Newsroom Pro's 8 things at 8 am: English challenges Labour's Kiwibuild

Bill English says Labour's opposition to the Three Kings development (above) and the Point England development shows the Kiwibuild policy lacks credibility. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In today's email, the debate between Labour and the government over their house building plans flares up again, this time over Labour's opposition to two large building projects in Auckland, as well as its migration plans.

1. English attacks Kiwibuild

Prime Minister Bill English used his post-cabinet news conference yesterday to attack Labour's Kiwibuild policy, arguing it was unrealistic given Labour's plans to cut migration and its opposition to two large building projects in Auckland.

English referred to the government's Point England Development Enabling Bill, which is due to be read for a second time in Parliament this week and which Labour said in late March it opposed. English also referred to the opposition of local Labour MP Michael Wood to Fletcher Building's existing 1,500 home development plans at the Three Kings quarry.

"You've heard about Labour's housing policies, but when it comes to actual developments, they're opposed to them," English said.

"While our opponents talk about a Kiwibuild policy, in practice they've actually got a 'no build' policy. That is, where developments are proposed in their communities, they are opposing them," he said.

"How you would ever get 100,000 houses built if you're against the Point England Enabling Bill and opposed to the Three Kings development is just ridiculous. There's no credibility in those undertakings to build lots of houses if you're opposed to actual houses getting built."

I asked English why the government had not been more ambitious with its plan announced last week to build a net 26,000 new houses on Housing New Zealand land when he had said in February that up to 42,000 homes could potentially be built on that land.

He said the government's plans were the result of its studies of what was feasible from its Hobsonville and Tamaki developments.

"Until you get all the details right, you don't have a single house. Our opponents have a concept they're talking about, but when it comes to actual houses they're actively opposing them," he said.

"There's no credibility in a policy if you can't say where they're going to be built, how you're going to pay for them, and more particularly, how you're going to get a council to make the decisions to allow the houses to be built, because governments don't make those decisions - councils make those decisions."

Labour Housing Spokesman Phil Twyford confirmed to me this morning that Labour would oppose the Point England bill this week, but said building houses on a seafront park in a city that would grow by an extra one million people was not credible.

"Building houses on parkland is just nuts," Twyford said.

Labour had proposed using some of the adjacent Tamaki development land to achieve the Point England Bill's Treaty settlement aims for house building.

Wood also told me Labour wanted a medium density development at Three Kings that allowed over 1,000 homes, but agreed with local residents that the current Fletcher Building plans were not acceptable and supported their opposition to the plans in the Environment Court. Wood was involved in negotiations to change Fletcher's plans, he said.

2. The migration angle

English also signalled a potential attack line against Labour in the election, saying it could not promise Kiwibuild while also cutting migration.

"If you have a policy that says you're going to build 100,000 houses, but you're opposed to any individual development, and you're going to shut down migration - cutting it by tens of thousands - there's no way you're going to be able to get the houses built. It's just dumb," English said.

English agreed that construction industry skills remained a constraint and he also declined to say the Government would loosen settings to allow in more trades people to help with the Auckland build.

"Yes it's a constraint. That's one of the reasons we've defended having migration of skilled people, because we found from Christchurch that's how you got the houses built. If we hadn't allowed the migration of skilled people, you would have still rising house prices in Christchurch because of a shortage of supply," he said.

"Because we allowed migration of skilled people, the houses have been built and house prices in Christchurch are flat to falling. The Labour Party policy of shutting down migration completely contradicts their policy of building thousands of houses."

Asked if the Government would loosen settings to allow in more trades people to Auckland, he said the current settings were about right.

Labour has yet to release its migration policy explaining how it would cut tens of thousands of migrants.

Without disclosing details of the policy, Twyford said the Government had a choice about what types of skills it imported. He said Labour would build up local skill levels, but would import trades people rather than lower skilled workers if it had to.

