Will Bill English allow Jacinda Ardern her legacy?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the details of her Child Poverty Reduction Bill at the Beehive Theatrette on Tuesday. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

Jacinda Ardern has laid out a plan for a multi-decade and bipartisan drive to slash child poverty. It will only work if National signs up to it, and the early signs aren't good. Bernard Hickey reports.

Like most politicians, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wants to improve society in a way that lasts long after she has left politics. This week she revealed legislation she hopes will create a legacy of generations of healthier, happier and more productive children and citizens.

“I’ve often said child poverty and the wellbeing of children is something that motivated me to get into politics, and it’s is one of the things that motivates me as Prime Minister as well," Ardern said as she released the details of her Child Poverty Reduction Bill.

It is structured in a way that allows Governments of different colours to choose different amounts of child poverty reduction, but which binds Governments to target and report back on child poverty using an internationally accepted set of 10 measures.

Ardern said she wanted to “get beyond the political back and forth” and establish measures for child poverty that could endure across governments.

She said she had initially planned to include specific targets to tackle child poverty in the bill, but was persuaded against doing so after speaking to those involved in addressing child poverty who wanted political consensus on the issue.

“They wanted a bill that would remain beyond political cycles, that any government would sign up to because all we were requiring was transparency and accountability," she said.

As if to emphasise the difference between the bill and the Labour Government's own targets, Ardern chose not to announce her own target on Tuesday. Instead, it will be released later this week.

She was also conciliatory towards former Prime Minister Bill English's Social Investment approach, saying she had “long supported the idea of early intervention”, although she did not support any social investment model that discounted the value of proportionate universalism.

Not a good start

However, the initial reaction to the bill from Opposition Leader English suggested he was reluctant to take a bipartisan approach, at least in the short term.

"The Government’s proposed child poverty legislation is predictably full of positive intentions, but contains no substance to address the drivers of deprivation," English said.

“National shares the Government’s goal of reducing child poverty. But you don’t need new legislation for any of this. In fact, the public service is already reporting publicly on the exact measures the Government is proposing," he said.

English then repeated his objection to the Government's decision to remove the previous National Government's Better Public Service targets, which included specific measures around areas such as recidivism, vaccinations for rheumatic fever and reducing the number of serious crime victims, but did not include child poverty reduction targets.

“By getting rid of these (BPS) targets, the Government has thrown away the very tools to attack these drivers of poverty," he said.

"But the Government’s new proposals are so high level and general that they refer to no one in particular, and no one will be held responsible for any lack of progress."

The previous Government reported on the internationally accepted measures in the bill, but did not target them specifically.

But English left open the option of supporting it, saying the National caucus would consider the legislation in the coming weeks.

'Bipartisanship needed'

Victoria University Public Policy Professor Jonathan Boston co-chaired the expert advisory group that recommended the Government adopt a target. That was rejected by the-then National Government led by John Key. Boston also helped Government officials draft the latest bill and wants it to last across Governments, unlike others such as one recently repealed in Britain. See more in Boston's opinion piece on Newsroom.

Boston said English had demonstrated before and during the election campaign his commitment to reducing child poverty, firstly in the 2017 Budget, and then during the election debates, when he promised to reduce one measure of child poverty by as much as two-thirds to 50,000.

Boston said some elements within the National Party were less committed to a focus on child poverty reduction, but English's position as leader was strong and it would be disappointing if National backed away now from that commitment.

"National now has to decide whether it's serious about the commitment its party leader gave during the election," he said.

"It would be very sad if it did not support this bill, and it would have an impact on the credibility of the former Prime Minister."