Claire Trevett 's Opinion

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Early veto call keeps hopes in check

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Labour's extension of parental leave may not be dead in the water, as a three-year phasing in of the costs could become politically viable later. File photo / Thinkstock
Labour's extension of parental leave may not be dead in the water, as a three-year phasing in of the costs could become politically viable later. File photo / Thinkstock

These days National's team of tacticians needs to have its fingers on more pulses than a rest home nurse.

Just when they thought the three-week Easter reprieve would take some of the heat off the ACC problem, that long shot of a horse called Pure Luck came in for Labour's Sue Moroney.

The prospect that Moroney's bill to increase paid parental leave to six months has the necessary support to pass could be an even more tangled nest for the Government to deal with.

It seems likely Moroney will get the support for that bill. NZ First and the Maori Party have both said they still need to consider it, but both have supported previous parental leave increases. It would be a bit rich for the Maori Party to oppose it given its whip Te Ururoa Flavell, when speaking the 2006 bill that extended paid leave to self-employed parents, announced "the desire of the Maori Party is for our people to go forth and multiply".

NZ First will support it, if only so its leader Winston Peters can indulge in his favourite pastime of watching National squirm.

All of which will probably leave National looking like the Grinch who stole Christmas by vetoing the bill at its last hurdle. That it would do so became clear yesterday afternoon when finance minister Bill English said it was more than likely to veto it rather than let taxpayers bear the cost - which he said would be $500 million over four years.

National is not alone in bemoaning the cost of paid parental leave. When it was introduced in 2002, then Alliance MP Laila Harre wanted 12 weeks while Prime Minister Helen Clark wanted to begin with six weeks because of the cost, saying "you can't go from nothing to nirvana in one leap".

Harre won that one but if nirvana is now apparently set at six months it is a far more costly prospect.

National opposed the introduction of paid parental leave in 2002, not because of the cost but because it objected to the exclusion of self-employed and casual workers, including National's core constituency of farmers' wives. Indeed, it did support the extension of the scheme to include those workers in 2006.

The veto eradicates the fiscal cost, but will come at a political cost.

All governments have used the veto to save themselves costly measures proposed by others, but most often on amendments to Government bills that would never pass anyway. To use it on a high-profile issue to overturn a bill that carries the support of the majority of Parliament will sit uncomfortably with many.

Fortunately for National, the moment when it has to use its veto is still far in the future, at the bill's third reading which is likely to be in 2013.

Unfortunately for National, that also gives Labour up to year in which to cause mischief as the bill goes through Parliament towards its inevitable date with the executioner.

That began within an hour of English's comments - Labour described the move as arrogance while the Greens decided it was "an attack on mums and babies".

By making his fairly unequivocal statement so early on in the process yesterday, English was essentially dampening down expectations before they were even formed.

There's the added benefit to him that with no hope of success for the bill, the whole venture starts to look like a complete waste of time and Parliamentary resources by Labour.

There is still a slight gleam of hope for Moroney, who has left herself some wriggle room. Rather than an immediate leap to six months, her bill proposes extending paid parental leave gradually by four weeks each year over three years.

She has indicated that further compromise is possible to make progress. National has been quiet recently about its goal of catching up with Australia, which introduced 18 weeks of paid leave last year and has a Baby Bonus of about $5000.

By 2013, National might decide it cannot afford to burn any more political capital. If the weight of public opinion is behind the bill and it's clear it has majority support, Prime Minister John Key could again emerge with one of his elegant solutions - a lesser increase but nonetheless an increase.

That, of course, would border on a miracle. But backdowns have happened before.

But until the time comes when a veto is needed, National will be carefully gauging public opinion. And it is still unclear exactly where public opinion on this lies.

While there was overwhelming support for the introduction of paid leave in 2002, voters are now accustomed to the regular clunk of Treasury's depth sounder hitting the concrete floor of its vault rather than the delicious tinkle of gold coins. Not all taxpayers benefit from paid parental leave, which applies to about 26,000 families a year. English was probably right when he said most taxpayers were a fairly pragmatic bunch. With more pressing demands on the Government books, indulging in more taxpayer-funded parental leave is akin to eating pudding before the vegetables.

However should National decide it will tolerate at least some increase in the provision, English might be heartened by signs that the future cost of the scheme will be less than expected due to an unusual phenomenon experienced by the next generation of mothers.

On Twitter this week there was a mass onslaught of teenagers declaring their affection for the boy group One Direction by using the quaint phrase "my ovaries are exploding".

Should that be the case, Mr English will undoubtedly welcome yesterday's announcement that One Direction - coming for a sold-out tour next week - will be back in New Zealand next year.

- NZ Herald

Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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