Bill English was sworn in as Prime Minister yesterday and already faces some tough questions over the Government's performance on child poverty and a challenge from the Pike River families on his first day.
Barely 24 hours after being sworn in, he faces calls for the Government to commit to a child poverty reduction target and having to say no to a meeting with the Pike River families, who now control the road to the mine.
New Childrens' Commissioner Andrew Becroft released the third Child Poverty Monitor report this morning and called on the Government to take urgent action to prevent a third generation of children being consigned to living in poverty.
"My simple plea today is for the government urgently to provide a plan to tackle child poverty in New Zealand," Becroft said.
The report showed 85,000 kids went without nine or more things they needed, while 90,000 children or 8% of children were in both low income households and living in material hardship.
"I think we have a real social responsibility, all New Zealanders, to ensure that the benefits of economic growth are made accessible to all in the community, especially children," Becroft said.
"This is not a recent problem - it goes back several decades and rates of child poverty have not improved," he said.
Jacinda Ardern said Labour had committed to Becroft's target of reducing material hardship by 5-10% in the next year, which was a target rejected by the Government.
"Labour agrees with the UN Sustainable Development goal to cut poverty by half by 2030. Ultimately, the aim should be to end child poverty in New Zealand," she said.
The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) focused on housing costs and low incomes in its comments on the report.
"While it’s clear Government cannot meet the demand for housing so many in need, what is being fundamentally ignored is the need to address family incomes," said Frank Hogan , CPAG Housing and Law spokesman. "The beans thrown at beneficiaries on April 1 this year would have been swallowed up almost entirely by housing costs," he said.
English not talking about tax cuts
English used his first news conference as National leader to talk up the prospects for extra infrastructure spending, house building and the need to share the benefits of economic growth widely, rather than talk about the need for big tax cuts that would benefit the wealthy most.
English made the comments after he was elected unopposed by the National Caucus of 59 MPs. Fellow leadership contenders Judith Collins and Jonathan Coleman withdrew last week. The same meeting elected Paula Bennett unopposed as Deputy Leader after Simon Bridges withdrew on Saturday. English was later sworn in as Prime Minister at Government House in Wellington after John Key formally resigned to the Governor General.
"In the coming months and years we will focus on building the roads, public transport, schools and houses needed to support a strong economy and the growing population," English said.
"We will also focus on better incomes for our households, safer communities and smarter government support for the most vulnerable," he said.
"This will be a government supporting economic growth and ensuring that the benefits of growth are widely shared."
English said he would build on previous Prime Minister John Key's record of making New Zealand distinctive as "open to trade, open to investment and immigration."
He said he expected to make decisions on a new cabinet later in the week and for it to be in place before Christmas.
No NZ Super pledge
Also, English repeated comments made last week that he would not copy John Key's commitment to resign if there were any changes to the New Zealand Superannuation settings.
"I am not making the same pledge as the previous Prime Minister did. That was a product of its time. There was a need to establish trust and I think it was a sound decision then, because the election was followed by a recession which could have caused real insecurity for older people," he said.
"I think now we have built credibility as a government that we will support those who rely on the government for income, we won't put them in a worse position, we will work to get them in a better position, and that will be maintained."
English also said he would continue to take an overview of his 'Social Investment' approach to spending on welfare, whereby the Government spent heavily up-front to help a beneficiary get off a benefit permanently.
"We need to be much more active, much more focused on those who have huge challenges and government has enormous capacity to do a better job and I want to make sure that happens," he said.
More house buiding?
Asked if the Government would have a policy re-think over housing and the Government building more housing itself, he said: "We will be doing stock take, but the government is already pretty heavily involved and you will be seeing more rolling out over the next 12 months."
Asked if an English-led Government would focus more on the less fortunate than a Key Government, English pointed to the Government's record of increasing benefits for the first time in real terms since the early 1970s as a sign.
"So I think a few pegs have been laid down and we are signalling that we will be continuing down that road," he said.
Change on gay marriage
Elsewhere, English was asked about how his Catholic faith would shape his role as Prime Minister on issues such as abortion and euthanasia, which he said he continued to oppose. However, he said he would probably vote differently now on gay marriage. He voted against the Gay Marriage amendment Act in 2013.
"I don't think that gay marriage is a threat to anyone else's marriage," he said.
Quotes of the day:
John Key talking to reporters in Parliament about whether he'd enjoy anonymity:
"Truthfully, I'm the kind of person that likes to be liked. Most people are, but I'm particularly of that sort of nature."
John Key to Bill English on the steps of Parliament as he stepped into the Crown limo for the trip to Government house to resign:
"See ya mate. Good luck eh. You're going to be awesome."
Tweets of the day:
I'm worried how confusing this will be when Trump tells his staff he wants to talk to the English Prime Minister.
Donald Trump questions need for briefings on intelligence. Or charm, diplomacy, humility and “how to handle the ladies”.
Have a great day. And look out below for a column I wrote yesterday on REINZ's house price figures, which was published on RNZ.