Bill English

Dinner at Donghua’s

Remember when David Cunliffe and Labour were under all sorts of fire for their links to Donghua Liu? There were questions about $100,000 worth of apparent donations from Liu to the Labour Party (an issue which seemed to collapse under the weight of some dubious NZ Herald reporting and Mr Liu’s somewhat impaired ability to recollect specifics); and Mr Cunliffe was being stitched up regarding his failure to recall a letter written on behalf of Liu eleven years previous.

Here was what Bill English had to say last year, as he put the boot into Labour:

“In the next few days the Labour Party has to come clean about every contact with Mr Donghua Liu and every donation from him… The reason the Labour Party has to explain all those contacts and donations is that no one trusts what David Cunliffe says about the donations and the contacts with Mr Donghua Liu.”

Well, all of the time that National was needling Labour about alleged undisclosed donations from Liu, there was a $25,000 undisclosed donation to National.

It’s been revealed that National’s Botany MP, Jami-Lee Ross, received a $25,000 donation from Mr Liu in August 2013. It’s only just being disclosed by Mr Ross, after having been returned to Liu in November 2014.

It’s the cynical nature of the whole affair that gets me; cynical in so many ways.

Firstly, the donation was made less than a month after both John Key and Jami-Lee Ross were present at Mr Liu’s house for a private dinner. Yet, when Key was questioned in May 2014 (approximately eight months after the dinner) about his links to Liu, a National spokesperson said:

“As Prime Minister and the leader of the National Party, Mr Key attends a number of functions up and down the country which are attended by a large number of people. While we don’t have a record of who attends these events, Mr Key recalls seeing Mr Liu at various functions, including a dinner as part of a National Party fundraiser.”

Key could recall “a dinner”, but presumably chose to conceal the fact that the dinner was at Mr Liu’s own home.

Secondly, there’s the way in which the donation was kept hidden. Throughout all of the mock outrage from National about what Liu had donated to Labour and when, the party knew that $25,000 was sitting in a National Party bank account. It’s inconceivable that Jami-Lee Ross wouldn’t tap his party leader on the shoulder and say, “Heads up – remember that dinner with Donghua Liu? Well, he gave me $25,000 that month.”

Ross, Key and whoever else was in the loop would have known that at some point the donation would have to be declared. So Ross waits for a month or two after the general election, sends it back via Liu’s lawyer, and pretends that it was surplus to requirements and therefore returned. The donation gets officially declared in Ross’s post-election return, but by then Cunliffe is a distant memory, National is well and truly re-elected, and there’s now another two and a half years to the next election – plenty of time for the public to forget about Dongua Liu.

But National’s cynicism aside, there are some questions regarding the status of the donation. If it was a donation to the National Party, it should have been disclosed in National’s Party Donations Return that was filed on 30 April 2014. It wasn’t.

Mr Liu has described the donation as being through the “Botany Cabinet Club”. If that’s code for Jami-Lee Ross’s personal campaign, the party wouldn’t need to declare it. Instead, it’s up to Mr Ross to do so in his post-election return (as he’s done).

However, Mr Ross has stated that he didn’t end up needing the $25,000 because a $24,000 donation from the National Party covered his expenses. So why would Ross be seeking donations for his electorate campaign, if the party was going to be covering him? Or, to look at it the other way, why would the party cover Ross’s campaign expenses when he’s already got $25,000 sitting waiting in the bank account?

As with anything involving Donghua Liu and politicians, more questions seem to lurk…

Masters of the Universe

I’ve never read Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, nor seen the film. Consequently, Andrew Little’s description yesterday of John Key and Bill English as “Masters of the Universe” caused my brow to furrow.

Other minds apparently initially leapt to He-Man and the Power of Greyskull. However, my childhood didn’t tend to involve the watching of cartoons, so I completely missed He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Google tells me there was also a Masters of the Universe movie in 1987: I missed that too, which was probably a good thing, given the rather negative online reviews.

No, my mind leapt towards an early song by Pulp entitled Master of the Universe, with the immortal lines:

Oh now look what you have done.
You’ve spoilt it all for everyone.
The master masturbates alone,
In a corner of your home.

Thank you, Mr Little, but that wasn’t an image I ever wanted to associate with the Prime Minister or Finance Minister…

If only I’d watched more cartoons as a child.

National’s amorphous tax cut plan

Tax cuts – they’re coming, in April 2017, should National be re-elected. Maybe. Depending on whether economic and fiscal conditions allow.

But what form will these tax cuts take? That’s a good question, to which no one is any the wiser. By April 2017, National projects that they’ll have accrued a pool of $1.5 billion, of which apparently $1 billion will be set aside for tax cuts, while the remaining $500 million will go towards debt reduction. Tax cuts will be targeted to lower and middle income earners, but how National intends to structure the cuts is a mystery.

And what will these lower and middle income earners receive in their back pockets? Well, here things get really strange. Last week, John Key was pulling numbers from thin aid, pondering anything from $10, $20, $30… Then over the weekend on The Nation, Bill English was denying that any numbers had been floated at all, and come the official announcement on Monday, nary a number was in sight.

