Newsroom Pro's 8 things: Newsroom wins big award; HYEFU on Dec 14; Robertson positive on GDP growth beyond 2018; Bottled water levy in FTA trouble

Todd Barclay stopped by reporters for a response to Newroom's story in June. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

In today's email we celebrated a big win for our investigation into former Clutha-Southland MP Todd Barclay - but didn't stop us getting up early to cover new Finance Minister Grant Robertson's first major speech.

1. Newsroom wins top award

I'm proud and thrilled to see that last night Newsroom won the coveted New Zealand Television Current Affairs award for our Todd Barclay investigation led by Melanie Reid.

The honour, in our inaugural year, was for the investigation in June this year into Clutha-Southland National MP Todd Barclay and a secret payment made with the knowledge of the then deputy Prime Minister Bill English to Barclay's electorate agent. Barclay stood down from Parliament after the matter became public. These are the articles, videos and pictures to Politicians, police and the payout and a timeline of how the story developed and How Barclay's career went up in smoke.

Newsroom launched in March, aiming to deliver quality independent journalism on the Things that Matter. The Barclay story was the second of a series of major investigations on stories of national significance. There have been more since.

Reid worked on the Barclay investigation with Newsroom co-editor Mark Jennings (pictured above with Melanie), video producer Paul Enticott and two of our Parliamentary press gallery staff, Shane Cowlishaw and Sam Sachdeva.

I'm particularly proud of how Newsroom worked up and down the country as a team with the scale and the expertise to break a major story and then follow it up doggedly through the halls of Parliament and out into the electorates.

There were two moments in June when I realised Newsroom had created a news operation that would make a difference.

Firstly, Shane and Sam were able to stop Barclay at the airport on the Monday night before the story broke on the Tuesday morning. They put Barclay on the spot with a video camera to get his comment before we published and broadcast our investigation. That was only really possible with a team of experienced, professional and independent journalists working together to report a story that ranged from Gore through Queenstown, Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland. That investigation took months of interviews, checks, digging and planning by Melanie, Mark, Tim Murphy and the team in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. We had nothing to show for it until the moment Barclay falsely denied the secret recording. The next morning we hit publish and the rest is history.

Secondly, three hours after we published that first report, Shane, Sam, Lynn Grieveson and I were all at the caucus stand-up in Parliament where Bill English and Todd Barclay simultaneously answered journalists' questions. The picture above by Lynn is of Barclay at that moment. Their stories conflicted when we asked detailed questions and we captured that. Sam asked the key question in the stand-up with English about his police interview that completely shifted the story from whether Barclay was telling the truth to whether the Prime Minister was being completely upfront with the Press Gallery.

Within hours, English was forced to essentially throw Barclay under the bus to remove any questions about his own transparency on the issue. That couple of hours between the stand-up and English's release of his police statement was the most dangerous and damaging couple of hours of English's time as Prime Minister. It would not have happened without the team effort detailed above.

We see part of our job as holding the powerful to account by asking them tough questions and then documenting what they say and do. We did that with the Barclay story, and we've done with countless other stories, including on free range eggs (which led to Countdown and Foodstuffs banning barn eggs), Jian Yang's history with Chinese military intelligence and the problems in the way the police and the Family Court take children from their parents.

We have broken many other stories that set the agenda, including as recently as this week when Sam reported the Government's failure to release part of its coalition agreement with New Zealand First. Look out below for another exclusive from Shane Cowlishaw on Immigration only having resources to investigate 18 percent of the cases of migrant abuse that it receives tipoffs on.

We're proud of what we have achieved in our first year, none of which would be possible without the support of our paying subscribers, sponsors and donors.

Thanks are owed in particular to the paying subscribers to Newsroom Pro. If you are already a subscriber, please tell your colleagues and friends that they can contribute too by subscribing. Feel free to forward on this morning's email and they can contact me directly at this email address to organise an enterprise-wide or personal subscription. If you are reading this online as your 'one free article a month' for non-subscribers, please consider signing up and supporting independent journalism in New Zealand.

2. December 14 is HYEFU day

Grant Robertson has delivered his first major speech as Finance Minister, telling an audience of bankers and fund managers in Auckland that he would unveil the new Government's half yearly fiscal update and Budget policy statement on December 14.

He said it would show the Government meeting its Budget Responsibility rules of running a surplus over the cycle and reducing net core crown debt to 20 percent of GDP within five years of taking office, but he also said it would require discipline from his ministers.

