Simon Bridges has set aside one of the standard rules of opposition politics.

Conventional wisdom says an opposition should hold back policy until just a few weeks before an election. The idea is to avoid scrutiny by interest groups, adoption by the government or boredom among voters.

Instead, with the next election as many as 94 weeks away, Bridges confirmed in his State of the Nation speech on Wednesday that National would repeal the Auckland petrol tax, freeze other petrol taxes, repeal any new capital gains tax (CGT) and not introduce any other new taxes.

Attracting most attention, Bridges also announced National would end income-tax bracket creep by passing legislation automatically increasing thresholds every three years in line with inflation.


The effects are not huge.

While Treasury would be required by law to do the calculation, Bridges suggested the policy would initially be worth about $430 a year to an average wage earner and reduce the tax take by a modest $650 million annually, well below 1 per cent of government spending and an amount by which fiscal forecasts fluctuate from one quarter to the next.

As a move to protect the real value of family incomes, the promise is almost impossible to oppose, although Finance Minister Grant Robertson tried valiantly, saying it was "reckless", "empty" and would create a "fiscal hole" requiring cuts to social services.

Aside from making Robertson defend automatically increasing families' real tax burden, the political value of Bridges' very specific promise is that it contrasts with a Government certain to get on the wrong side of the tax debate and already trying to hide its lack of policy clarity with bureaucratic waffle.

The Prime Minister will soon regret declaring 2019 "the year of delivery".

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo / File
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo / File

The term is taken from Tony Blair's much-derided "delivery unit" which operated in 10 Downing St when a young Jacinda Ardern worked in his Cabinet Office on how to improve local government's interaction with small businesses.

Ardern's problem is that on anything measurable, "delivery" is going backwards.

There will not be 30,000 new houses by the next election, nor 300 million trees, nor even $3 billion of handouts under Shane Jones' Provincial Growth Fund.


Student numbers have fallen despite the $325m Education Minister Chris Hipkins calculated his fees-free tertiary education policy would cost in 2018/19.

The method by which inequality statistics are calculated means Ardern is unlikely to be able to report any material progress over the next 94 weeks.

In their urge to show "delivery", Ardern risks her ministers and bureaucrats, like Blair's, applying the term to whatever they end up doing.

Bureaucrats and ministers may think that, say, setting up education hubs or abolishing district health boards are "delivery" but to voters they are, at best, merely abstract changes to governance arrangements completely unrelated to whether the local school or hospital meets expectations.

Just as waffly is Ardern and Robertson's promise to base this and future Budgets around "wellbeing" — a term doomed to be for this current regime what "innovation" and "sustainability" were for the previous two.

If Ardern and Robertson's use of "wellbeing" is meant to imply previous governments were entirely preoccupied with headline economic growth over such things as social cohesion, strong families and individuals achieving their potential, then they are wrong.

Of the nearly $100b Parliament appropriates each year, almost all is spent on programmes originally intended to promote wellbeing rather than growth.

If Ardern and Robertson mean merely that a focus on wellbeing is to be formalised in how Cabinet papers are written, it will no more connect with voters than announcements about "delivery".

To be sure, when the Government finally capitulates to teachers' demands for big pay rises, the Cabinet paper may formally record that wellbeing was the motive, but everyone will know it was simply the result of industrial pressure and smart media management by teacher unions.

Moreover, no amount of waffle about "delivery", "wellbeing" and "kindness" will help with the most critical political decision Ardern has to make this year: how to respond to a split Tax Working Group (TWG) that has done little but summarise all the options for a new CGT that have been obvious for decades.

If she picks a CGT off the TWG's menu she will stand for new taxes against Bridges' promise of protecting the real value of after-tax earnings. If she bottles it, she will have no clear tax policy against Bridges' promise of a well-overdue reform worth a few hundred dollars to almost every voter.

Bridges' policy is such obvious common sense that it deserves almost no credit. But the politics behind it are first-class.

- Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.