The lack of numbers has given David Cunliffe carte blanche to wander round waving a $10 note, telling all and sundry that that’s all, folks. National can hardly refute him, given that they don’t seem to know themselves.

I can understand that National would be wary of relying too much on Treasury’s three year projections. After all, Treasury projections can be remarkably inaccurate in just the short term. Nonetheless, would it be that difficult for the Finance Minister to say, “If these projections are reasonably accurate, here’s our expectation of how our proposed tax cuts would be structured. Obviously, if the projections change, we’ll need to revise how we do it.”

One gets the feeling that this is National’s particular brand of policy-making on the hoof; an awkward diversion from Dirty Politics that hasn’t yet been debated in any policy back room. Certainly, neither John Key nor Bill English seemed to have spent much time making sure their song sheets were as one.

At the end of the day (to use a now-universally reviled phrase), National’s tax cuts announcement is more of a vision statement than a coherent policy. National wants to draw a line between its goal of largely capping Government spending and eventually lowering taxes, and Labour’s intention to increase spending via its Capital Gains Tax policy.

Of course, the Labour and National positions aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. I’m a fan of a broad-based tax system, with all income treated equally, regardless of source. That of course requires a comprehensive CGT, and a CGT means that other tax rates can be lowered to take into account the additional Government revenue. Labour’s (less than comprehensive) CGT is certainly all about funding extra spending in the short-term, but longer-term, Labour may be intending to use the increased revenue to fund tax cuts.

On The Nation, David Parker left the door open for tax cuts at a higher rate than National. Of course, future tax cuts weren’t “promised”, but Parker stated:

 No, we’re actually not promising tax cuts. We’ve said that we’ve left open the possibility of tax cuts. Our promises are to run Budget surpluses and to reduce net government debt to 3% of GDP by the end of our second term.

Then, when asked, “So you’re leaving open the possibility, as you put it, of tax cuts that are a higher rate than National?”, Parker replied, “Yes, we are.”

It’s a position that’s even more amorphous than National’s, but National doesn’t want the focus on the distant possibility of tax cuts under Labour. They want voters to be performing a very simple comparison: tax and spend under Labour (that old National mantra) versus fiscal restraint under National.

So is National’s campaign “slick” or “a mess”?

Political punditry is definitely a matter of perspective. If you were a Fox News commentator during the last US presidential election, Mitt Romney’s campaign was a dead cert winner; if you were Nate Silver, Obama was going to romp home. (Of course, if you rely on Fox News for your political commentary, you probably deserve to be duped.)

Here in New Zealand, in Election 2014, I’ve just read two very different accounts of the two main parties’ campaigns – Andrea Vance’s ‘The slick and the dead calm‘ and Tim Watkin’s ‘If this was Labour we’d be calling it a mess‘. On the one hand, Ms Vance describes National’s campaign as “slick, polished and organised to the last detail”, while Labour’s “is ad hoc, chaotic and oddly low-energy”.

Her description of Team Key?

National leader John Key whizzed his way across Auckland on Monday, barely pausing for a breath. A brisk shopping centre walkabout was memorable, mainly for the sheer numbers who stopped him for a selfie. The campaign bus rolled up, stacked with supporters in their Team Key sweaters.

Key is merciless in keeping the exchanges swift – a grin for the camera phone, and an exchange of pleasantries and he’s on to the next voter.

And David Cunliffe, campaigning with Tamati Coffey in Rotorua?

The day started with a selfie – and there were plenty – but to be blunt, Coffey was the bigger drawcard.

A stop-off at a local primary school excited pupils, especially when told a Labour government would give them each a tablet. But with only a handful of eligible voters in the room, reporters wondered how effective the visit was.

A scheduled town centre walkabout was delayed by 35 minutes as Cunliffe, Coffey and activists stopped for a curry. “An army marches on its stomach,” Cunliffe said later. On the stroll he talked with eight people, two of whom were in town from overseas.

Cunliffe versus Key is a popularity contest not being fought on a level playing field. The Labour leader has been in the job barely a year, and has struggled against character assassinations from both inside and outside his party. But yesterday his campaign should have been buoyed by Coffey’s star power. Instead, it was inexplicably flat.

Over at Pundit, Mr Watkin’s piece takes a completely different tack to that of Vance. Warning that “It’s easy to get caught up in the daily news cycle”, he steps back to look at the bigger campaign picture and the problems National are facing. There’s the acceptance by Bill English that the economy has “peaked” and that we’re in for slower growth; there’s John Key and Bill English lurching all over the show with their opposing views on whether tax cuts are on the agenda; there’s the shadow of Judith Collins and whatever mistake- or Whaledump-driven headline she’ll generate next.

He concludes:

Put all that together and frankly, it’s a mess for National. On their own, such stories can be put down to the unavoidable rough and tumble of the campaign but the worry for the party’s strategists will be if there’s a cumulative impact.

