[As published in Nov/Dec BayBuzz magazine]
As I write, the centre and extreme right have carried the day. Actually governing might be a different proposition. As you read this in early November, New Zealand will have a new two or (Yikes!) three-headed coalition Government. We’ll do our best to analyse what this might mean for Hawke’s Bay.
First, let’s begin with what is certain. Hawke’s Bay has elected two new, first-time MPs – Catherine Wedd for Tukituki and Katie Nimon for Napier.
Both have big shoes to fill.
As a high-ranking Cabinet Minister, until his fall from grace Stuart Nash carried weight and influence within his Government’s deliberations – and in securing benefits for Napier – that MP Nimon won’t carry for another election or two. But she has no shortage of brains or energy, and has a first-hand knowledge of the region’s hospitality and transport issues, so should grow into the role if there are more terms in her future.
Anna Lorck was the region’s junior MP, but it would be hard to imagine a harder working, more persistent champion for the Tukituki constituency. In terms of service, she’s set a high bar for her successor. Given that MP Wedd has never before been involved in the community, it will be interesting to see how she sinks roots into the region’s various competing interests and issues.
Most of those who voted against Nimon or Wedd would have the view, fairly or not, that they are clueless about the needs of the bottom socioeconomic quarter of Hawke’s Bay’s population. Hopefully they will demonstrate otherwise.
Meantime, coalition-forming will result in an already conservative National Party being pulled strongly to the right.
The campaign has shed virtually no light on how this Government will pay for New Zealand’s absolute necessities – 3 Waters, transport and health infrastructure; remaining near-term recovery needs; severe labour and skills shortages in every critical occupation – healthcare, education, aged care, engineering, trades, prison guards; affordable housing; preparing for a climate-challenging future.
Despite ACT’s plan to cut $25.5 billion in government spending, sack 15,000 public employees, and scrap entire departments and agencies, there simply aren’t enough Wellington bureaucrats to fire. Only so many workers to move from the ‘back office’ to the ‘frontline’. Not enough regulations to repeal. Not enough cheap ‘100 day’ magic to carry through a full term.
At some point, the National-led Government will need to face the reality that ‘quash’ isn’t enough, real solutions will require ‘dosh’, not shell games. And its backers must be the one’s to pay. Good luck explaining that to David Seymour!
While the high powers sort out the Cabinet table seating, it is possible to give some taste of how a new Government might affect business-as-usual here in Hawke’s Bay.
Starting with our primary sector economic engine, currently sputtering in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle.
Count on our local primary sector leaders to be making two basic demands: 1) more Government money to support a stronger re-start for food growers; and 2) ‘rescue’ from ‘excessive’ demands for freshwater water quality and, for the sheep and beef farmers, ‘overly ambitious’ GHG reductions.
Dealing first with cyclone relief, the original estimate of HB farm/orchard losses was around $1 billion, with damage having a multi-year long tail.
Turning to agriculture’s environmental challenges, the Labour Government promulgated tougher freshwater standards, now in the process of being implemented. Regions are required to have catchment-based plans for attaining those targets, and farmers are required to have farm plans indicating how they will comply with the targets behind their farm gate. Farmers are also required to be measuring their GHG emissions by the end of this year.
With ACT and NZ First downright hostile to action on climate change (ACT wanting to scrap the Zero Carbon Act), and National believing Labour’s treatment of agricultural emissions (chiefly methane) is too aggressive, ‘relaxation’ of climate-related requirements is a sure bet. Whether the Government will tamper with the freshwater standards is unclear, as the issue here is more the pace of implementation than the standards themselves. Hawke’s Bay had already been given a modest postponement in meeting the freshwater policy requirements, as Labour had sought to roll these out sequentially across the nation.
When demands like these hit the Cabinet, countervailing considerations will be fiscal reality in the first instance. The Labour Government, and now its successor, had to be mindful of the precedents being set by any form of large-scale disaster relief assistance, given that similar future disasters of this scale are a certainty. Complicated issues to sort out.
And while Labour’s political critics complained of the pace of decision-making, a National-led Government could not behave differently. Labour’s response was a mixture of cash relief directed chiefly at immediate clean-up and a loan financing scheme (bank led) aimed at supporting viable farming/growing businesses to get back on their feet as quickly as possible.
HB’s primary sector didn’t get government support in the amount it wanted, nor in the form it wanted. The new Government will struggle to find any more cash in the till.
As for relaxing environmental and climate goals, the Government will discover widespread agribusiness leader recognition that our economy-sustaining overseas customers expect NZ to ‘walk the talk’ with respect to stringent environmental standards and serious emissions reductions. NZ’s – and HB’s – agriculture economy is first and foremost an export-driven sector. The smart leaders in agribiz realise that access to overseas markets must be the number one objective. Hopefully they will have the ear of the incoming Government.
However that big picture debate comes out, there will still be space for local squabbles over how to advance the interests of HB’s farming sector. At the top of the list will be how to achieve greater water security, which will resolve around the perceived need and options for large-scale water storage.
On the healthcare front, the parties to the incoming Government agree on the scrapping of the Māori Health Agency. It’s a goner. No one is talking about a return to DHBs, so it’s unclear what other structural change might occur.
A bigger question mark for HB is where on National’s priority list a new hospital will be? Their health policy manifesto specifically promises to complete a hospital for Dunedin, but makes no comment whatsoever on any other hospital construction. Until further notice, say good-bye to the $1.1 billion ante proffered by Labour.
Some might consider a new hospital for Hawke’s Bay as gravy, considering that there’s insufficient clinical staff available to run the one we have safely. Or enough GPs to open enrollments. Or enough health caretakers to provide home care to HB’s rapidly growing ageing population.
