Over the weekend, the Labour Party held its annual conference in Whanganui – Jacinda Ardern's second as Party leader and Prime Minister. Party conferences are a chance for the faithful to take stock, but in the modern age are more managed, a set piece display of unity and whatever message is deemed most politically beneficial for the media to consume. This year was no different.

Saturday's big news item was Minister of Finance Grant Robertson's announcement that he would relax his pre-election assurance that the Government would limit net government debt to 20 per cent of GDP – a promise set out in Labour's "Budget Responsibility Rules".

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Without announcing specifics, Robertson indicated that this ratio will move to an upper limit of 25 per cent and the Government would be borrowing more for a package of infrastructure projects yet to be announced.

This set up the Prime Minister for her Sunday keynote announcement: A $400 million "use it or lose it" cash injection for schools, to use on capital spending.

Let me be clear that I am not one to suggest that New Zealand's schools are overfunded. An extra $400 million into classrooms and facilities is a worthy cause.

But Labour's choice of delivery appears to be much more about headline grabbing and buying the votes of parents than improving the outcomes of kids the schooling system is supposed to serve.

To recap the announcement, every school will get a payment of $693 per student, capped at a maximum of $400,000, while no school will get less than $50,000 regardless of how small its roll is.

As the Prime Minister announced the policy, Labour sent to media a list of the countries' schools with their respective payments – no doubt to encourage online media outlets to publish the list and encourage parents to look up the payment amount to their kids' school.

Working through the list, it soon becomes clear just how lazy the policy thinking is. A school rebuilt following the Canterbury earthquakes, gets the same dollop of cash as a school with buildings from the 1950s. No school gets more than $400,000, but none less than $50,000.

That results in huge outliers: Rangitoto College, with 2918 students, will receive the maximum, of $400,000, or $137 per student. Taieri Beach School, with a roll of 5, will receive the minimum, some $10,000 per child.


Even accepting Ardern's claims of chronic underinvestment in educational facilities over the term of the last government, her policy answers a different question.

Instead of asking officials which schools need what, the Labour Party has cooked up an "every school gets cash" policy, presumably just for the Prime Minister's big speech. You'd expect this from an unorganised opposition fishing for votes, not the party in government.

Jordan Williams. Photo / supplied
Jordan Williams. Photo / supplied

It appears no one in Labour bothered to ask the 1785 bureaucrats who work at the Ministry of Education's head office in Wellington how to target the spending so those schools falling apart are the ones which benefit. Even with $400 million, the taxpayer dollar can only go so far.

Ultimately the "everyone gets a dollop" approach means those schools that desperately need redevelopment miss out.

If the Government is unwilling to make disciplined choices and use its huge administrative resources to target investment according to bang-for-buck, Robertson's promised benefits of employment and so-called "future proofing" of the economy won't eventuate. Instead billions of borrowed taxpayers' dollars will go down the drain.

• Jordan Williams is the executive director of the New Zealand Taxpayers' Union.