"We will choose the electricians, the plumbers and the carpenters instead of bringing people to this country to flip burgers and pump gas," he said.

3. The Harrison problem

The big topic of discussion around Parliament and Wellington yesterday was the growing pressure on the Auditor General Martin Matthews to step aside, given his role as the CEO of the Ministry of Transport when Joanne Harrison spent years committing fraud and arranging for the restructuring out of whistleblowers.

RNZ's Benedict Collins has been doing an excellent series of reports on Harrison's actions, and the long period of time it took for her actions to be uncovered, despite repeated red flags and warnings from staff.

New Ministry CEO Peter Mersi has launched an internal investigation and the State Services Commission is also looking into whether the restructuring out of the whistleblowers needs to be investigated.

Collins reports on the whistleblowers' anger here

He reports senior managers were telling Matthews they were "astounded" with Harrison's behaviour as early as 2013, but she was not caught until 2016.

"I think it's disgusting quite frankly and the fact he is now Auditor-General is appalling - he should be held accountable," one of the whistle blowers said.

"I don't think a good chief executive should allow one of his general managers to go against ministry policy - well, you could excuse it once, but to allow it to go on for three years it's not a good thing, is it?"

English was asked if he had confidence in Matthews at yesterday's news conference. He said he would not comment on the independent choice of Parliament to appoint Matthews.

Winston Peters has called for Matthews to step aside while an investigation is carried out and Andrew Little has asked the Speaker of Parliament, David Carter, to review Matthews' appointment.

4. Number of the day

$710,235 - The amount paid by the Royal New Zealand Navy to 'Fat Leonard' Glenn Francis, a Singapore-based contractor that fraudulently billed the US Navy US$34 million.

The Navy told the Guardian
it paid Leonard's Glenn Marine Services for tug boat and other services between 2007 and 2011 and said it did not plan to investigate its contracts with Leonard, who overbilled for services to the US Navy after providing gifts for servicemen, including paying for prostitutes.

Bill English told his news conference the lack of an investigation was a matter for the Navy, adding he would be surprised if New Zealanders had been involved in such activities.

5. Quotes of the day

Bill English in answer to a question about what's in the Budget on Thursday: "Mr Joyce is doing the Budget on Thursday. I'm not doing it on Monday."

English after a journalist's phone rang during the post-cabinet news conference and he couldn't turn it off: "It can be hard to find the off button, particularly with politicians."

Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett, who worked as a waitress during the 1980s, saying New Zealand should encourage tipping (which has generated controversy): "People will enjoy their work more and get paid more - it's plus plus plus."

Republican Senator Ben Sasse on Donald Trump's Presidency in this excellent New York Times report: “Washington feels like a kiddie soccer game — tons of frenzy but no strategy.”

A White House official explaining why Donald Trump fluffed his lines in a speech in Saudi Arabia on the first day of a nine day trip to the Middle East and Europe: "He's just an exhausted guy."

Trump later cancelled an appearance at an event in Saudi Arabia. His daugher Ivanka stood in for him.

6. While you were sleeping

The Trump saga continued overnight with reports that Michael Flynn had refused to cooperate with the various investigations on the ground he might incriminate himself -- a practice known in the United States as 'taking the fifth'.

In Australia, Standard and Poor's slashed the credit ratings of the 23 second tier banks and credit unions because its fears of a sharp correction in the housing market had increased. It left the ratings of the big four banks on negative outlook because it views them as being systemically important enough to receive Government support.

7. Coming up...

Steven Joyce will make the traditional pre-Budget visit to the Government printers in Petone this morning to show off the freshly printed Budget documents, but won't be disclosing their details.

8. One fun thing

Rod Drury had some fun on twitter yesterday, pointing to an MYOB billboard on a Xero office buildboard that had been altered to read MYOFB.

"Didn’t quite understand the large $$ brand campaign provocatively attached to one of our @Xero buildings," he wrote.