Labour softens on immigration control; National leadership speculation; Will Bill give Jacinda her legacy?

Bill English descends the stairs at Parliament to discuss with journalists his reaction to Ardern's Child Poverty Reduction Bill. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

In today's email we looked at Labour's immigration dummy pass, and discuss the likelihood of bipartisan agreement on Ardern's Child Poverty Reduction Bill (amid questions over whether Bill English will be around to come to such an agreement).

1. The policy side-steps mount up

The more excitable political shorthand to describe the new Labour-led Government's policy concessions in its first 100 days would be words like U-turn or back-down or back-flip.

So far, the changes don't go quite that far and the currency of those words shouldn't be devalued with over-use.

But there's a growing list of concessions or jinks to the centre or sidesteps to keep New Zealand First on board and reassure the business community. They include:

The big jink - Labour's decision to sign on to the slightly amended Trans Pacific Partnership was consistent with the caveats it gave itself before the election, but it jarred with its aggressive opposition to the deal and its alliance with hard core opponents last year. The ban on foreign buyers and Donald Trump's decision to pull America out gave Labour enough concessions to reassure most of its supporters and allies, including Winston Peters, but not the Greens or the hard-core opponents.

The side-step - Labour also argued strongly with unions against the pure 90 day trial period last year, proposing an arbitration system for people unfairly dismissed during the trial period. But Winston Peters forced it to abandon that last week, indicating the coalition building process is continuing beyond the initial negotiations last October.

The move calmed plenty of nerves in the small business and farming communities, but disappointed unions. Labour has also slowed down any more substantial moves towards fair pay agreements that impose union-negotiated pay and other standards across de-unionised industries, also to the relief of many in the business community.

The dummy pass - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was never as strident in her rhetoric about cutting migration as her Opposition Leader predecessor Andrew Little. She stuck to his policy of tightening rules for temporary workers and removing work rights for international students, but never made a major issue of it in the debates or on the campaign trail.

Instead, she focused on child poverty, housing and water quality. The migration moves were also not put in the 100 day plan and she stood firm against any New Zealand First move in coalition negotiations to go further than the 20,000 to 30,000 reduction talked about by Little.

Since the swearing in of the Government, the rhetoric and action on tightening migration has been even softer and slower. Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway has taken to saying the Government does not have a numerical target for reducing migration. He has been lobbied aggressively by employers and the international education industry not to tighten the rules for temporary migrants and international students.

Arguably the Government's biggest 'dummy pass' so far emerged yesterday when Lees-Galloway said the Government had put on hold its plans to remove work rights from international students while they're studying.

Newsroom's National Affairs Editor Shane Cowlishaw dug into the latest softening of immigration policy in this piece published yesterday first on Newsroom Pro.

Lees-Galloway denied the move was a backdown on Labour’s election promises when asked by Newsroom, stating the removal of in-study work rights would still be explored and was simply being shunted behind the removal of post-study rights in a “sequencing” move.

But he would not commit to following through on the pre-election policy and also stipulated that “we do not have a target for reducing overall net migration”.

“We’re going to do the policy development work around [in-study rights] and at the same time we’ll look at what the impacts of the previous government’s changes are and we’ll make a call on that further down the track.”

For his part, Peters refused to be drawn on what he thought of the back-pedalling and said the party had never been opposed to genuine international students.

“We campaigned on cutting back on immigration, that’s what’s forecast and that’s what’s going to happen."

To paraphase a description I heard last year before the election from another commentator: Winston Peters is a grizzly bear in Opposition, but a teddy bear in Government (or at least a Labour Government).

Peters and Little argued in opposition that the problems with migrant abuse and pressure on wages for lower skilled workers was at least partly caused by the work rights granted by National to international students in 2013.

I challenged Peters on this before Question Time yesterday and he said the policy was still being worked on.

See Shane's full piece on the latest policy side-step here.

2. Will Bill allow Jacinda her legacy'?

One area where Jacinda Ardern has not softened her stance or lowered her ambitions is child poverty.

Just as she promised in the 100 day plan she campaigned on, Ardern announced the details of her Child Poverty Reduction Bill yesterday, four days before the end of the 100 days.

It is a plan for a multi-decade and bipartisan drive to slash child poverty, but it will only work if National signs up to it, and the early signs aren't good.

She talked about it as a type of legacy project yesterday.

“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 now-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.

Here's my full article on the child poverty bill published first on Newsroom Pro, and here's an excellent backgrounder on Newsroom from one of the architects of the bill, Jonathan Boston.

3. But will English still be there?

The quest for bipartisanship on child poverty is largely dependent on Bill English remaining as National Party leader.

He was the champion of Social Investment in Government and it's notable the Government didn't start talking substantively about reducing child poverty until he became Prime Minister. His 2017 Budget was his 'legacy' Budget and his revelation he planned to slash child poverty by a further 50,000 during the second leaders' debate was his most electrifying moment of the campaign.

