Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: When all is falling apart, it's time for a tax cut

John Key enjoys a bit of horseplay with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau - japing about in Peruvian shawls. Picture / The Canadian Press
John Key enjoys a bit of horseplay with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau - japing about in Peruvian shawls. Picture / The Canadian Press

John Key squeezed a lot into a few short days in Lima over the weekend.

He ate dinner beside Barack Obama, who was attending his last Apec leaders' meeting and is, according to several reputable sources, soon to be replaced in the White House by the world's first man-baby president.

He enjoyed a bit of horseplay with Canadian shampoo-model and prime minister Justin Trudeau, japing about in Peruvian shawls.

And he pounced on the gifted computer programmer Mark Zuckerberg in an inner-city dive bar - forgive me if I extemporise the details - hauling him by the collar up against the wall, demanding, "Oi, Zucky, Zonald Zuck, Zuckerberg Lettuce, pay your goddamn tax," before going on to ask whatever did happen to the Winklevoss twins.

The prime minister was also able to indulge the inquiries of the trailing New Zealand press pack, on the question of the viability of tax cuts in the wake of last week's catastrophic Kaikoura earthquake.

Fear not, he said - as echoed back home by Bill English - even a setback of a few billion to repair the smashed up region would not swallow projected surpluses to take tax cuts off the table.

While it may seem somewhat ill-timed to publicly entertain the prospect of tax cuts while those affected by the quakes are still tip-toeing through the rubble of their homes, towns and livelihoods, I'm all for a tax cut.

It may be true that the New Zealand income tax burden for a single worker is the second lowest of the 35 developed countries in the OECD, but who doesn't want to keep more of their pay packet? And don't get me started on fiscal drag. No-one loves tackling fiscal drag more than me, believe me.

So let's be having it: give us a tax cut.
Obviously it makes sense first not just to set aside the necessary budget to rebuild infrastructure in north Canterbury, but to commit fresh funds to a new nationwide tsunami warning system, following the chilling, salutary near-miss last week.

And it's a no-brainer, of course, to provide for 24/7 monitoring at GeoNet. But, that done, bring on a tax cut.

Before that, mind you, there is enormous pressure on the education budget which needs to be addressed.

To pluck one recent example, an Auckland-weighting for teacher salaries will soon be essential if the city is to avoid a sector exodus - the same goes for nurses and other key workers being priced out of town.

And that is part of a wider Auckland crisis in housing, which at its sharpest end sees people continuing to live long term in their cars. A surplus provides an opportunity to seriously address emergency housing shortfalls, the wider house-building infrastructure, and boost long-frozen accommodation supplements. But that done, let's have a tax cut.

Except there's health, too. The front page of yesterday's Herald, revealing Waikato doctors' claims that they've been prevented from conducting follow-up checks on patients owing to District Health Board's spending target demands, is just the latest example of budgets around the country fraying at the seams.

Pharmac, too, urgently needs its cut of any surplus. But once that's all covered, tax cut ahoy.

Child poverty, though. It's kind of a stain on the country's conscience, and no-one seems able to explain why we shouldn't set a target for reducing the number, and boost the investment part of the social investment approach in tackling it with gusto. And then, for sure, a tax cut.

Of course, it's pretty much essential in the face of a ticking time bomb on pensions that Super Fund contributions are resumed. The police are clearly too squeezed financially.

In cash-strapped Foreign Affairs and across swathes of the public sector there is call for relief from years of belt-tightening. Mental health agencies are crying out for more funds. With suicide rates unconscionably high, the life-saving service Lifeline is on the brink of closure.

Women's refuges are pleading for greater support. Our commitments under the Paris agreement to cut emissions need to be backed with the means to actually, you know, cut emissions. RNZ, Conservation and the arts have seen years of real-term budget cuts.

So there's all that. But once that's sorted, let's get the tax cut party started.
And, God forbid, should all of that leave little left for the hallowed tax cuts, there's always Zuckerberg.

Let us at very least agree to ring-fence every cent of tax paid by Facebook to the IRD, whether obliged through a new law or extracted in summit PR-suasion, for redistribution in the form of tax cuts. Don't spend it all at once.

Ministerial bluster no positive help

Full marks to Gerry Brownlee for acknowledging this week that Civil Defence, an organisation brimming with excellent people, stuffed up in issuing tsunami warnings following the M7.8 Kaikoura quake.

Not so many marks at all for his unpleasant response to a polite suggestion from the director of GeoNet that the organisation could use 24/7 on-site monitoring.

Brownlee's bluster over being "blindsided" wasn't just misinformed, given that GNS had expressed a wish for such staffing numerously in the past (perhaps too politely, if anything), but more importantly, in the words of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, there should be "deep concern that the Government response is to vilify voices that seek to encourage us to learn from a post-mortem of events".

Another Brownlee dictum, however, has been curiously overlooked this week. On The Nation on Saturday, in response to a gentle interrogation from Patrick "Scoop" Gower on 24/7 monitoring, the minister dropped this bombshell about scientists' ability to control earthquakes: "They cannot stop that happening."

Brownlee made it very clear that they couldn't in fact control the size and frequency of shakes.

"Let me very clear," he said, very clearly, "whether or not there is someone sitting at a desk for 24 hours waiting to see if anything happens won't stop it happening if it's going to at all."

The mainstream media may have failed to follow up on this high-level revelation, but it makes you think, doesn't it: why are we coughing up all this taxpayer cash to a bunch of scientists in Lower Hutt if they can't stop the bloody earthquakes?

Are they not well enough trained? Are they not trying hard enough? Are they too busy perfecting their homemade muesli recipes?

It's about time we pegged funding for GeoNet and GNS Science to their success rate in stopping earthquakes. Let's park the ambulance at the top of the cliff for a change. Call it a seismological investment approach: if these so-called geophysicists want to keep sucking on the public teat we need to see a cut in earthquakes by a minimum of, say, 10 per cent every year.

That's the kind of monitoring we need.

- NZ Herald

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Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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