He said he had directed all ministers to assess their budgets against the Government's new priorities.

"If programmes are found that do not match these priorities then Ministers should consider whether this funding can be re-invested in new, higher priority areas which match our strategy," he said.

"This work is already underway and will contribute to Budget 2018 planning."

Robertson also foreshadowed Treasury economic forecasts showing a softening of GDP growth through 2018, before it firmed again in 2019 and 2020 (more on that below).

"You will see when the Half Yearly Update is released that we are meeting our Budget Responsibility Rules, in particular the commitment to reduce net core crown debt as a percentage of GDP to 20 percent within five years of taking office," Robertson said at a breakfast event hosted by ANZ in Auckland.

"One of the core elements of the 100 Day Plan is the reversal of National’s tax cuts. This provides $8 billion of fiscal headroom over the forecast period. This will more than meet the costs of the 100 Day Plan and provide further resources to invest in Budget 2018 and beyond," he said.

"The Budget Policy Statement will outline our priorities for Budget 2018 and show the level of operating and capital allowances for the next four Budgets. These allowances provide the expenditure necessary to deliver our policy plans, including the coalition and confidence and supply agreements."

Robertson said the new Government would also include current estimates of the commitments made outside its 100 day plan.

3. Slower growth in 2018

While not detailing what Treasury's forecasts for economic growth were, Robertson said there had been a range of forecasts for economic growth since the new Government was formed.

"Some are more pessimistic than others, with both the Reserve Bank and the OECD Economic Outlook more optimistic than some of the bank economists," he said.

"In general these economists agree that over the next year there will be some softening of growth as the housing market remains flat and as net migration tapers off slightly. Then, there is a consensus of a stronger growth track through 2019 and 2020, which is expected to be supported by Government policies such as increasing R&D tax credits, increased wages and export growth," he said.

"In other words, we’ll be swapping out population growth and the buying and selling of houses to each other as our two main growth drivers for much more sustainable ones. That sounds like a good description of our plan. If that means slightly lower growth for a year while the transition to a productive economy occurs, then that will be a price worth paying.

"As one economist put it, we will be passing on the baton of growth," he said in the speech.

Just to show you how dedicated we are to covering the economy and Government, Mark Jennings covered Robertson's early morning event for Newsroom just hours after accepting the NZ TV award with Melanie Reid (above). He's a hero.

Robertson sounded more optimistic than bank economists in his comments to reporters after the formal speech.

“There is a variety of forecasts we have seen and Treasury forecasts will come out in a couple of weeks time and you will be able to see where they sit on that spectrum, but it is my view that even if there is a slight softening, growth will come back quickly," he said.

"I am not as pessimistic as the bank economists are. I believe that the conditions they are talking about will be offset in some ways. Some of the Government’s spending that is being regarded as part of the stimulus in 2019 and 2020 will actually come in, in 2018, as well, but we will wait for Treasuries forecast to come out and people will be able to make there own judgements as well."

4. Livings standards measures coming

Elsewhere, Robertson emphasised the Government's drive for better quality growth, including improving and measuring living standards and lifting productivity and wages.

He said Labour's supply and confidence agreement with the Green Party committed the Government to working on new sustainable development indicators.

"Alongside this work I have asked the Treasury to further develop and accelerate the world-leading work they have been doing on the Living Standards Framework. This focuses on measuring our success in developing four capitals – financial, physical, human and social. These give a rounded measure of success and of how Government policy is improving our well-being," he said.

"This is a far better framework for judging our success. It is easy to say a policy is successful if it grows GDP, but what if that is at the expense of the physical environment? How can we be successful if the skill level of our workforce is not improving at the same time? If we do not have strong communities, any individual success can easily be undermined.

"Success for us will mean more than just a strong balance sheet - as important as that is. It will be marked by how we improve the well-being of all our citizens.

"This framework is still being developed, but I see this approach of focusing on well-being and lifting living standards as a core element of how we will create our future Budgets and measure the success of our work."

Robertson said it was too late to make significant changes around the living standards measures in the 2018 Budget, but he would say more in next May's Budget about that new approach.

"We will, however, take the first steps in this direction as part of our 100 Day Plan. We will introduce legislation to set measures of child poverty and a requirement to set reduction targets against them. This will include amending the Public Finance Act to ensure this work is part of our Budget process," he said.

5. Bottled water tax faces FTA blockage

The Government’s plans to introduce a royalty on bottled water exports has hit a major stumbling block, with New Zealand’s chief trade negotiator for the TPP suggesting such a move would violate existing free trade deals.

