By Alex Tarrant
Tuesday’s was one of the more interesting Parliamentary Question Times of the year.
Nick Smith sought to shift the blame for unaffordable Auckland housing on to Labour, the Prime Minister managed to dodge answering questions about the Barclay Affair, David Seymour’s attempt to hold the Food Safety Minister to account came out medium-rare, and Grant Robertson was kicked out after refusing to apologise for his reaction to references of slave labour from across the House.
We’ll start with housing, even though it came mid-way through all the fun and games. These articles always seem to go better for some reason when we put the words “Nick” and “Smith” high up the page.
First-home buyers & cashed-up foreigners
Labour’s housing spokesman Phil Twyford asked the Building and Construction Minister whether he thought the level of sales to first home buyers in Auckland falling to its lowest in 12 years was a 'problem of success'?
What followed seemed to indicate a bit of disagreement on the data. Although thinking about it, perhaps it was just a case of using different timeframes to make your own side of the argument sound better – they seem to be the same thing in Parliament.
“No,” Smith began. Question answered. Now freedom to put his own spin on things: “The proportion of first home buyers, both in Auckland and nationally have been increasing since this government’s KiwiSaver HomeStart scheme was announced in 2014. I also note that the proportion of home sales to first home buyers according to Corelogic is currently 21% nationally. That’s actually better than when we became government in 2008.”
Twyford took a different tack. “Does he agree with Quotable Value that lending restrictions have meant “cash buyers purchasing property in New Zealand from overseas often have the advantage over New Zealanders,” and if so, why is he content for New Zealand first home buyers to be at the back of the queue?”
Things were quite the opposite, Smith replied. This government had introduced the most generous scheme for first home buyers in over a generation, he said, referencing KiwiSaver and HomeStart.
Was it reasonable then, after nine years of a National-led government, for first home buyers to have to take out a $500,000 mortgage just to buy an entry-level home in Auckland today? Twyford asked. Smith’s answer implied that he didn’t think it was reasonable:
“That’s why this government is working so hard to grow housing supply and why I’m so dumfounded that today…the members opposite are going to oppose new housing in Point England, why they oppose housing at Hobsonville, why they’ve opposed houses in Mangere, why they’ve opposed houses in Three Kings. And I just don’t get it, how he’s got the audacity then to complain there’s not enough houses being built.”
Back to foreign buyers. Did Smith agree that because the government does not accurately measure the number of residential sales to foreign buyers, there was no way of knowing what share of sales were going to those offshore? Why, after all these years, was the government still not gathering accurate data on foreign buyers?
Not so, was the response. Legislative changes meant the government did have better information on purchases by non-NZ tax residents. “The problem for Mr Twyford, after his Chinese-sounding names debacle, is that the numbers are so small and his embarrassment is so great he now wants to invent some other set of numbers to try and justify his Chinese-sounding name debacle.”
If the government’s data on foreign buyers was so good, why would Quotable Value say it is not gathering accurate data on foreign buyers? Twyford pressed.
Again, the government had accurate data right down to the “very last number of the number of tax-resident overseas buyers,” Smith said. Then the dig: “And the number is so [infinitely] small that it’s even less than the number of foreign-paid slave workers that the Labour Party is recruiting to try and help their…”
Speaker David Carter cut him short.
English skips around Barclay Affair
Earlier, the Opposition took two shots at trying to hold Bill English to account over the Todd Barclay saga. Winston Peters and then Andrew Little were met with largely the same answers to every question.
English was helped by a handy rule that the Prime Minister is only responsible to the House for his conduct as a Minister and the conduct of his Ministers, and not for the conduct of mere National Party caucus members without Ministerial warrants. “I don’t have Ministerial responsibility for this issue,” was the standard response.
Carter did allow Peters and Little to ask questions, though. If questions related to comments made by English as Prime Minister, they would be within Standing Orders – fair game. Luckily again for English, he had another foil. In light of the Police re-opening their investigation into Barclay’s actions, it was not appropriate for him to comment.
