By Bernard Hickey
Prime Minister Bill English began his first full day in the job by foreshadowing a major cabinet reshuffle to be announced on Tuesday, and facing tough questions about reducing child poverty from a fired up Opposition.
Meanwhile, one more position opened up in the cabinet. Local Government and Associate Health Minister Sam Lotu-liga, who has been seen as a poor performer and potential loser in the reshuffle, told reporters in Parliament he would be stepping down at the election next year.
Aside from Lotu-liga, English will have to make decisions about who replaces new Finance Minister Steven Joyce as Minister for Business, Innovation and Economic Development (MBIE), whether to replace retiring Education Minister Hekia Parata, whether to demote Health Minister and Leadership rival Jonathan Coleman and whether to replace Foreign Minister Murray McCully, who is stepping down as East Coast Bays MP but may stand again as a list MP.
Building, Housing and Environment Minister Nick Smith is also seen as a candidate for removal or reshuffling, although he is also seen as close to English.
English told reporters in Parliament he had not decided on the nature of the new cabinet, although he has indicated Joyce would be the new Finance Minister and Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett has already been selected and sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister.
Child Poverty questions
Later, English was challenged in Parliamentary Question Time for the first time as Prime Minister by Opposition Leader Andrew Little over the issue of child poverty.
Earlier, new Childrens' Commissioner Andrew Becroft released the third Child Poverty Monitor report and called on the Government to take urgent action to prevent a third generation of children being consigned to living in poverty.
"My simple plea today is for the government urgently to provide a plan to tackle child poverty in New Zealand," Becroft said.
The report showed 85,000 kids went without nine or more things they needed, while 90,000 children or 8% of children were in both low income households and living in material hardship.
"I think we have a real social responsibility, all New Zealanders, to ensure that the benefits of economic growth are made accessible to all in the community, especially children," Becroft said. "This is not a recent problem - it goes back several decades and rates of child poverty have not improved," he said.
'Just wait for the latest results'
Little asked if English took responsibility for the Government's record on Child Poverty and why there were more children in poverty in 2014 than when the Government took office.
English said he did not accept there were more children living in poverty.
"The most recent information is up to 2014, which is prior to changes in free doctors visits for under-13s, the hardship package that was introduced under this Government, and other measures that we are taking for smarter support for vulnerable families," he said, referring to the Government's NZ$25 a week increase for beneficiary families from April 1 this year.
'No plans for a child poverty target'
English also did not agree with Little's call for the Government to accept Becroft's arguments about setting targets on child poverty.
"After 8 years of rising child poverty on his watch, will he sign up to Andrew Becroft's target of reducing child poverty by 10 percent in the next year and take immediate steps to get there, or are we going to continue to hear empty words, just like we did from his predecessor?," Little asked.
English replied: "Since 2012 we have published a set of quite focused targets aimed at dealing with the social dysfunction that traps families in the combination of welfare dependency, criminal recidivism, low education levels, and child abuse."
"The data about that is more detailed and more transparent than in pretty much any other developed country, and the Government is acting on that information—in many cases, family by family, because that is the only way to change their lives. Signing up to a target does not change their lives," English said.
Labour signs up
Earlier, Labour Children's spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said Labour had committed to Becroft's target of reducing material hardship by 5-10% in the next year, which was a target rejected by the Government.
The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) focused on housing costs and low incomes in its comments on the report.
"While it’s clear Government cannot meet the demand for housing so many in need, what is being fundamentally ignored is the need to address family incomes," said Frank Hogan , CPAG Housing and Law spokesman.
"The beans thrown at beneficiaries on April 1 this year would have been swallowed up almost entirely by housing costs," he said.