Newsroom Pro's 8 things email: Cabinet prepares for four-week sprint to Christmas

In this morning's email for subscribers, Bernard Hickey looks at Cabinet's meeting today to prepare for a four week sprint of legislative and executive action in the lead-up to Christmas, along with Jacinda Ardern's new-found keenness on both parents sharing Paid Parental Leave.

1. Preparing for the final sprint

Cabinet meets this morning for the first time in a fortnight and the agenda will be packed full of items to progress the new Government's 100 day plan.

Parliament is in recess this week to give the Parliamentary Counsel Office time to draft legislation for a number of the key items, including changes to the Overseas Investment Act to ban foreigners from buying existing homes.

Then Parliament will sit for a four week sprint until the end of the year, rising for the Christmas break on December 21. That is a week later than is usually the case and the four weeks will be crucial if the Government is to achieve the plan.

It includes legislating to pass the Government's families package, which includes repealing the tax cut passed by the previous Government, introducing the 'Best Start' payment for children and changing elements of Working For Families.

The Government has also promised to pass the Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill. This was originally a private member's bill (adopted by Andrew Little) that had passed its second reading before the election. It went through the committee of the whole house stage last week after the Government adopted it. It is set for a third reading, so that is on track.

But the Government also promised to introduce legislation to make medicinal cannabis available for people with terminal illnesses or in chronic pain, to introduce legislation to set a child poverty reduction target and to change the Public Finance Act so the Budget reports progress on reducing child poverty. Both are substantial pieces of work and will realistically have to be introduced in the next four weeks to meet that 100 day target.

This legislative agenda will no doubt be discussed at today's cabinet meeting, along with plans to set up an agency to manage the re-entry into the Pike River mine.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed the discussion would be held in her round of regular morning interviews on TV3's AM show, TVNZ's Breakfast and on RNZ's Morning Report.

Ardern indicated an entry in March was a possibility, although this was dependent on the advice received by the new agency.

2. Keener on dual Paid Parental Leave

Ardern also told Duncan Garner on the AM show she was open to implementing National's idea put forward last week for both parents to share the planned 26 weeks of Paid Parental Leave. That would mean two parents could spend up to 13 weeks together at home.

The Government rejected a special order paper put forward in Parliament last week while debating legislation to extend Paid Parental Leave. Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway downplayed the prospect of allowing people to take 'dual' Paid Parental Leave, saying he had been advised it shortened the baby's time with the mother and wasn't as healthy for families.

National was able to portray the reluctance as 'nanny state' behaviour and the Parliamentary tactic caught the Government on the hop.

Ardern has taken a more conciliatory approach this morning, saying she was open to the idea and it could be included in a fresh batch of employment legislation to be debated next year. The 100 day plan does include a line about introducing 'legislation to improve fairness in the workplace.'

"I like the idea and that's why we're looking at it. I've talked to our minister and we're going to see how quickly we can do that," she said.

Ardern said it had not been fair to push it through under urgency last week as businesses and others needed to be consulted. The Paid Parental Leave bill had already gone through the select committee stages as Sue Moroney's private member's bill in the last Parliament so the Government was comfortable pushing it through under urgency.

"We've got another piece of employment law going through next year and we're seeing if we can attach it to that," Ardern said.

3. 'A fast law is a poor law'

Newsroom's National Affairs Editor Shane Cowlishaw interviewed new Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis last week to understand more about his decidedly different approach to trying to reduce the prison population.

He told Shane he would not fall into the trap of making rash decisions after particularly gruesome crimes in the community, or “sentinel events” as he called them.

“There’s also this attitude that sentinel events have occurred in the community where one person has committed some heinous crime, we have a quick change in the law and then that drives up the prison population. We’ve got to take a really good look at what works in order to get that prison population on the downward slope," he said.

“A lot of it was driven by media reporting of sentinel events and freaking people out, and you’re right, you had the Sensible Sentencing Trust jumping on the bandwagon…people don’t realise that crime has been dropping, people’s perception of crime is that it’s on the rise and the older people get, like plus-50, they think crime is worse than it’s ever been before, it's actually getting better. So if our crime rate is dropping and our prison population is skyrocketing, what’s going on.”

