Claire Trevett 's Opinion

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

Claire Trevett: Muddy faces pop up in Key's rolling maul

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Prime Minister John Key. Photo / NZ Herald.
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / NZ Herald.

It was in February 2009 that Prime Minister John Key described National's policies as a "rolling maul" of initiatives aimed at getting New Zealand through a recession and out the other side with green buds thrusting into glorious flower.

He did not point out at the time that, no matter how skilful a navigator the halfback may be, a rolling maul usually leaves somebody's face squashed in the mud.

In general, National's savings plan has been to take a little from a few - targeting minor snips from small groups - rather than introduce a distasteful move that might affect a sprawling mass. Smokers, backroom public servants, and adults taking night classes have all found their faces in the mud without universal outrage.

The aftermath of the Budget has shown it is now running out of options.

The Government must have thought it got off lightly on Budget Day because almost all the attention went on the "paper-boy" tax changes - the scrapping of a tax credit worth about $240 a year for schoolchildren with part-time jobs.

Finance Minister Bill English laughed in the face of a protest by students about changes to allowances and loan repayments, saying they could learn a thing or two from Greece about Budget protests.

But gradually other victims of the rolling maul popped up from the mud.

First came the discovery that asset thresholds under which the elderly get Government subsidies for rest-home care would increase at a lower rate. Then the slowburner of changes to class-size ratios ignited with the news that some intermediate schools faced losing up to seven teachers.

Labour has seized on the class ratio changes as a measure that will disturb a lot of New Zealanders, and its leader, David Shearer, is now frantically visiting every intermediate school he can find.

On this one, halfback Key is working as hard as the captain of the Titanic to get his maul to perform a dexterous sidestep.

It remains to be seen whether he will have any more luck than the unfortunate Captain Smith.

For although Education Minister Hekia Parata has now announced part of the $43 million savings will be sacrificed to ensure no school loses more than two teachers, two dangerous perceptions have set in which Labour is working hard to iron into place.

The first is that the damage goes wider than the small group of intermediate schools that would have been disproportionately hit by the change without the Government's rapid backpedal. The second is the perception that any increase in class sizes is dangerous.

No amount of evidence showing a good teacher in a big class is better than a bad teacher in a small class will combat the black and white nature of the argument: big classes are bad, small classes are good.

The one good thing for National is that it has taken the heat off other issues that arose in the Budget, such as the funding freeze on early childhood centres, although that is likely to raise its head again when those centres start to increase their fees.

The paperboy tax has also received little attention of late - and by the time the hunt for savings hits schoolchildren things are starting to look just a tad petty.

That policy did, nonetheless, spark some diverting literary discussion among the backbenchers in Parliament who, after the fireworks were delivered by their leaders, were left to the drudgery of chewing over the various tax bills thrown up by the Budget.

Given the pick-pocketing theme of the child tax credit, Charles Dickens was pointed to as English's greatest influence in penning the Budget - NZ First's Andrew Williams said it was the Fagin Budget and reprised his own role as the Artful Dodger under the tutelage of Fagin in the Oliver Twist musical by breaking into song: "You've got to pick a pocket or two."

Labour's Iain Lees-Galloway had some other Dickens suggestions to describe the Budget - Hard Times, and Great Expectations, in this case the Government's false expectations of growth and the voters' dashed expectations.

He also offered up a Tale of Two Cities, but suggested English's version was the Tale of One City - namely Auckland - because all the money had gone to fund Auckland's roads.

National's Mark Mitchell was less Artful Dodger than Tax Credit Dodger - he outed himself as never putting in a tax return when he was a youth with a paper run, an argument presumably meant to shore up the Government's claims that nobody claimed the rebate anyway.

Labour's David Clark waxed poetic with this accidental haiku to Parliament on the changes to student loan repayments: "Those students work hard / They're eating noodles from bowls / They're making ends meet."

And Andrew Little turned to this column's reference last week to the T.S. Eliot poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by providing a few more lines he believed were fitting to describe the Budget: "I grow old ... I grow old," he read. "I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled / Do I dare to eat a peach?"

Such, he said, were the trivialities Mr English was offering as his remedies for growth.

He stopped short of adding that the overall effect of the Budget - and the ensuing debate - on the populace was to leave them like a patient etherised upon the table.

- 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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