John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Labour law first test for leader-in-making


Put-down of Peters shows Simon Bridges is on the right track.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Photo / Mark Mitchell
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It is a rare day in Parliament that someone gets the better of Winston Peters. But National's Simon Bridges silenced the New Zealand First leader with seeming ease during the House's free-ranging general debate a week or so before the Budget in May.

Bridges - who has been a Cabinet minister for all of six months - had been trusted with the task of making National's all-important first contribution to the debate.

Labour's Trevor Mallard tried to distract Bridges with cries of "cougar bait" - a reference to the junior minister's good looks.

Then Peters well and truly interrupted proceedings with a totally frivolous point of order.

He claimed he was doing his best to follow Bridges' speech, but there must have been something wrong with the sound system. "I cannot understand a word he is saying."

Quick as a flash, Bridges replied: "For the respected elder gentleman, I will talk more slowly."

There was no answer to that and Peters sat down, accepting he had been well and truly trumped.

Other ministers might have ignored Peters' taunt. But Bridges shows no hesitation in giving as good as he gets when circumstances demand.

He puts this down to his legal background and the rigours of being a senior crown prosecutor. He does not take any nonsense from anyone.

There is a touch of the Judith Collins about him. She combines sheer gall with unrelenting sarcasm, leaving enemies - and at times supposed allies - quivering.

Bridges is not yet in that league. But John Key's willingness to hand the two complex portfolios of Energy and Labour to a new Cabinet minister was seen as a sign of his confidence in Bridges' ability to cut it.

Those portfolios, especially the work of the old Department of Labour, offer few opportunities for winning public kudos for a job well done.

Bridges has picked up the work programmes of his predecessors in the two portfolios, Phil Heatley and Kate Wilkinson. It will not have escaped his notice that both were sacked from the Cabinet for performance reasons.

Beehive insiders say Bridges has exceeded expectations. That he was given the job of leading the general debate is a sign of someone on the way up. So far, he has not put a foot wrong.

Greenpeace would beg to differ. A week or so ago, the environmental lobby group hung a 300sq m banner from a central Wellington building proclaiming "Simon Bridges ... pants on fire".

Greenpeace claims the minister has not been upfront about a meeting he had with representatives from the oil giant Shell before the Crown Minerals Amendment Bill became law.

That measure empowers authorities to gazette "non-interference zones" around offshore oil drilling or pumping installations, preventing protest vessels disrupting operations.

Bridges has been totally unapologetic about the law, saying that developers, too, have rights. He has judged that he is on the right side of public opinion.

The Greenpeace billboard may not quite equate with having your effigy burned in the street. But Bridges treated it as a badge of honour, adding provocatively "good photo too".

As Labour minister, he has further antagonised the left by bringing before Parliament a bill whose changes to collective bargaining arrangements - according to trade unions - add up to a barely disguised, ideologically based agenda to destroy that form of negotiation of wages and conditions and kill off the union movement.

Some on the left have sought to characterise the measure's likely impact as being more detrimental to unions than National's landmark Employment Contracts Act two decades ago.

That may be over-egging things. But the comparison may be apt in other ways.

The suspicion lingers on the left that the National leopard has not really changed its radical right spots of the early 1990s. It has simply altered the way it tackles reform.

Gone is the crash-through, big-bang style of restructuring which so terrified voters, replaced by a slower, more staggered approach. But the ends are the same.

Witness the drastic slimming down of the public service. Or the partial sale of some state-owned enterprises. Or the privatisation of state housing.

Now comes further "flexibility" in the workplace - a policy that has the added plus of weakening the Labour Party by ultimately cutting the income stream of its affiliated unions.

The Council of Trade Unions this week started a nationwide campaign against the bill, with rallies planned in the main centres and stop-work meetings and a national day of action.

The big tactical advantage for the CTU is the fact that there is little argument as to who will benefit from the bill.

The advice of officials to Wilkinson when she was preparing the legislation last year was that it was "likely to increase choice and reduce compliance costs for some employers" and "reduce choice for unions and employees".

That assessment flows from two features of the bill in particular. The first is that the parties to negotiation will no longer have to conclude an agreement, meaning employers can walk away from talks.

Officials warned that would bring a "risk" of fewer collective agreements being negotiated.

The second feature is the planned removal of what is known as the 30-day rule, which stipulates a new employee is hired on the same pay and conditions as any collective agreement that may be operating in that workplace. The change will allow employers to offer new workers individual terms and conditions which are less than those in the collective agreement.

The bill will also allow employers to opt out of multi-employer bargaining in favour of single worksite negotiations.

In handing this concession to employers, National may well be buying a politically risky scrap with the country's nurses, who are largely hired under the same terms and conditions regardless of which district health board employs them.

That makes it easy for the CTU to use nurses - for whom there is always a well of public sympathy - as an example of how the bill will end up cutting wages.

But with only 9 per cent of the private sector workforce now covered by collective agreements, the CTU may struggle to build momentum against the bill.

It will be equally difficult for Bridges to contend that the bill merely levels the playing field after Labour's pro-worker overhaul of industrial law during the last decade.

The conclusion of his officials was more complex - that the changes would have little effect on workplaces with a "productive" bargaining relationship, but could further hamper bargaining where there was a poor relationship between union and employer.

Bridges, however, will be marked in the Beehive on his success in finessing public debate on the bill so there is the minimum fuss and noise.

The legislation is thus the first real test for someone clearly marking themselves out as one of National's next generation of leaders.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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