When was the last time we had a Prime Minister prepared to spell out a vision? Jim Bolger in 1990, when he announced the beginning of "the decent society"?

That didn't go so well: Finance Minister Ruth Richardson promptly introduced the "mother of all budgets" (her phrase) which reduced benefits to a sub-subsistence level so people would be desperate to get off them. People just ended up desperate, really. She had a different vision.

Since then our Governments, devoted to proving themselves competent economic managers, have largely avoided the vision thing.


Jacinda Ardern introduced "Our Plan" on Sunday. It was, she said, the project that was "driving us as a Government" and it clearly contained a vision. Mostly, though, the media framed it as a tactical response to internal difficulties between Labour and NZ First leader Winston Peters.

The media was right. It's obvious those difficulties exist and obvious "Our Plan" was designed to shift the focus away from them.

But that's not all it was. "Our Plan" is also a vision document.

Opposition leader Simon Bridges called it so bland he wouldn't have any difficulty agreeing with most of it.

Is that true? Ardern said she wanted her Government to honour the tradition of suffragist Kate Sheppard, pioneering Labour PM Michael Joseph Savage and our most famous conqueror, Edmund Hillary.

Some will say she's being silly, and who knows, they may end up right. But it's sillier not to have the aspiration and not to try. All our Prime Ministers should want to honour that tradition.

Besides, the document is not bland. It says the Government will do things like "Ensure everyone has a warm, dry home", "Grow and share New Zealand's prosperity more fairly" and "Closing the gender pay gap". Bland? Those are far-reaching, specific and measurable goals.

They won't all get done in time for the 2020 election, but we'll know by then if the Government is serious about trying.


So would National agree with the plan, as Bridges suggested? In truth, it might. The pattern of our politics is that Labour innovates and National consolidates. John Key did not undo Working for Families, despite having called it communist. Crusaders like Ruth Richardson, it turns out, are outliers even within their own party.

So what is the Government changing now? And, the corollary, what changes is National likely to leave in place? Here are five.

1. The Wellbeing Budget

From next year, the Government will not be relying primarily on GDP to measure the value of economic policies, but will use an integrated range of social, environmental and economic tools.

The best way I know to think of it is with car crashes. A crash is "good for the economy", because it sets off a flurry of economic activity: in the health system, for panelbeaters, insurers and whoever it is makes all the road cones. For funeral homes. Car crashes push up our GDP, but they're not good for us.

All over the world economists and politicians have been trying to work out how to get past this problem. We'll be the first to try, in practice. And if the Wellbeing Budget works, you can bet National will keep it in place. More than that: the whole world will pick it up.

2. Housing and transport

Some will say PM's vision is silly, but it's sillier not to try. Photo / Greg Bowker
Some will say PM's vision is silly, but it's sillier not to try. Photo / Greg Bowker

The lasting value of the Government's housing programme is not just in the number of homes to be built. It's that they are part of a whole community-building exercise that includes parks, retail and service centres, public transport and active transport options: all the facilities a suburb needs to flourish.

National didn't have that approach. It committed to building far fewer houses, it still doesn't understand the value of public transport, it has never articulated a sense of building communities. Housing under Labour is nearly 10,000 new homes in Mt Roskill, along with all the services they need to invigorate the suburb. Under National it's the dormitory desert of Pokeno.

But National is not likely to undo any of it, including the light rail projects.

3. Making welfare work

If you're legally entitled to a benefit or some other assistance from the state, like a home, say, shouldn't the state help you receive it? Currently, far too often, that just doesn't happen. Your eligibility is blocked.

Transforming welfare services into true care and assistance agencies will take time. But it's in the Labour-Greens coalition agreement, so it's a Government commitment. This isn't a new idea, by the way. It's what used to happen.

4. Climate change

National made a farce of the Emissions Trading Scheme and did not think we should be even be a fast follower on climate change. That's made it harder now to scale back greenhouse gas emissions from traffic in the cities and dairying in the countryside.

The significance of the Government's approach is that it is promoting a "whole of country" solution. Rather than talking up a town and country divide, as National did before the last election, Climate Change Minister James Shaw is slowly and steadily building a united coalition.

It's essential work and National is unlikely to undo any of it once back in power.

5. Safety on the roads

Bridges was in Tauranga on Sunday, taking part in a march to demand safety improvements on the road to Waihi.

You have to admire his audacity. That road became as dangerous as it is now while Bridges was both the local MP and Minister of Transport.

Labour's solution, soon to be implemented, is to moderate the speed limits and build safety features such as median barriers and roundabouts. The data suggests it will help.

National's proposed fix was a four-lane highway, which might have made the problem worse. Unless it's a motorway, speeding up the traffic is a dubious way to cut back the crash rate.

What else is the Government doing that National would not have introduced but probably will not undo? How about the Child Poverty Reduction Bill, the billion trees programme and the regional development fund? The rethinks on tax, mental health services and the future of work? How about the emphasis on reducing crime, especially repeat offending, which really will help victims?

Oh, and the 30-year managed end to oil and gas exploration. National complains about it but don't expect the party to launch new fossil-fuels exploration. Simon Bridges is not Donald Trump.

Is Ardern's programme all talk? We don't know yet. A week may be a long time in politics but a year is a short time in Government. However, 2020 will not be too soon to measure the strength of the Government's commitment.

Is it enough? Hell no. Ardern said on Sunday she wants New Zealand to be "the best country in the world to be a child".

To become that country we need to do better on domestic violence, tertiary education, primary healthcare, the calamitous teacher shortage, drug laws, benefit levels, Ardern's Waitangi commitment to Maori-Crown relations and so much more.

We should be talking about all these things. They're far more important than Winston Peters.