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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Key's charity push stirs doubts

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The midst of a recession may seem a funny time to be urging cash-strapped households to donate more money to charity.

John Key's worthy-sounding desire to imbue New Zealanders with a "culture of giving" will be treated as no laughing matter by Labour and the Greens, however.

They will be highly sceptical. The Prime Minister's speech to Philanthropy New Zealand's annual conference yesterday will be interpreted by those parties as further evidence that the current National Government is hell-bent on reducing the role of the state - especially when placed alongside cuts in staffing of Government departments and ministries.

Key will say that is adding two and two to get five. He has long been an advocate of the better-off like himself personally helping those less well-off. Having lived and worked in America, he is an admirer of that country's strong tradition and ethos of philanthropy. Moreover, as a wealthy man, he practises what he preaches.

However, there is a reason why wealthy Americans give large sums in endowments to universities, charitable foundations, economic think tanks, medical research institutions and the like - extremely generous tax breaks.

National may be increasing rebate levels for charitable donations here, but they are not in the same ballpark.

Despite those rebate levels having stopped New Zealanders acting with similar generosity, Key's talk of developing a culture of giving among the wider public will still have centre-left's antennae twitching frantically, especially when he says he wants the non-Government and private sectors to "reach out and contribute".

This will be read by the centre-left as code for slowly replacing state-sector providers with non-Government voluntary organisations and private-sector agencies more reliant on charitable donations.

Apart from arguing this is all part of some covert agenda by National to erode the welfare state, Labour and the Greens would also claim that rather than giving the better-off tax cuts and them then handing back the money to charitable organisations, it is much fairer to redistribute money to those who need it through Working for Families or other income-support measures.

As Phil Goff puts it, Key's push for people to give to charities has a touch of the aristocracy paternalistically helping the peasants about it.

Key's accompanying recommendation that those people who are not going to spend next month's tax cut should give it to charity to ensure the money is used to stimulate the economy begs the question of whether National should have thought again about the income groups at which those cuts were targeted rather than rushing the tax cuts into law last December.

Key insists he is not being ideological. He happily describes himself as a pragmatist. He believes in using what works. He is an enthusiast. He is a breath of fresh air in a political system made moribund by politicians fighting old battles.

But one moment he is reaching across the political spectrum and trumping Labour, the next he is drifting away from the centre and off to the right, this week's announcement of a review of the Overseas Investment Act being the latest example.

So far, he has managed to keep all the balls in the air - yesterday's speech added another - thus keeping everybody happy. But for how long?

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong

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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