If it was Labour we’d be saying ‘here we go again’. National’s track record of discipline means commentators are slower to point out the mess when it appears, assuming it’s a blip rather than a trend.

But that’s now for National to prove one way or another. Momentum heading into the final fortnight is crucial, and the fact is National doesn’t have it. Is its campaign plan “dissolving” or can its leadership get back on track?

So there you have it – small picture-wise, National’s going great guns; big picture-wise, they’re staring down the barrel of a possible disaster.

On the plus side for National, it’s difficult to find anyone complimenting Labour on either the big picture or small picture view of their campaign.

Perspective – it’s key.

Jan Logie livens up Budget Day

 

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Green Party List MP, Jan Logie, told a joke on Twitter that fell flat. At least, I’m assuming it was supposed to be a joke. I seemed to be the only person in the country who found it slightly amusing, but my sense of humour can on occasion be somewhat askew. I think the outrage that sprang up on social media and the blogosphere was largely because she’s from the Greens. When someone who’s supposed to be so much holier than thou turns feral, it’s easier to jump up and down and call the principal.

Anyway, before I get accused of supporting the lowering of the tone of political debate, Lew at Kiwipolitico used Ms Logie’s tweet as the jumping off point for an interesting blog entitled “National Lite“. In answer to Logie’s question – who has Bill English f&%d to produce his latest budget – Lew answers, “Nobody. That’s the problem.” He writes:

When your enemies move to occupy your ideological ground, it is an opportunity to extend that ground, replacing what they claim from you with more advantageous ground deeper within your ideological territory. The trouble for Labour is that National has moved towards them, and Labour are still trying to fight them for the same ground rather than staking out more ground of their own. Six years after the “Labour lite” campaign that saw them ousted in the first place, they haven’t learned.

Over at the Dim-Post, Danyl McLauchlan says that Lew has drawn the wrong conclusion – that what National’s budget actually shows is that Labour is winning the ideological battle:

Back in 2011 National campaigned on asset sales. This year they’ll be running on the extension of paid parental leave and free GP visits for kids. Trust me, the majority of National MPs and activists do NOT want to be introducing those policies. I suspect that’s why Key is floating the vague notion of tax cuts at some distant future date – to placate parts of his base, who will be livid about all this communism and wealth transfer and additional welfare dependency.

This is what an election year budget looks like when the opposition is winning the ideological debate. What are National’s big ideas for their third term? There aren’t any. There isn’t anything to address the housing bubble in this budget so there might be a ‘big idea’ campaign policy around that but I doubt it’ll be a free market solution. Whatever they come up with is probably going to look like a watered-down Labour or Green policy.

Really they’re both correct. National’s occupation of Labour ground shows that National has no intention of marching right-wards. They’ve got their divisive asset sales agenda completed, and are now happy to simply placate the middle class by embracing families with children. It’s not a Right v Left ideological struggle; instead it’s a tussle over the degree to which Labour and the Greens policies get implemented. Just look at the opposition responses to the budget, which can basically be paraphrased as, “Well, National’s budget is a good start, but we’d spend a bit more on those areas.”

The major problem for Labour is that the party isn’t very good at persuading voters that they’ll make a competent government. They’re largely fighting with National over the same patch of ground, but Labour’s managerial skills are hopeless. People want to vote for stable, competent government, and Labour has for six years been doing a terrible job of looking either stable or competent.

So, who has Bill English f&%d to produce his budget? The answer is probably Labour, but the question should perhaps be why does Labour keep f&%king itself?

Why National only has to deliver a boring budget

Bill English has staked his reputation on boring budgets. Every year, since National came to power, Mr English has quietly foreshadowed the few interesting pieces of additional expenditure, and then delivered a “steady as she goes” budget that has provoked little ire from either Left or Right.

The problem for National’s political opponents has always been that no funding cuts have been dramatic enough to raise eyebrows. Over the years, English has called for greater efficiency throughout the public sector, which has largely been delivered without any appreciable downside to the general population. Middle management jobs have disappeared throughout the government bureaucracy, but National has been careful to try and keep frontline jobs intact. After all, frontline jobs are the ones that middle New Zealand actually see.

The Left has continually predicted that spending cuts and reallocations of funding would result in catastrophic failures of service. The problem has always been that the cuts simply weren’t large enough for the Left’s rhetoric to gel with the public. And, of course, the sky hasn’t fallen, making the continued predictions of doom seem more than a little like the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

And the whole time, John Key and Bill English have been working towards their much-vaunted budget surplus, which is just about to be delivered. It may be wafer thin, but it allows them to say, “Trust us – we’ve done exactly as we promised”.

But there’s one other big reason why Mr English will be able to happily deliver yet another boring budget – Australia. While Key and English can revel in the glow of “Steady as she goes” fiscal prudence, voters just need to look across the Tasman to witness Joe Hockey’s so-called “Budget of Pain”, which is being attacked from all sides as vicious and unnecessary. As the Chinese curse goes, “May you live in interesting times”. Compared to the interesting times going down in Australia, it’s hard to see how middle New Zealand is going to give another boring budget anything other than a seal of approval.