Perhaps it didn’t matter. Being allowed to ask questions meant Peters and Little were able to raise various matters on the floor of the House which some media were waiting for (you can’t defame someone in the House, and those particular comments can then be used by the media).
From Little: “Given the contents of the tapes have now been revealed to concern Todd Barclay and sex and drug matters, does he accept the tapes exist and when was he aware of their contents?” It was let through to the keeper.
English then sought to shift the attention back on to Labour, in particular the party’s attempts to clean up a scheme linked to them which brought in 85 foreign students to work for former chief of staff Matt McCarten’s change-the-government campaign.
“In response to the leader of the Free Foreign Labour Party…” was a favourite. English tried to get the dig in a couple of times before the Speaker sat him down again. The first retort from Little: “And how many young Nats have gone to help the Republicans?” The second: “Putting aside the Prime Minister’s admiration for my exemplary truthfulness…”
Then, a bit of an interlude. Free market campaigner and anti-nanny-stater David Seymour had his opportunity to hold National to account over a gross act of government imposing itself on the free rights of individual citizens.
Was it about tax? Nope. Education? Nope. Free speech? Nope. Law and Order? Nope. Free Trade? Nope. Transport? Nope. Immigration? Nope. The Welfare State? Nope. The Environment? Nope. Superannuation? Nope. But that’s basically all of ACT’s key themes…
“What is the cost to restaurants of a bespoke custom Food Control Plan for a burger in time and money?”
Ah. The “sad, bureaucratic over-reach” of Medium-Rare Burger-Gate. Very topical. Very close to the hearts of so many New Zealanders looking to decide who to vote for in 87 days’ time. How many people have actually been killed by medium-rare burgers in New Zealand, Seymour thundered down the floor of the House to Food Safety Minister David Bennett who played back with a straight bat.
The ACT Party leader (and only MP – can’t guess why) even raised examples of actions that had caused greater levels of e-coli poisoning than undercooked meat had, including contact with household pets and contact with children wearing nappies. What was Bennett going to do about these instances, Seymour asked.
“He’ll change your nappy,” came a cry from across the Opposition side of the House. This wasn’t the only time baby-of-the-House Seymour was the butt of a wise-crack Tuesday. During an earlier speech congratulating Emirates Team New Zealand for winning the America’s Cup (every party leader gave one), Seymour had referenced “traitorous” sailors who had previously left ETNZ’s employment. “It’s called the free market, David,” came the interjection.
Back to the more serious stuff. Time for Grant Robertson and Steven Joyce to continue their great data disagreement match.
The primary question from Labour’s finance spokesman: “Is the New Zealand economy delivering for all New Zealanders, in particular the 41,000 who are homeless, the 533,000 who could not afford to go to the doctor last year, or the 90,000 young people not in employment, education, or training?”
Joyce: “I do have to note the member for misrepresenting those statistics. There are around 1,400 people who don’t have a place to live, 2.1 million New Zealanders have access to free or low-cost GP visits, and the unemployment rate for 15-24 year olds is actually 4.7% of the total age group, which is lower than the general population rate of 4.9%.” Then the customary dig at Labour voting against the Budget family incomes package.
Robertson wasn’t convinced: “Can he confirm that the number of 41,000 homeless in the primary question comes from the census produced by Statistics New Zealand, and is in fact the government’s definition of homeless?”
“No,” Joyce replied. “In fact, the member should go back and look at the data because the data refers to 41,200 people who are living in a range of situations, including temporarily resident with friends or family, in boarding houses, motels, emergency housing or women’s refuges. The amount of people estimated to be living rough or in improvised dwellings is 1,413. The member needs to get his figures accurate.”
Homeless versus homeless, I guess. It's a serious issue. But it also provides a nice segue to wrap up on. Later, it was Robertson who was out of the House. Remember Nick Smith launching into a rant about foreign slave labour? Well that set Robertson off.
“You lie Nick...” The one accusation you can’t make of another member in Parliament. Withdraw and apologise, David Carter ordered, to which Robertson said he was not prepared to do. That could only mean one thing – out of the Chamber for him.