A week to make you weep

The new government's first week in the House leaves the country less fair, less green and less democratic. Is this the change New Zealanders voted for?

When National MPs gather for Friday drinks this evening they will reflect on what's been at best a mixed first week for them on the Treasury benches. New Zealanders however will have no doubt how the week's gone – it's been a stinker.

The new government has looked decidedly wobbly on its training wheels, what with procedural mistakes in Parliament, its introduction of bills with no names and u-turns on housing and KiwiSaver policy. But MPs will be pleased that the speech from the throne has been delivered, Dr Lockwood Smith was elected Speaker unopposed, and Paula Bennett even won some headlines by axing a conference. It's a start.

But undertaking a line-by-line review of what the government has achieved this week, it's disappointing, dispiriting and more than a little shameful.Take a step back and consider what's been achieved this week:

  • Tax cuts have been passed that in the coming year give nothing to families earning under $45,000. Not a cent. (Although people in work but without children get $10 a week as "independent earners".)So much for National's promise in the speech from the throne to "take seriously its duty to protect our most vulnerable citizens". At a time when we want to boost the amount of money circulating in the economy, the people who spend the highest proportion of their income get no assistance. So, using Treasury figures, a person earning $40,000 gets nothing in 2009, nothing in 2010, and $5 a week in 2011. After three years they are $260 better off. A person earning $100,000 gets $24 a week in 2009, $34 a week in 2010, and $41 a week in 2011, leaving them $2160 better off after three years.

You're wondering what that means for the politicians passing the bill? No Right Turn has done the sums on how National MPs will benefit by April 2010, and  says:

  • John Key (Prime Minister): Paid $393,000, so gets $8,660.
  • Bill English (Deputy Prime Minister): Paid $267,700, so gets $5,154.
  • Gerry Brownlee, Nick Smith, and other Cabinet Ministers: Paid $243,700, so get $4,674.

It's unfair and it's no way to stimulate an economy.

  • New Zealand's Emissions Trading Scheme has been put on hold, losing our exporters any competitive advantage they may have gained as world leaders. Energy minister Gerry Brownlee yesterday said "we are going to have an ETS", which Audrey Young says in the Herald is National "fourth position on the matter in the past six weeks". But it won't be for months. Next week, however, the government will repeal a law requiring oil companies to sell a proportion of biofuels. All this in the same week that US President-elect Barack Obama has announced that his new energy secretary will be Dr Steve Chu, currently head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and one of the world's leading alternative energy experts. Chu has for the past two years been spending $500 million of BP's money to research how to lower emissions and find new sources of energy. Obama is expected to have ETS legislation ready within the year. While the rest of the world moves ahead, we instigate a review led by Peter Dunne.
  • A law that the Human Rights Commission has described as a "fundamental change" to labour laws is being passed through all stages under urgency. The government pretends the 90-day probation bill is a response to the financial crisis and rising unemployment, but they tried to pass a similar in 2006 when the economy was performing well and unemployment low. National was constantly critical of the previous government's arrogance and abuse of procedures, but is now playing the same games.
  • National in Opposition repeatedly argued that the "politicisation of the public service has to stop". Yet in its first week of action it has over-ridden Pharmac, an independent agency, funding extra Herceptin contrary to what its expert political servants had decided. The decision is purely, cynically political – the campaign promise was a way for National to present itself as the party of "compassionate conservatism". I imagine the 300 women who now get 12 months of Herceptin for free won't mind being used as PR pawns, but what about the thousands of other New Zealanders who are paying for their own life-saving medicine without government help?

Combined, these policies make New Zealand unfairer, less green, less democratic and our public service less independent. In a single week, that's simply appalling governance. Even those who support tax cuts, more flexible labour laws and increased Herceptin funding and oppose the ETS, should have qualms about the implications of these laws and how they're being passed. Come to think of it, some of the MPs at those Friday drinks tonight will probably be feeling a little dirty as well.

I don't for a second believe this is the kind of change New Zealanders voted for. Hopefully, this gets the dirty politics and pay-backs out of the way and John Key can begin to live up to the faith that New Zealanders placed in him and his team. But it's the kind of start that must have many New Zealanders wondering whether the right to fire with impunity under 90-day probation bill might extend to MPs.

Update: I'm not the only one rapidly losing the inclination to give John Key the benefit of the doubt.