Sloppy political management behind parental leave mess
It took Bill English to cauterise the wounds.
For nearly a week, the Beehive spin machine cowered before an onslaught led by a hitherto unknown master strategist, Labour’s Sue Moroney.
Previously a Trade Union Education Authority educator and nurses’ and horse workers’ union organiser, the list MP has kept her talents to herself since being elected in 2005, allowing newer MPs to pass her in the rankings.
Her portfolios of early childhood education and women’s affairs are important but many MPs want bigger-spending portfolios after seven years in Parliament.
Despite the cards dealt to her, Ms Moroney has played a superlative hand.
First, she got the media to report that her bill to extend paid parental leave from 14 to 26 weeks was likely to win majority parliamentary support.
In fact, she had only a vague commitment from United Future leader Peter Dunne that, although he hadn’t read her 160-word bill, it was “a move in the right direction” and “the debate should be held.”
As of Tuesday morning, the Maori and NZ First parties –both of whose support Ms Moroney would need – hadn’t even discussed the issue.
Even more cannily, Ms Moroney neglected to mention that the government has a veto under Parliament’s standing orders over bills that have “more than a minor impact on the government’s fiscal aggregates.”
She shrewdly assessed that no one in the press gallery would have been cognisant of the veto option.
Most brilliantly, she correctly calculated that no one in the Beehive press corps would have heard of it either. A story whose apparent importance could have been downgraded quickly with a few calls to political editors was instead allowed to run for a week. Beehive negligence meant Ms Moroney was fêted on all major TV and radio shows as the new hero of the working parent. Truly did she know her enemy.
It was always inevitable that the government would veto Ms Moroney’s bill.
The veto was introduced with MMP to stop National oppositions from cutting taxes by doing dodgy deals with centrist parties supposedly aligned with Labour governments and to stop Labour oppositions from doing dodgy deals with supposedly National-aligned centre parties to impose spending increases on National governments. If the small centrist parties don’t like the veto being used, they can still call a confidence motion to bring down the government.
What’s more, if National was ever likely to acquiesce to a Labour spending initiative, paid parental leave would not be it. After all, the scheme’s instigator was Alliance powerbroker Laila Harréduring the first term of Helen Clark’s government.
Ms Harré’s original vision was a 12-week scheme paid for by employers. Ms Clark wanted just six weeks and wouldn’t hear of imposing the cost directly on employers, instead designing a taxpayer-funded scheme.
Ms Harréresisted. She argued Ms Clark’s scheme would effectively use taxes paid by low-income workers to subsidise employers – just as would happen again with Working for Families. At least from a left perspective, Ms Harré’s proposal was more coherent – reducing profits to increase the value of workers’ total remuneration.
The two compromised. While she won on taxpayer funding, Ms Clark had to concede 12 weeks to Ms Harréand the scheme began in 2002 at a total cost of $41 million a year. At a time Michael Cullen was boasting a budget surplus of $2.3 billion, or over 2% of GDP, that was all Ms Clark believed the government could afford.
Later Ms Clark agreed to extend the scheme fractionally to 14 weeks. Par for the course, John Key has left the Alliance-inspired policy just as he found it.
Looking back on the week, Mr English should have been allowed to take charge the very day Ms Moroney’s bill first received publicity.
He could have immediately declared that, with an $11 billion deficit, he would use the veto to prevent another $150 million a year being borrowed to extend an Alliance Party scheme well beyond the scope supported even by Ms Clark.
Such an announcement would have been seen as unremarkable.
Instead, the vacuum created by the government’s sloppy political management meant that when he finally did go public he was seen as the bad guy dashing families’ hopes. Just as with policy, the government might be better to opt for decentralisation of its political operations to achieve greater fleet-footedness.