Wellington, October 10,2023
The running themes were Labour’s failure to deliver on its policies and National’s uncosted tax plan.
Those appeared to be the fallback positions adopted by National’s finance spokesperson Nicola Willis and Labour’s Minister of Finance Grant Robertson, respectively, as they faced each other, yet again, to argue over New Zealand’s economy in Wellington on Monday.
Both contestants warmly welcomed migrants to New Zealand in the runup to the general election on 14 October 2023.
Role of Reserve Bank
The Reserve Bank and its decisions during the Covid-19 pandemic provided the big backdrop for Robertson and Willis as they rated bank governor Adrian Orr’s oversight of the country’s economy during the unprecedented uncertainty of 2020, with Robertson for and Willis against Orr.
But the argumentation on either side followed a set-piece pattern, with Willis pointing to the Labour government’s reckless spending, while Robertson attempted to seize the moral high ground by claiming the spending “saved about 20,000 lives and hundreds of thousands of people’s jobs.”
Robertson stoked Labour’s left-of-centre constituency by invoking National’s apparent pro-landlord policies on housing.
But National’s mantelpiece policy of taxing foreign buyers 15% for houses costing $2 million and above, aimed at funding its tax plan, was looking increasingly quixotic as the debate, and the wider campaign, wore on.
Cost of living
It was matched only by Labour’s shuffling over GST off fruits and veggies, which would need, according to Willis, “an army of people with clip boards” to implement.
Willis ridiculed Labour’s “feast and famine approach” to spending, with dependence on benefits going up, education standards falling and health sector delivery lacking.
But Robertson talked up the government’s funding for “an extra nearly 3000 teachers during that period of time, an extra 4000 doctors, 510 social workers- I could go on.”
Characteristically, Robertson blamed global trends for contributing to the inflationary environment in New Zealand.
But through the thrust and parry, one thing was clear. Both contestants eyed potential savings in the bureaucracy, except that National favoured drastic downsizing and pegging CEO pay to performance.
Robertson was cautionary, saying: “What I know for certain is that if you try and find 6.5% among some of those agencies as National wants to do, it will be deep job cuts.” He feared that “about 6000 people supposedly will lose their jobs before Christmas.”
Willis retorted that “any saving they [ministries] can make in the bureaucracy, they should drive that money to the frontline because, boy oh boy, do our schools and hospitals need it.”
Both sides converged on the value of strong net migration, but Willis blamed the government for keeping the borders closed for too long before “opening the floodgates,” leading to migrant exploitation.
Robertson argued for the need to strike a balance between “making sure we train people who are here and bringing the workforce in that we need.” Willis rounded off the segment by pointing out that New Zealand was “better off economically, socially and culturally, thanks to the waves of New Zealanders who have come here from other parts of the world. We should welcome them, embrace them and thank them for choosing our country.”
Willis favoured making polluters pay while Robertson viewed climate change as an opportunity to promote renewable energy.
On balance, the debate on the economy was fiery rather than illuminating, generating more heat than light.
Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington