Oddly, a policy aimed at making water cleaner and safer has become a lightning rod for public disgruntlement. By Jane Clifton
New Zealand's political new years are never a time for embarking on resolutions, because there's still so much work to be done mordantly unpacking all last year's irresolutions.
There's always a slew of unsolved problems and unanswered questions that get parked for the silly season and don't look any better after a nice holiday. Some, notably Auckland's light-rail decision, have languished in the inbox for years. Other imponderables – rising inflation, goods and labour shortages, growing misery in social housing – are more recent arrivals, all nigh on irremediable and set to make absolutely everything else that much worse.
All the while, the Omicron coronavirus variant is invisibly making itself at home, promising to further complicate every existing difficulty by necessitating a third year of pause-button politics. The inevitability of more lockdowns for this virulent but generally mild variant will make for a febrile national psychology.
The daily briefings and prime ministerial pep talks have lost their magic. And the surprise political blockbuster of 2021, the Three Waters policy, has provided a bizarre rallying point for all the niggles voters are building up against Labour. The magnitude of disgruntlement is normal in any administration's second term, but that it should coalesce around a policy making water cleaner and safer is peculiar.
Water management upsets people only when there's contamination or massive rises in rates or water charges. The Government thought removing water management from local government – generally even less trusted than central government – would be unexceptionable, especially given some councils' infamous failings at it.
But bracketed with the promised Māori co-governance, the issue has begun to register in puce with the pollsters. The term "asset grab" is histrionic, as it's really a liability grab. The rational council response should be, "Thank you." But somehow, many people now think "their" water is being confiscated without consultation.
The fact that few, save engineers and conservationists, ever seek to involve themselves in the technicalities of river flow and outfall placement seems neither here nor there. So, Three Waters is in extended talk therapy as the Government seeks a formula to pacify councils.
This is just one of many ways in which, for the Government, 2022 is a nasty variant on the chickens-home-to-roost motif. Voters will not so much notice the dark clouds cast by homing birds, but rather the many birds that never got airborne in the first place.
So many reports, inquiries and policy promises – more affordable housing; cheaper electricity, petrol and groceries; more mental-health services; lower emissions; grand green-transport plans – and most of them still being tinkered with in the workshop to get them roadworthy. Few will show results before the 2023 election.
New Zealand spent the first year of the pandemic braced for a recession and the second marvelling that the exact opposite had happened. We seem destined to spend year three figuring out how to pay for last year's "roaring 20s" blowout.
Nowhere is this more confounding than in housing. Building consents have never been higher, to the point where the housing undersupply problem could flip to surplus. A couple of years ago, this would have been the best news since kale stopped trending on social media.
But the building boom is coupled with inflation, severe and indefinite shortages of materials and labour and what's beginning to look like a credit crunch. New mortgage lending has slumped, in part because of the new Credit Contracts and Consumer Finance Act, which appears to have turned banks overnight from gushing fountains of liquidity to the petty-cash police.
The Government won't say whether it really intended the law to make banks micro-audit mortgage applicants' spending. But nowhere in Hansard records can warnings be found that prospective borrowers had better be able to prove they take a thermos of Nescafé to work every day, have rehomed the cat and can make a kilo of mince last a week or they wouldn't get a loan.
Banks have always rightly been required to assess people's ability to afford repayments. But since the law change, we seem to have entered an era of high fiscal Calvinism, where a couple of hundred bucks' Christmas shopping at the Warehouse and regular coffees out constitute decadent prodigality that excommunicates a person from the aspiring classes. It's horribly socially divisive, so thank heavens this, too, is in urgent official review.
Worse, the Reserve Bank, entrusted to steady the ship through such turbulence, is experiencing its own. The Government's widening of its governance input has left it in perennial open season for attack, and its current restructuring has brought a concerning staff churn.
This doesn't bode well for the Government's next manoeuvres: producing shiny new policy baubles to deflect the limelight from all the stalled ones. These are policy supertankers for which a steady central bank's guidance is essential.
Top-billed bauble is further banking reform: curtailing the seeming charging-at-will of fees, needlessly high interest rates and, most perniciously, the killing banks make from interest on holding people's payments overnight or through weekends. This would be wildly popular.
A second bauble is social insurance, guaranteeing perhaps 80 per cent of one's wage if unemployment strikes – not a major vote-rallier, but an ambitious move that will engross people.
Still, at least our Government is trying to do something for us rather than to somebody else. In Britain, perennially hapless Prime Minister Boris Johnson is trying to re-ingratiate himself after serial lockdown breaches by attacking the BBC and sicking the armed forces on to boat people.
Picking on popular enemies is legitimate, if ugly politics, but it wouldn't work here. The only boat people who trouble us are gang associates tootling out for meth pickups at sea, so there might just be something in that idea, but few New Zealanders truly hate RNZ or blame it for anything in particular.
In any case, after years of "unprecedented times", we're now poised to return to one much-missed precedented item: the days when the Government's main enemy was the opposition. National's enemy has for some years been National, leaving the Government unmolested. Under new leadership, the party shows signs of returning to retro form – a bit of the "old normal" that, hopefully, it can still remember how to do.