National’s campaign manifesto essentially replicated all the existing Labour targets on outcomes, vaccinations, and waiting times, but without the necessary workforce, targets remain nothing more than wish lists … nothing will improve. That’s the reality faced by the new Government and Labour alike. Labour was on the right path, putting up the money for substantial pay raises for nurses and midwives, and loosening immigration.
National said it would earmark $1.4 billion in each of the next four budgets to cover ‘health sector cost pressures’. This would be more impressive if a credible source of such funding were discoverable in their fiscal plan.
Regardless of who is in power, it will take most of a decade – even assuming the political will and capacity to spend more heavily on this sector exists – before NZ has the health workforce it requires.
So, HB patients, don’t expect to see much change over the next three years.
Labour’s main contribution to near-term cyclone recovery was a package of $556 million applied to home buy-outs (up to $92.5 million), flood protection ($203.5 million), and repair of transportation infrastructure ($260 million). Other government monies have been provided for silt removal, individual and small business cash support, disaster hubs, research into health and environmental impacts, tourism promotion, etc.
More recently, a draft plan from Hawke’s Bay Regional Recovery Agency (HBRRA) put the full price tag for recovery at $4.2 billion. Says HBRRA: “This includes cost estimates for short term-Restoration activities as well as Reconstruction and Improvement activities over several years.”
As discussed above, a substantial portion of that, a bit over $1 billion would be claimed by our primary sector.
Referring to a potential change of Government, the draft Regional Recovery Plan prepared by HBRRA states: “A shift in political leadership could result in changes to existing policies, laws, or funding priorities. This could lead to disruptions in the implementation of recovery initiatives, changes in funding allocations, or shifts in strategic priorities.” Surely our new Hawke’s Bay MPs won’t allow this to happen!
That cautionary note aside, in terms of commitments made by the Labour Government to Hawke’s Bay’s recovery, our local officials expect those to stand. Blair O’Keeffe, chair of the HB Regional Recovery Agency told BayBuzz: “The Opposition has made it clear that they will honour commitments made by the current Government, and we look forward to continuing to work closely with the incoming Government – whoever that is – post-election.” We shall see … certainly David Seymour seems to have a warm spot in his heart for Hawke’s Bay.
Other than complaining, through its local MP candidates, that local officials were moving too slowly to sort the futures of distressed property owners, and proposing an ombudsman to fix things, National has been circumspect about Hawke’s Bay’s recovery needs. Nothing has been said about committing any remaining part of the region’s recovery price tag. I discuss the region’s recovery prospects elsewhere in this magazine.
The only disagreement amongst coalition parties on this issue is how aggressively to roll-back various Labour initiatives to promote Māori participation and cultural recognition. At the extreme, ACT wants to rewrite the Treaty of Waitangi via a Treaty Principles Act and then put that Act to a referendum. National opposes that. NZ First, if relevant, is somewhere in between.
Whatever this trio comes up with will surely be seen by Māori (at the very least) as unconscionable steps backward in the nation’s social comity. Hopefully here in Hawke’s Bay, with a 27% Māori population, we will weather the storm, as Denis O’Reilly opines in his column.
At a local governance level, nothing is likely to change. The Māori seats on our various councils will remain, and Māori participation in other key decision-making bodies, like the Regional Recovery Agency and the Regional Economic Development Agency, will remain secure. Our current crop of local political and agency leaders seems genuinely committed to co-governance in form; whether it works is more in the hands of Māori participants … issue by issue, entity by entity.
As Abby Beswick reported in her Sep/Oct BayBuzz article, True Crime, Hawke’s Bay’s crime profile is a mixed bag.
Compared to last year, residential assault, non-residential assault, general violence and disorder, and residential burglary have all decreased in the region, say Police. There are specific areas of concern, however. Arguably most alarming is the increase in gang membership, with the number of people on the police gang register in the Eastern District rising from 801 in 2017, to 1367 in 2023 – an increase of 71%.
Retail and violent crime incidents have also increased in our region, with retail incidents increasing 41% between 2018 and 2022, and violent crime by 23% between 2017 and 2022.
Unfortunately, there’s been too much rhetorical nonsense around crime in this campaign.
The political right’s war on crime boils down to banning patches in public, boot camps and throwing more people in prison.
Well, our region has a prison. The incoming Government would promise plenty more inmates available for the Hawke’s Bay prison at an annual cost of $151,000 per head, if we can fit them in. National says we have the space, but news reports say prisoners are being shuffled around as some prisons reach capacity limit, partly due to guards shortage.
One glimmer of hope on the crime scene is that both Labour and National agree that more attention and resourcing should be given to prisoner rehabilitation programmes and post-prison help. Today, prisoners not yet formally convicted receive no rehab, and upon release a prisoner is given a laughable one-off $350 ‘Steps to Freedom’ payment.
Wouldn’t it be good to see the coalition parties focus their adrenaline on the major cause of violence in New Zealand … domestic violence! It’s the number one reason for Police callouts – Police respond to a family harm incident every four minutes. One in three New Zealand women have experienced physical or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime, rising to 55% when psychological abuse is added. One in eight men report being victims of family violence.
Also hopeful is that Chris Luxon previously expressed support for a Labour-launched strategy to eliminate family and sexual violence. He has referred to NZ’s “shameful record” which required “bipartisan, cross-party support” to address.
With family violence being a huge issue in Hawke’s Bay, that sounds like a terrific and deserving remit from the boss for National MPs Wedd and Nimon – passionate about crime during their campaigns – to champion just as passionately in office.
These are the areas – where Government policies have a particular or special impact on Hawke’s Bay – that BayBuzz will be following as the new regime takes hold. Heaps of change ahead with consequences to be assessed. Heaps of campaign promises made, to be held to account.