Being tough on crime has not made New Zealand safer, Davis said, and if progress is to be made the politics need to be put aside.

A “fast law is a poor law” and making one just to keep a few votes is pointless.

“I know crime is an emotive thing but we’ve got to look at the research. We’ve got to say 'OK, our gut says to lock all this group of people up, but what does the research say, what does the evidence say'.”

See Shane's full report from the interview earlier on Newsroom Pro, where it was published first on Friday.

4. The problem with bail laws

Shane also details a potential tension for the Government as it tries to get the prison population down and avoid building a new $1 billion prison at Waikeria.

There are currently a record high 10,500 people currently behind bars and while that number grew under National, it increased even more under the previous Labour government.

The recent spike, however, has been largely driven by changes in 2013 to the Bail Act that made it tougher to get bail, particularly for violent and drug-related crimes. It has led to a need for 10 times the number of prison beds than initially estimated, with the previous government assigning $1 billion to build a new prison at Waikeria in Waikato to cope with the pressure.

One of the options to reduce the prison muster would be reversing the Bail Act changes. Davis told Shane he was looking at possibilities around this, but would likely face some opposition. Newly-minted Justice Minister Andrew Little is not keen, stating he has no plans to revisit bail laws.

If they don’t do something immediately to reduce numbers, then the Government may have little choice but to continue with the new prison build.
They don’t want to, however, and with no contract signed should be able to pull out and divert the money elsewhere.

This means that other “not ideal” options to house prisoners, including more double-bunking and smaller add-ons to existing prisons, are also being considered.

"These are the very issues that we’re grappling with. If we’re going to be successful at driving down prison numbers, are we going to build a white elephant?”

6. Should NZ restrict 'revolving door' lobbyists?

Political scientist Bryce Edwards has taken a closer look at the changes in the lobbying scene around Wellington in the wake of the formation of the Labour-led Government.

He asks whether New Zealand needs a policy to restrict 'revolving door' moves by political staffers straight into lobbying.

Many countries require a mandatory “cooling off” period, which makes this behaviour slightly less compromising, Bryce writes in this column published first on Newsroom Pro.

The latest lobbying company in town is Australian firm Hawker Britton, which specialises in leftwing politics. Its arrival isn’t random – it’s come into the market simply because we now have a Labour-led government, and there’s money to be made from a firm that can influence leftwing government ministers, he writes.

Its new director, Neale Jones, starts work today. Jones finished work on Friday in Jacinda Ardern’s office. He’s been working in the Labour leader’s office for the last few years, most notably as Chief of Staff. So, he’s able to take to the new firm his access to politicians, as well as his insider knowledge on how politics and the Labour Party works.

Labour’s Jones is only the latest political public servant to switch straight to a lobbying role. It’s become quite common for ministerial staff in particular to take advantage of their skills, insider knowledge and contacts to start new careers. Another recent example is Jenna Raeburn, who went straight from Gerry Brownlee’s office to set up Barton Deakin, a firm that specialises in lobbying National politicians and has the same owner as the Labour-aligned Hawker Britton.

Bryce's column is a new feature for Newsroom Pro, and is available earlier in the timeline.

6. Newslinks.

These are available only in the email.

7. Coming up...

Parliament is in recess this week and resumes next Tuesday for a four week session until December 21. Normally, Parliament finishes on the same day as the Parliamentary Press Gallery Party, which is on Thursday December 14 this year.

Statistics New Zealand is scheduled to report food prices for October today at 10.45 am, international trade and migration statistics for October on Wednesday and retail trade volumes for the September quarter on Thursday.

Jacinda Ardern is expected to hold her weekly post-cabinet news conference this afternoon around 4 pm.

8. One fun thing

It was sad to hear of the passing of AC-DC's Malcolm Young over the weekend at the age of 64. He had dementia.

Morning Report covered Young's passing, so this tweet appealed to me: "We don't have enough AC/DC on Morning Report in my view," - @GuyonEspiner speaking to AUS journo @staffo_sez about the late great Malcolm Young."

Have a great day and we do welcome your feedback on the new features.