They say truth is the first casualty of war. It is also the first casualty of election campaigns. I tuned in to Chris Hipkins’ address at the Labour Party conference last Sunday. My heart was pounding as the Prime Minister went through his government’s extensive list of achievements (though it’s possible that my exercise bike played a bigger role in that than Hipkins’ delivery.) In any case, I was glad to be in the gym as that allowed me to turn my frustration into a more vigorous workout. Because frustrating it was when the Prime Minister tried to make us believe he had presided over a spectacularly successful delivery machine. After every sentence, I wished someone had hit the pause button on Hipkins’ speech to fact-check his assertions. But this was live TV, and it would have been naïve to believe that any New Zealand journalist would bother to do so afterwards. It would have been worth it, though, because the discrepancy between Hipkins’ claims and our cold, hard reality could not have been starker. Take this gem from Hipkins’ speech: “We’ve lifted incomes for thousands of Kiwi families through increases to the minimum wage, boosts to benefits and student allowances, increases to superannuation, and through managing an economy that has seen the wages of Kiwi workers growing.” Yes, it is true that the minimum wage, benefits and student allowances have all gone up. But is that a good thing? Well, not quite. New Zealand now has a minimum wage that is among the world’s highest relative to average wages. That is something to be concerned about, not to celebrate. Increasing the minimum wage too close to the average wage can lead to both inflation and higher unemployment. Our benefits have also gone up, and the government no longer tries to wean people off welfare. So, unsurprisingly, we have high beneficiary numbers even as the labour market remains tight. That is hardly an achievement. It is also true that wages are growing, but they are struggling to keep up with cost-of-living increases. Most New Zealanders would not say they feel any better off under this government. After just a little digging, there is little left of Hipkins’ grandiose rhetoric. He went on: “We’ve made the teaching of New Zealand history in schools universal, introduced a public holiday for Matariki, and we passed the landmark Zero Carbon Act.” All factually correct, of course. But hardly anything to crow about. The New Zealand history curriculum is a disaster. It teaches our children a highly selective (and biased) story of New Zealand. It appalled even the Royal Society. The public holiday for Matariki is wonderful, of course – except another public holiday is yet another cost for businesses to bear at a time when many can hardly afford the holidays we already have. And then there is the Zero Carbon Act, which establishes a grand central planning regime for carbon emissions, even though New Zealand already has an Emissions Trading Scheme that is way more efficient in reducing our carbon footprint. But, just as you thought Hipkins’ self-praise could not get more absurd, he said this: “We’ve put tackling climate change at the heart of our work, we’ve made tangible progress to tackle the burgeoning mental health challenge we face, and we’ve put more cops on the beat.” Oh well. Tackling climate change, see above. Mental health? Wasn’t that the $1.9 billion in the first ‘Wellbeing Budget’ which failed to create a single new mental health bed? And as for more police, try telling that to retailers who get ram-raided every 15 hours on average. At least the government is giving them fog cannons now. Hipkins continued: “We’ve got more work to do to make sure our young Kiwis are positively engaged in education and in our local communities. I’m simply not willing to write off some of our youngest and most vulnerable kids and resign them to a life in and out of the justice system when we know there is a better way.” Positively engaged in education? If only. It was on Hipkins’ watch as education minister the school attendance rates went from bad to worse. And crime ballooned during Hipkins’ tenure as minister of police. And so it went on and on ... and on. Hipkins praised Minister of Finance Grant Robertson for “careful economic management.” Well, under Robertson, the government has accumulated an extra $11,700 of debt per person (inflation-adjusted). This year, it is spending an (also inflation-adjusted) $4,800 more per person each year compared to 2017. True, some of that is due to Covid. But the largesse had well and truly started before Covid hit. By 2019, both per capita spending and debt had already started to soar – and it was well above Labour’s fiscal plan at the 2017 election. The Prime Minister talked about cutting the $5 prescription fee and how his government is making the country healthier. Except he forgot to mention the lengthening wait lists for elective surgeries, the ridiculous overcrowding at our hospitals’ A&E, and the challenges in even registering with a GP. In a similar vein, Hipkins boasted about the extra 20 hours of free early childhood education. What he did not mention was that many families will struggle to make use of this allowance because the providers simply aren’t there. Or the fact that the policy is so poorly designed that some providers of early childhood education are now thinking of exiting the market. I am not writing about this to make a party-political point. Frankly, I could not care less what colours our political leaders wear. But I do care for good policy. And there simply wasn’t much of it in Hipkins speech – or indeed in the government of which he has been a prominent member for the past five years. However, I do agree with one thing Hipkins said: “New Zealanders deserve better than that. They deserve a government that works for everyone. A government committed to the value that the circumstances you were born into shouldn’t limit your opportunities in life. A government committed to the value that if you work hard, you should be able to get ahead and create a better life for you and your family.” It is just a pity that we haven’t had such a government for a long time.
Oliver Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative