By Jenée Tibshraeny
Two of the Opposition's rising stars are striving to illustrate how a Labour/Greens government may work, ironically as they go head-to-head in the Mt Albert by-election.
There is more discussion than there is argument between Labour’s Jacinda Ardern and the Greens’ Julie Anne Genter.
They are using the February 25 by-election to show they’re committed to their memorandum of understanding to work towards replacing National as government.
From there, they have similar end goals. The question is whether they can agree on a pathway to achieving these.
National’s absence in Mt Albert won’t highlight divisions on the left
Ardern isn’t concerned about National’s absence in the by-election drawing unwelcome attention to rifts between Labour and the Greens, who are due to hold a joint State of the Nation briefing on January 29.
“I suspect that they [National] made a call that either they take the hit at the beginning for choosing not to run, or take it on election night,” she says, speaking to interest.co.nz in a Triple Shot Interview.
“I take the view that by-elections are an opportunity for all political parties to really demonstrate what their platform is, what their vision is for not just the area, but for New Zealand...
“So there’s nothing strange about the Greens and Labour choosing to do that. There’s something quite odd though about National choosing to not do that.
“I’m not concerned about the focus being on the differences. I think we’ll model what a vision for a future Labour/Green government would look like.”
Genter is in a similar boat, saying: “It’s important for people in Mt Albert, I think, to have the choice about who they’re going to vote for.”
Genter to run for Mt Albert in general election, regardless of by-election result
Genter had her eye on the electorate before the opening came up when Labour’s David Shearer resigned from parliament at the end of last year to take up a job at the United Nations.
“That’s why I’ve ended up as the candidate for the by-election,” she says.
In the 2014 General Election, Genter got walloped by ACT’s David Seymour when she ran in the National stronghold of Epsom. Ardern missed out on the Auckland Central seat by 600 votes to National’s Nikki Kaye.
Genter has committed to running for the Mt Albert seat in this year’s general election, regardless of the by-election result.
In the 2014 General Election, Shearer won the seat by a resounding majority. While National narrowly secured the party vote, the Greens lagged Labour by 25%.
Yet Labour has always had a firm grip on the seat, with former Prime Minister Helen Clark holding it before Shearer.
“I’m going to be very sad to break the tradition of Labour leaders in the Mt Albert seat, but what is absolutely true is that they [Mt Albert MPs] have always had strong positions within their opposition parties or government,” Ardern says.
“As a front bench member I can absolutely bring to the table that voice for the seat, at a senior level.”
THE TRACK RECORD:
Ardern big on social issues, Genter big on transport
Asked what her biggest achievement is, Ardern is proud of the work she’s done on Labour’s Dole for Apprenticeships policy, which if implemented, would see the government subsidise employers to take on apprenticeships.
She’s also happy with her Best Start package, which seeks to reduce poverty and improve child wellbeing.
“They are things I want to implement. At the moment they’re all on paper, and I think you really get your proud moments when you’re in government,” she says.
Genter maintains her greatest achievements have been around the work she’s done on transport - both with the Green Party and before joining when she worked as a consultant.
“We’ve successfully campaigned for the electrification of Auckland’s rail network and since then we’ve had - finally - the government agreeing to the City Rail Link,” she says.
“We’ve had the National Government increase the amount of money for urban cycleways 10-fold, and I think in a large part that was due to successful campaigning by the Green Party on our Safe to School policy, and just showing how illogical National’s approach towards transport spending has been.
“I think we’re really starting to win the debate. But even though we’ve pushed them this far, we’ll be able to achieve so much more in government.”
Greens commit to fully funding light rail, Labour to funding half
Genter and Ardern want rail to be prioritised over roads, yet have differing views on how much money central government should stump up to pay for it.
Genter wants the Government to fully fund a proposed light rail network from the North Shore to Auckland Airport that would run via Dominion Road.
However Labour Leader Andrew Little in last year’s Mt Roskill by-election only went as far as to saying a Labour Government would fast-track the project, and fund half of the proposed first phase between the CBD and Mt Roskill.
Ardern says central and local government need to work more closely; together forming a 30-year plan for Auckland transport.
“That would include for instance, relevant to Mt Albert, cross town connections so that you don’t have to go into the city to meet the north-western or southern public transport routes. Those are things we need to plan together and fund together.”
She points out both Labour and Greens since 2011 have been behind central government helping fund the City Rail Link - the underground train line that will run from Britomart, through the CBD to Mt Eden. However it took Transport Minister Simon Bridges until September last year to say the Government would fund half the project.