The coalition agreement between Labour and New Zealand First includes a commitment to “introduce a royalty on exports of bottled water”.

However, speaking at a briefing on the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade deal, MFAT's deputy secretary for trade and economic issues Vangelis Vitalis said both the CPTPP and existing FTAs included a prohibition on an export tax for water.

“There are provisions both in this agreement and in previous agreements where we have carved out and protected water, but...if New Zealand wanted to apply an export tax on water, it could not do so, not simply as a consequence of this agreement but through several other agreements that we have in place at present,” Vitalis said.

Here is the full report published first on Newsroom Pro by Newsroom's Foreign Affairs and Trade Editor Sam Sachdeva.

6. Immigration NZ financially hamstrung

New Zealand's immigration system “lacks integrity” and is so financially hamstrung it can’t investigate fraud and exploitation cases, its new Minister says.

Newsroom's National Affairs Editor Shane Cowlishaw interviewed Iain Lees-Galloway about his challenging role ahead in this report first published on Newsroom Pro.

Lees-Galloway said he has inherited an under-funded system failing to deal with widespread immigration fraud and exploitation of migrants.

In a briefing he received as incoming minister, he was told that in 2015/2016 Immigration New Zealand (INZ) only had the capacity to investigate a third of cases that met its criteria.

But in 2016/17 that number plunged to just 18 percent after the number of reported cases almost doubled. Over the past five months, the number of cases has continued to skyrocket, Lees-Galloway said.

He says the problem is a simple one: money, or lack of it. In 2015 the total immigration budget was $235 million, rising to $262m in 2016 and $295m this year.

But there has been no increase in INZ’s capacity to investigate these cases, and dodgy employers know it. This has led to a lack of faith with the system and people treating the system with disdain because they know they can get away with it, Lees-Galloway says.

“That is allowing a whole lot of bad behaviour to carry on and the result of that is you’ve got undetected migrant exploitation, you’ve got a visa system that lacks integrity.”

This following comment was a particular eye-opener in light of Robertson's comments above.

Lees-Galloway told Shane new Ministers across the board were discovering similar fiscal problems and are in the process of looking at areas where money can be shifted from one department to another.

“I’m going to have to have some very frank conversations with the Minister of Finance but unfortunately all of us are finding this in all of our portfolios, we have huge unallocated capital spend, promises made by the previous Government that they just didn’t set aside any money for.

“We’ve got a real challenge on our hands to, first of all, follow through on what the previous Government said they were going to do...and also making the improvements that we know need to make.”

7. A complacent nation of farmers?

In his column this week, Rod Oram details the latest in agricultural industry innovation unveiled at a conference in Wellington.

He looks at whether New Zealand is being too complacent and not investing enough in new technology and systems to fend off the coming disruptions of cellular and urban agriculture.

Here's a taste:

Appropriately, it is from Silicon Valley that the most radical new competitors to our primary sector are emerging. The challenge was described to the conference by Ryan Bethencourt, a partner in IndieBio, an accelerator for synthetic biology start-ups based in San Francisco and Cork, Ireland.

“Darwinian forces of entrepreneurship and competition have been unleashed in Silicon Valley,” he said. “Molecular manufacturing is really starting to come through.”

Memphis Meats, which is growing chicken, duck and beef meat from stem cells, is one of the innovators he was involved with. “We’re chasing the cost-curve down, and we’re still at pilot stage.” In its most recent funding round the company raised US$22m from investors such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson.

While such radical new technologies have much less environmental impact than farm-grown meat, their main competitive advantage will be their resource efficiency and low cost, he said. They will be a serious competitive threat in three to five years, he reckoned.

Rural farms will also face competition from urban food producers, the conference was told by Henry Gordon-Smith, a founder of Agritecture, a New York City consultant to more than 50 such projects in the US and abroad.

Read Rod's full column here first on Newsroom Pro. It will be published on Newsroom.co.nz on Sunday.

8. Links of the day

These are available in the subscriber email.

Bernard's pick of the links:

Todd Niall's explanation of Auckland's rate increases is simple, clear and useful. The average increase is 6.2 percent, but that includes a 2.5 percent general rates increase (as promised by Goff), a 2.8 percent water quality targeted rate and a 0.9 percent natural environment levy. After the removal of the $114 a year interim transport levy, which is being replaced by the 10c/litre regional fuel tax, the average household's rate increase will be 1.4 percent. There we go. Simple.