New Zealand’s new coalition government turns back the clock

Dec 1, 2023
National flag of New Zealand

The new National Party led government for New Zealand will be New Zealand’s first cabinet coalition of three parties. Their joint agreement, hammered out during a month of difficult negotiations, will reverse a number of reforms introduced by the outgoing Labour Government and cut public service staff to approach 2017 levels.

The outgoing Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said the agreement is “a confused and contradictory grab bag of commitments that will ultimately take New Zealand backwards”.

“They have decided to prioritise landlords over renters, the oil and gas industry over New Zealand’s international reputation and environment, they have decided to prioritise the tobacco industry over the health of all New Zealanders.” He said the government will need to borrow to cover their tax cuts so inflation and interest rates will stay higher for longer and cancel out any benefit from the cuts.

The new Prime Minister is Christopher Luxon, a former CEO of Air New Zealand. The leaders of the two minor coalition partners will share the deputy Prime minister role, with populist NZ First Party leader Winston Peters taking on the role for the first eighteen months and David Seymour, leader of the libertarian ACT party taking on the following 18 months.

The Cabinet of 20 Ministers will have 14 National Party Ministers, three from NZ First and three from ACT. Peters will be Foreign Minister. Seymour’s portfolios include Associate Minister of Education where he will oversee the coalition agreement’s plan to reintroduce partnership schools. They will be free from Education Department regulations and will choose how they operate and use their funding. A previous system of partnership schools operating in New Zealand included a number of schools that failed and the system was abolished by the Labour Government after it was elected in 2017. ACT plans to allow private interests to open partnership schools and also to allow public schools to convert to the partnership school model.

The coalition government pledges to “restore balance” to the history curriculum in schools by changing the refreshed curriculum released in 2022 which was aimed to give students better knowledge of Maori, Pacific migration and New Zealand’s Asian communities.

The coalition will launch debates on potentially divisive subjects including on the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840, a foundation document of New Zealand’s otherwise unwritten constitution.

Opening the Treaty issue will start a race debate with unknown consequences. Several coalition policies affecting Maori language and culture have already offended those many New Zealanders who treasure the multicultural aspects of their society.

The Treaty debate will start with a bill to Parliament based on the right-wing ACT party’s policy to hold a referendum on the Treaty. The Bill will be debated and sent to a Select Committee for hearings.

Christopher Finlayson, who was Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations under the previous National-led Government says while he doesn’t think there is any problem with ACT raising questions about the Treaty principles he doesn’t agree with a referendum on the matter.

He said there is a danger of inflammatory language that is not the New Zealand way of doing things and I don’t want to see us becoming utterly polarised like places like the United States. In almost a decade in charge of Treaty settlements, Finlayson oversaw an unprecedented 59 settlements.

There are a number of measures that attack the trend towards greater use of Maori language in government departments and which through “co-governance” were aimed at tackling specifically Maori problems. The new government will remove all references to co-governance from public services.

A Maori Health Authority, established to deal with very poor Maori health outcomes and low Maori life expectancy will be abolished. The Coalition Government will also ensure that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has no binding legal effect in New Zealand.

The ACT Party also provides the Associate Minister of Justice for Firearm Reforms, Nicole McKee. She has pledged to overturn the firearm controls introduced by the Labour Government after the massacres in the Christchurch mosques in March 2019 in which 51 people died and forty were injured.

The Government will have a problem paying for the election promises it made regarding tax breaks. The original plan would have allowed foreign buyers to purchase property in New Zealand. They would have paid a “Foreign Buyers Tax” that would have funded the tax cuts. In the coalition negotiations New Zealand First blocked the plan leaving the Government with the problem of where to find alternative funds.

National had already planned to cut the public service head count by about six percent, or 6,500 full time employees. ACT wanted to cut the head count by the amount of increase since Labour became the Government in 2017. This was agreed, although only “back-office roles” will be cut. It is estimated that over twelve thousand public servants could lose their jobs.

Large businesses like pharmaceuticals, tobacco and petroleum companies are winners from the agreement. The Labour Government’s ban on new offshore oil and gas exploration will be reversed. A ban on pseudoephedrine which is the basis of the illegal drug Ice, known as ‘P’ in New Zealand, will be overturned.

The outgoing Labour Government passed some of the toughest laws in the world to tackle tobacco related disease by progressively lifting the age for cigarette sales, so that anyone born after January 1, 2009, would never be able to buy tobacco. Other measures included dramatically reducing the legal amount of nicotine in tobacco products and limiting their sale to specialty tobacco stores rather than corner stores and supermarkets. The changes would save the health system billions of dollars. The new coalition will repeal these reforms. Professor Richard Edwards, a tobacco control researcher and public health expert at the University of Otago said “We are appalled and disgusted. This is an incredibly retrograde step on world-leading, absolutely excellent health measures.”

All three coalition parties campaigned on policies to deal with issues of law and order. Among their agreed measures are to employ five hundred more police officers in two years and establish boot camps for young offenders.

The Three Strikes legislation which had been abolished by the Labour Government after some perverse and absurd outcomes. In one case the Supreme Court had to act after a man with serious mental health problems was given a seven year jail term for kissing a woman in a Wellington street. Three Strikes will be restored with amendments to ensure less perverse results.

A “full scale, wide ranging, independent” inquiry into the COVID response will be held, even though a Royal Commission of Inquiry is already underway into the Covid-19 response.

There are measures to make life easier for landlords and farmers, but there appear to be no policies that would continue the progress made towards reducing emissions to reach the legally binding net-zero emissions by 2050. Instead two major public transport programmes have been cancelled: A light rail system for Auckland and a project for major investments in mass rapid transit, walking and cycling, public transport and state highway improvements in the capital city Wellington.

The outgoing Prime Minister Chris Hipkins joked: “It is good to note that Christopher Luxon is moving into a round office (near the top of the Beehive building in Wellington) given the circles that David Seymour and Winston Peters seem to be running around him and no doubt will for the next three years”.

The new territory of a three-pronged cabinet coalition government comes with possible instability both inside and outside Cabinet. Of most concern to those who care are the mischievous policies to promote a race debate that could produce confrontation and conflict, and the absence of vision or leadership to deal with the towering issues of extreme economic inequality and climate change.

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