Mutual support for a regional fuel tax
Both Ardern and Genter support a regional fuel tax, with Genter saying a congestion charge could also be an option further down the track.
“Central government can enable local government [to get] better sources of revenue to invest in their share of transport infrastructure. It doesn’t make sense to be investing in long-term transport infrastructure from property taxes - from rates,” Genter says.
“National is stopping Auckland from raising its own revenue to invest in the transport projects it really needs.”
Genter would also like central government to provide local government and schools with funding to put separated cycle and walkways in place near schools and upgrade intersections, to make it safer for kids to walk or bike to school.
Genter: House price to income ratio needs to fall to 5:1
Both Ardern and Genter admit house prices in Auckland are unaffordable, with the median in Auckland City at $978,000 according to REINZ.
While Green Party Co-Leader Metiria Turei mid-last year point blank said prices needed to fall, Genter wouldn’t comment on what she would like the median to be.
Rather she references Auckland Council’s former chief economist who says the house price to income ratio needs to fall from where it is now at 10:1, to 5:1.
Ardern wouldn’t commit to saying house prices need to fall.
“There’s going to be differences in the way that we see some of those challenges. But some of our ideas around addressing them are compatible [with the Greens],” she says.
Ardern: It’s all about making sure we have enough affordable houses
Ardern’s solution is ensuring there’s the right mix of housing available. She says we need to build less big expensive houses on large plots of land, and build more affordable ones.
“Only 5% of our new housing is considered affordable housing, so the mix of build is part of the problem as well. The Unitary Plan is going to do a bit around that, but part of our problem is that we’re not building to scale,” she says.
“If we want houses in the $500,000-$600,000 range in Auckland, then we need someone who is able to build at scale - townhouses, apartments, houses on small parcels of land.”
Labour, through its KiwiBuild policy, has committed to building 50,000 affordable homes for first home buyers in Auckland, in 10 years. The stand-alone homes will be priced at $500,000-$600,000, with apartments and terraced houses under $500,000.
Ardern wouldn’t comment on how many of these homes she believes there’s scope to build in the Mt Albert electorate, yet says: “It’s all about transport nodes.
“Wherever there’s a new development, the planning has to be in place to make sure that we have decent public transport that accesses those new housing developments.”
More coordinated planning needed between public and private sectors
Genter agrees, going further to say: “There’s a really strong role for government to be involved in master planning neighbourhoods and trying to coordinate what’s happening, because if every individual landowner is redeveloping separately, it’s not going to create the best outcome...”
Referencing Australia’s inner city suburbs, she says: “That’s what we want - density done well.”
Ardern would like to see an ‘Urban Design Authority’ formed.
“You look at the some of the developments we’ve had in Auckland, there’s been a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. Build it with multiple car parks, with no public transport, sometimes without even proper roading, water or sewage links,” she says.
Genter notes: “It was important to get the rules right in the Unitary Plan. I don’t know that they’re entirely there, but they’re going in the right direction.
“There are still a lot of rules that prevent the kind of high quality apartments that we used to get... rules [that] unintentionally create really ugly design.”
These include: parking requirements, rules that limit ceiling and site to boundary ratios.
Greens crack down harder than Labour on property speculators
Ardern supports Little withdrawing Labour’s support for a capital gains tax, after he came into leadership.
Labour wants to extend the current bright line test from two to five years, meaning property investors who sell a house within five years of buying it, have to treat any net gain on the sale as income and pay tax on it.
The Greens support a full capital gains tax that exempts the family home.
Both Labour and the Greens also want to ban non-resident foreign speculators from buying existing New Zealand houses.
Different policies, together better protecting renters
Genter highlights the fact renting needs to be made more affordable and secure.
She points to the Greens’ Residential Tenancies (Safe and Secure Rentals) Amendment Bill, which seeks to set a default of three years for fixed-term tenancies, lengthen notice period landlords have to give tenants before asking them to leave, and limit rent increases to no more than once a year, among other protections.
Ardern adds rents have increased by about 40% in Mt Albert since 2008.
“Not only can’t they afford to buy; they can’t afford to save as well, because a huge proportion of their income is spent on renting. And often renting poor quality housing,” she says.
Labour’s Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill sets standards that will require all rental properties to meet standards around insulation, heating, ventilation, draught stopping, and drainage.