The week in politics: Forcing down petrol prices an ironic twist for Coalition

Grant Walker debates the week's political events with Brigitte Morten and Brent Edwards.
The Week In Politics

It might seem ironic that a government intent on cutting the use of fossil fuels is also threatening action to bring down petrol prices.

But politics this week was full of irony.

The coalition has also announced a new draft national policy statement on urban development in a bid to get councils to speed up residential developments, but not at the expense of the environment.

And, in another ironic moment, National Party leader Simon Bridges, who has criticised the government’s costings of its spending plans, opposes a move to set up an independent parliamentary body to properly cost party policies.

Bridges describes it as anti-democratic and accuses the government of trying to screw the scrum.

This week former National government policy adviser and political commentator Brigitte Morten reviews the week.

Petrol prices have always been a hot topic of discussion and a draft report from the Commerce Commission this week confirmed what everyone suspected – that, yes, fuel companies are charging more than they should.

Commerce Minister Kris Faafoi has signalled the government will act quickly once it gets the commission’s final report on December 5.

“We made it pretty clear that we don’t like the fact that New Zealanders are paying too much at the pump. Making a profit is fine but over and above what the Commerce Commission says is reasonable means people are paying too much for their petrol,” Faafoi said.

Morten said while the government was blaming the rise in petrol prices solely on the companies, it had to take some responsibility after raising petrol taxes and introducing a regional petrol tax in Auckland.

But will National, which has opposed those increases, cut petrol taxes when it next leads the government?

National caution

Morten isn’t so sure but said National had reason to be cautious.

“You’ve got to look at how much you’re actually bringing in via that revenue stream when you’re actually in government and then work out how much you can reduce it by. Making an arbitrary sort of promise now to reduce it by a certain amount is quite difficult to do on something that is quite complex,” she said.

While the government and National might disagree over petrol taxes they appear to be coming ever closer together about the need to remove restrictions to urban development.

A draft urban development policy statement released this week would direct councils to allow more intensive development in inner cities and more development on the outskirts, as long as productive land is safeguarded.

Environment Minister David Parker explained why.

“When you have got as many people sleeping on the streets as you have in Auckland it’s a disgrace in a country as wealthy and a country with as much land as New Zealand that it’s come to that. Part of the reasons for that is overly restrictive planning rules,” Parker said.

Brigitte Morten said she felt a little sorry for the councils and the policy statement was not particularly clear what they should do.

“The councils are the ones that feel all the political pressure and get all the kickback when they do things like put high-density housing in and out in the regions and particularly where there’s a high number of NIMBYs that’s particularly difficult and now going into local council elections as well. So, I do feel sorry for the councils, where the central government has essentially gone ‘this is all your problem, fix it’.”

The OIA

Meanwhile, Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has suggested changes to make government agencies adhere to the requirements of the Official Information Act, including possibly fining agencies who fail to meet their obligations.

“At the moment the only consequence really is that they’ll get a stiff letter from me asking them to do better. And some take the view that the ombudsman hasn’t got enough teeth and I welcome a debate on whether I should have more teeth.”

Boshier also suggested chief executives’ performance reviews should include how well their agencies administered the OIA.

Morten said it was important the OIA was upheld but the State Services Commission already reported on how well departments did.

“We need to be careful here that we’re not by putting too many restrictions on how you get the information that you’re not setting up such a huge bureaucracy around it that it actually creates more slowdown and more cautiousness about information going out.”

Often political interference is blamed for requests for information being delayed or obstructed but Morten defended the involvement of ministerial offices. When she worked in the education minister’s office in the previous National-led government, it kept a close eye on OIA requests and often proactively released information.

 “We need to be careful here. I think that there’s a lot of criticism put on ministerial offices but different ministers’ offices work in different ways.”

Meanwhile, Simon Bridges has come out strongly against government plans to set up an independent parliamentary body to cost the policies of political parties.

But Morten thinks it is a good idea and said parliamentary budget bodies were well respected in other countries.

“What would be actually really valuable with having an office here is actually coalition negotiations and that sort of process because then you could actually see what the costs are of forming different governments together and what that actually looks like, because at the moment it’s really hard to know exactly what the cost of a coalition agreement is, which nobody has technically actually voted for.”

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