Fran O'Sullivan on business

Business analysis and comment from Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan

Fran O'Sullivan: Goff not as brave as he seems over super

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Labour Party leader Phil Goff. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour Party leader Phil Goff. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Labour's plan to tackle yet another of the sacred cows that bedevil New Zealand politics has wedged John Key into a corner and made him look like the spoiled brat of New Zealand politics.

The kind of guy who puts his own "Mr Nice Guy" popularity over the country's long-term need to bump up the age of entitlement for national superannuation, so that younger taxpayers aren't billed for the cost of keeping too many oldies in relative comfort for too many years.

It's smart politics by Labour's machine men - but fundamentally it is a mirage.

It doesn't take five minutes of thought to work out that Goff's claim that Labour's pledge to overhaul superannuation demonstrates his party has "more balls" than that of his opponent is overstated.

It can't be that hard to put on a display of balls when there's no danger of having them cut off.

Don't misunderstand me.

I'm not saying here that Labour has no chance of getting into power after the November 26 election. If National's possible coalition partners fail to get many of their prospective MPs over the line, Goff may just be able to cobble together a coalition of political misfits.

The problem is Labour's plan to increase the entitlement age for national superannuation doesn't start being phased in until 2020. Australia will have its plan to ratchet up the pension age in place by 2023. Australians have accepted this reality.

There's a reasonable risk that by the time NZ Super is racheted up to 67 years in 2033 (on Labour's timetable), average longevity may have increased again thus putting even more pressure on younger taxpayers. And there's absolutely no chance that Goff will still be leading Labour during the phase-in period.

The really ballsy call would have been to means test National Superannuation now. Stop handing it out to the rich simply because they've reached 65. To them it's chump change, enough for a night out each week for 20 or so more years of life.

But when National Superannuation comes out of an under-pressure Consolidated Fund (not a dedicated fund) we should be just as picky about who gets it as any other tax-funded welfare payment.

The other call that Goff should have made (if he wanted his party to be perceived as truly ballsy) would have been to wipe all government incentives to join KiwiSaver. It's a complete nonsense for Labour to even contemplate government continuing to borrow offshore to fund incentives for people to join a scheme that you've now determined should be compulsory.

Borrowing to ramp up the NZ Super Fund (aka Cullen Fund) is less risky, if fund managers can boast returns that outrank government funding cost. But again, it's a marginal call.

Many will be blindsided by Labour's decision to tackle two of the great political cows: capital gains taxes and compulsory superannuation. Both of these plans have merit.

But others will be more impressed if Labour fronts up to New Zealand's short-term need to get on top of the budget deficit and reduce government borrowing. Cutting back previous election bribes like Working for Families would be a start.

Irrespective, Goff will steal some mileage by removing a little bit more of the gloss from Key's veneer.

Because at some stage of the game - whether at this election or in the next parliamentary term - a lot of us are going to get rather fed-up with Key's refusal to confront one of the great issues of our time.

We all know (ad nauseam) that Key staked his Prime Minister's job on keeping the age of entitlement for National Super at 65.

It was a dumb call. It flies in the face of rational analysis and inter-generational fairness. Wiser heads in National should have provided him with some weasel words by now so that he could wriggle out of that particular cul-de-sac.

And if Labour's strategists can force a dose of realpolitik on Goff (who's now fronting election policies that conflict with his earlier stances), why can't National persuade its leader to be more in tune with the times instead of remaining captive to the poll-driven apparatchiks on the Beehive's ninth floor?

It was a National Prime Minister, after all, who had the guts to phase in the first big hike in the age of entitlement from 60 to 65 years. What's more, Jim Bolger orchestrated this within a decade (1992-2001).

But Key's response to Labour's initiative bordered on risible. Read this: "I guess when you saw them put up those billboards telling you they were going to take GST off bananas you never thought you'd have to work two years longer to pay for it, but that's what's come out today and, sadly, they are out of touch with what's required."

Out of touch, Prime Minister? Take a look in the mirror.

- NZ Herald

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