By Alex Tarrant
Housing was front-and-centre for Labour’s new leadership team in Parliament Wednesday, with Jacinda Ardern taking on Bill English over first home buyers and Kelvin Davis questioning Maori Development Minister Te Ururoa Flavell over the homeless and Maori housing initiatives.
Auckland transport was also on the agenda, with Mt Roskill MP Michael Wood asking Transport Minister Simon Bridges about the city’s worsening congestion problems. Light rail to the airport sooner-than-planned, as well as improved public transport within the city look set to be a big part of Labour’s election platform.
Meanwhile, David Clark continued his challenging of Health Minister Jonathan Coleman over the stuff up that saw more money allocated to District Health Boards than there was to dish out in Budget 2017; the health portfolio and promises to spend billions more another key campaign plank.
Free education was then picked up by Ardern in her first General Debate speech as leader, with a quote on fairness from former Labour MP Peter Fraser and an acknowledgement that while voters did not expect politicians to produce silver bullets, they did want to see ideas for how to foster a fairer society.
Other current policy ideas promoted by Ardern included on research and development tax credits, multi-national tax avoidance and work schemes for youth not in education, employment or training. “We are the peoples’ party,” Ardern said at one stage – and the people were concerned about the state of the land on which they lived. The message there: New Zealand should be a leader on climate change policy.
First home buyers
Ardern’s line of questioning on first home buyers could have well been written last week initially for Andrew Little to take to Question Time today. But it seemed to fit better coming from the new candidate in the Leader of the Opposition’s chair.
It also didn’t seem to matter how English answered – he raised some valid points on why it’s tough to argue the environment for first home buyers is worse now than a generation ago.
The PM sought to bat away the primary question of why only one in five New Zealanders under 40 owned their own home by mentioning that figure includes 16, 17 and 18 year-olds. He also argued the government was increasing access to finance by allowing KiwiSaver funds to be withdrawn – 27,000 first home buyers helped there – and by putting up HomeStart grants – enough for 90,000 buyers over the next few years, he said.
Ardern fired back: In that case how come home ownership rates had fallen constantly over the previous nine years? “Nine long years,” one of her backbenchers chimed in. English’s response was that this had been a phenomenon around the developed world, with home ownership in many countries falling over the past 25 years. Add another plug for those HomeStart grants.
Then it became generational. Ardern asked English whether he thought it was harder for first home buyers today than it was a generation ago? Buyers in each camp faced different problems, English replied. In 2007, just before Labour left office, first home buyers faced 10% interest rates, he said en route to arguing that in the 1980s buyers faced rates of 20%.
While it was easier to service a mortgage nowadays, English said that current roadblocks include saving the initial deposit for a first home. Ardern put to him that this was $200,000 required to buy an average home in Auckland – not the best example of what a FHB typically goes for, but a big round number that sounded good in Parliament.
“It’s always been difficult,” was English’s response. That’s why HomeStart existed. A faux-patsy question from ACT’s David Seymour also allowed English to rail against Auckland’s previous planning rules. Thank goodness for the new unitary plan, then.
Ardern had a question for that as well. Was it not a problem that, of the houses getting built, only 5% were ‘affordable’ starter houses? English trumpeted a growing supply of new houses. The PM brushed off a question about a 40,000 shortfall by saying the government didn’t accept the figure.
But he did accept there had been problems. Auckland Council had underestimated just how successful the city would become, English said. If current build rates were sustained, then any shortfalls should be overcome within a few years, meaning more New Zealanders would be able to afford a first home. At least he admitted there is a shortfall.
On the issue of Auckland, another major plank of Labour’s election campaign in the city looks set to be led by transport spokesman Michael Wood, MP for Mt Roskill. Wood took on Transport Minister Simon Bridges over congestion, raising a report indicating the city might experience $1.3bn in productivity gains if it were able to tackle the problem. He used the opportunity to put in a plug for Labour Party support for light rail from the CBD to the airport earlier than planned.
Bridges accepted there were congestion problems in the city, as its economy and population grew. Auckland was even growing at twice the rate of Hong Kong, he pointed out. But projects underway and just finished should help, with the Southern Motorway and Waterview Tunnel prime examples.
David Seymour popped up again – it’s a bit like whack-a-mole with that guy in Question Time - to challenge Bridges on why the government wasn’t moving faster on congestion pricing in Auckland. Was Bridges concerned that he was now to the Left of Auckland Mayor Phil Goff, who wanted charging imposed sooner?
The answer was somewhat muffled beneath cries from Opposition MPs: “You’re supposed to be on their side,” and “no cup of tea for you,” being hurled over at the ACT Party leader, who is only in Parliament at the good will of Epsom’s National-leaning voters.