KiwiBuild, fair pay, capital gains, education but Nats need to be cautious.

COMMENT

School's back and even if Parliament doesn't officially begin until February 12, politics is well and truly back.

National leader Simon Bridges will lead the party's first caucus meeting of the year in Hamilton next week, as it works out which issues to target and how hard.

He has had a good start to the year after delivering a meaty tax policy to inflation-adjust thresholds every three years, which not even Labour could disagree with in principle.

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Labour too had its annual pilgrimage across the Remutaka Hill for its first caucus.
A boutique countryside resort near Martinborough may not be the most likely venue for Labour's retreat. But it has become something of a modern tradition.

It had its beginnings after the 2014 election, its third successive loss, the subsequent resignation of David Cunliffe and the tough leadership contest which followed.

The caucus needed solitude to lick its wounds and start getting some sense of unity under Andrew Little, which he largely accomplished before handing over a far healthier party to Jacinda Ardern just before its historic victory.

Ardern's appearance there this week was nothing like her first a year ago, where she had only just announced her baby news to the world, and most MPs were in a state of disbelief they had made it to Government.

Fresh from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Ardern this week was a sure-footed and focused Prime Minister who has grown in stature and confidence.

She declared that this would be the Year of Delivery.

It is a great sounding slogan in the context of dozens of reviews commissioned by the new Government, although it implies that last year wasn't a year of delivery - and it actually was.

The "delivery" slogan juxtaposed with the Kiwibuild shemozzle over management strife and missed targets was unfortunate.

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But Twyford was fortunate in sharing a platform with Ardern as they fronted media together at the retreat.

Ardern flannelled valiantly, as she had at her post cabinet press conference, trying to argue that a 10-year target for the number of houses to be built (for which there is no accountability) is more important than a three-year target (for which there is accountability).

The pledge of 100,000 houses over 10 years was an aspirational slogan devised under David Shearer's precarious leadership.

It was a sensible move by Twyford to set short-term targets early in his tenure as a minister but with $2 billion in funding for Kiwibuild, they need to be re-set to take account of reality, not abandoned altogether as Ardern hinted at this week.

National was pilloried in Government for being too slow in addressing housing shortages. Twyford's counterpart, Judith Collins, will be relishing the return to Parliament to prosecute the slow progress of Kiwibuild.

Three working group reports hold promise as targets for National.

The final Tax Working Group report was delivered yesterday and more than anything, National is privately relishing the prospect of the Government endorsing a capital gains tax to campaign against, but that is some way off.

The report won't be released until February 21 and the Government won't set its policy until April.

But a capital gains tax endorsed by Labour could offer the strongest point of difference in next year's election and if it is endorsed or even enabled by New Zealand First, all the better for National's campaign.

The same goes for the fair pay agreements outlined in the Jim Bolger report delivered to the Government this week.

But given New Zealand First's track record in diluting union-backed legislation, it is hard to imagine the party agreeing to a trigger as low as 10 per cent for workers to force employers to the table for compulsory sector-wide bargaining.

The trouble is that the higher the trigger goes, the less happy the unions will be. A true compromise may result in deeply unhappy unions and employers.

The report that National should be treating with less relish than the others is the review of Tomorrow's Schools, which in 1989 required every school to establish a board of trustees to run the schools and come up with "charters" with the community.

Exactly what problem it was attempting to fix was not evident in the reports of the time, neither the Picot report nor the Government's response, Tomorrow's Schools.

Given that both National and Labour agree on the problem, there is less reason for National to whip it into a political battleground to score cheap points.

But it was in the era of the reforming deregulating Fourth Labour Government in which a monolithic Department of Education was anathema to precepts of small government.

The consensus is that it has led to greater competition between schools than collaboration which has been bad for professional development of teachers and principals and, National agrees, to a greater inequality between schools.

How to address that is the subject of Bali Haque's review, Our Schooling Futures, Stronger Together, commissioned by Education Minister Chris Hipkins. It promotes new regional hubs to handle some admin leaving boards to concentrate on student achievement.

Given that both National and Labour agree on the problem, there is less reason for National to whip it into a political battleground to score cheap points.

In fact, education could well do with some consensus politics and collaborative approach.

Of all the reviews the Government set up, this was one of the most worthwhile, given it has not been reviewed for nearly 30 years.

It was also done collaboratively in as much as the independent group was encouraged to privately consult National through the process.

That is in contrast to the crash-through tactics of National with, for example, national standards and Hekia Parata's initial approach to raising student achievement.

Hipkins and his National counterpart, Nikki Kaye, have a more collaborative relationship.

Kaye will run her own series of public meetings on the Schooling Futures, the first to take place in Hamilton next week while the caucus is there – and Hipkins has no issue with members of the Haque's working group attending and taking part. They will their own as well.

There is no rush. It was a problem 30 years in the making and it requires some caution by National in addressing the problem.

The Coalition Government needs to be careful in creating targets for National, but National needs to demonstrate caution in selecting its targets and not bark at every car.