weather in Auckland in January and then across much of the North Island with Cyclone Gabrielle in February.
Without those weather events, New Zealand’s growth in the first quarter of the year would have been positive and we wouldn’t have been in recession, he said.
“The good news of all of that is that we know that the rebuild activity from those severe weather events will start to have a positive effect on our economic figures in the coming quarters and we’re expecting things to pick up from there,” he said.
“The last few years have shown us pretty clearly there’s no such thing as plain sailing, but I do think there is a lot of reason to be optimistic. The New Zealand economy in my view is actually starting to turn the corner.”
Hipkins touted his focus on trade over the past seven months and discussed his travel to Australia, Europe, the UK and China.
“All of these things open up enormous opportunities for New Zealand businesses and New Zealand exporters, so there is real opportunity for us to diversify our markets and to continue to grow our exports.”
He also highlighted planned investments in infrastructure, climate action and skills development. National’s policies were singled out for criticism on two occasions, with Hipkins attacking the tax cuts after the International Monetary Fund said the economic situation necessitated targeted support, also going after the proposal to increase immigration fees (a “talent tax”, the Labour leader said) amidst skill shortages.