His brand of compassionate conservatism and big new idea of social investment resonated during the campaign and meant National did better than many expected in the final result. But he has lost two elections as National leader and he is not universally supported in the party in perhaps the way John Key was.

So will he be there long enough to sign National up to a bipartisan drive to reduce child poverty?

Leadership speculation erupted in earnest this morning for the first time since the election.

Newstalk ZB's Barry Soper and Newshub's Lloyd Burr reported without sourcing that National MPs were "doing the numbers" for potential alternative leaders ahead of a caucus meeting next week, although they cautioned a leadership coup was not imminent. The suggestion was National MPs expected English to gracefully step aside at some point for an orderly contest to ensure.

RNZ's Jane Patterson gave a more sober assessment in this piece saying there were leadership rumblings, both for English and Deputy Leader Paula Bennett.

I'd be surprised to see English step down quite so quickly as next week, but the danger for National is this speculation keeps festering and stops it from directing the public's attention towards what it argues is the Government's failings. My initial soundings suggest no move against English is imminent and a full leadership change is unlikely in the coming months.

However, I, and many others, were surprised by the multiple leadership changes in the second half of last year. Things happen mighty fast these days.

Bennett's position is much less secure than English's. She was seen as a poor performer during the campaign and few within National now see her as the natural successor to English, despite his decision to support her elevation to the deputy's role last December.

She returned to yesterday's National Caucus meeting in Parliament in a bright and breezy fashion after her gastric bypass, but may not survive more than a week or two as deputy.

One thing was clear yesterday in Parliament though. English was decidedly grumpy in question time, challenging Ardern about her decision to dump the Better Public Service targets and taking an aggressive line in challenging the speaker Trevor Mallard over one of his rulings.

4. Two paths to cannabis reform

Newsroom was thrilled to welcome a new recruit into our Press Gallery team yesterday with the arrival of Thomas Coughlan.

Thomas has been writing for Newsroom over the last year on politics and economics. Now he has joined us full time in the Press Gallery to report on a range of issues, including health, infrastructure, transport and Local Government.

He started yesterday with an excellent analysis of the issues behind the sudden arrival of two medicinal cannabis bills before Parliament yesterday.

See his first piece from the Gallery here on Newsroom Pro, where it was first published yesterday.

5. Briefly in the political economy...

Honey backflip - Damien O'Connor was grilled in Question Time yesterday over his reversal of a decision in December to set a high threshold for the 2-Map 'good stuff' in multi-flora manuka honey. On Monday he slashed the threshold from 5 mg to 1 mg after beekeepers threatened court action because the move could slash manuka honey exports by $100 million.

The exchange was unexpectedly hilarious and had both sides of the house in stitches. Labour cheered O'Connor's answer of "lots" when asked what evidence he had for the initial threshold. He was challenged by Nikki Kaye for his unparliamentary use of the phrase "dicked around" when talking about National's actions in Government to reduce the reputational risks around manuka honey fraud. For question time tragics, here's the full video.

Exports humming
- With all the concern locally about the slump in wider business confidence (but not so much for own activity business confidence), the local debate in the political economy has missed the synchronised global growth story that has surged over the last six months. But it was reflected yesterday in better than expected export figures for the year to December. Exports rose 11 percent to a record high. See more here on Newsroom.

6. Coming up...

Bill English is scheduled to give his first major set-piece speech of the year in Wellington at lunchtime today. It will now be no doubt overshadowed by leadership speculation.

Jacinda Ardern is scheduled to outline the Government's ambitions beyond the first 100 days in a speech in Wellington this evening.

The Government is expected to detail its plans for an Inquiry into abuse in state care on Thursday. This is the last item to be ticked off in the 100 day plan before the 100 day mark on Saturday.

Migration and building consents data for December is due on Friday at 10.45 am.

7. Two fun things...

Chalk this one up as a mistake by a couple of newbie MPs.

Labour's Duncan Webb and Jenny Marcroft agreed to host an 'expert briefing' from opponents of fluoridation. Their agreement was roundly criticised within hours by those familiar with the science, including Michelle 'Nanogirl' Dickinson (who is now on a Government working group reviewing NCEA), who tweeted:

"This is not an 'expert briefing' or a debate. We have experts, they have carried out long term scientific research studies. You should probably rename your meeting to 'one guy who can’t back up his cherry picked data meeting.'"

And this tweet from Ian Bremmer took my fancy this morning after Saudi Arabia collected US$106 billion from hundreds of its richest citizens by locking them in the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh and accusing them of corruption. That's quite some shakedown. Perhaps the IRD should lock the local managers of Google, Facebook and Apple in the Sofitel Viaduct Harbour for a few months...just kidding...sort of.

"Ways to get $106bn
1 Be @JeffBezos
2 Detain 1,000+ royals at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton."

8. This morning's political links

These are available in the morning subscriber email.