Coalition staggering, battered on three fronts

How damaging is Labour's sex scandal to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern?
The Week in Politics

What is now being called the Labour Party sex scandal dominated politics this week.

It led to the resignation of party president Nigel Haworth, and National’s deputy leader, Paula Bennett, has also used parliamentary privilege to point the finger at other figures within the government, including Finance Minister Grant Robertson.

It cast a pall over the government all week and is likely to dog Labour for some time to come.

But this week too housing and construction were back in focus, with Registered Master Builders chief executive David Kelly calling for changes to the Resource Management Act to help ease the way for much-needed housing developments.

“I think the RMA is fundamentally important and it needs to be reformed. Hopefully, we won’t have politics being played out between parties. It has to be reformed,” Kelly said.

Auckland University’s professor of politics and director of its public policy institute Jennifer Curtin said there was a potential for political parties to find a middle ground on the RMA.

But Curtin said there needed to be a change in the way people viewed housing, with more willing to move into apartments rather than a standard three-bedroom house.

“That’s a mindset shift because it’s not how it works in Europe but we do need controls over things like ground rent. We need to know that the banking sector will lend on good-quality apartments. There are a whole bunch of things that need to change to enable that cultural shift to take place,” she said.

RMA review

The government is reviewing the RMA and this week Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford made it clear it was keen to make changes, describing the RMA as too complex, too slow and too expensive.

“We’ve got to move on, and this is one of the main reasons we’re 70,000 houses short right now,” Twyford said.

While the government has had to shoulder criticism over abandoning its target of building 100,000 KiwiBuild homes in 10 years it also faced further criticism in the past week over its decision to set new targets for clean fresh water.

Federated Farmers has said some farmers might be driven out of business by the tough new standards and National’s agriculture spokesperson Todd Muller has been a persistent critic.

The politics of water

But is National’s opposition to the new standards partly political, as it seeks to undermine New Zealand First’s support in the provinces?

Todd Muller said he believed many people in the provinces voted for NZ First to act as a brake on a fourth-term National-led government but instead they got a Labour-Green government with an entirely different agenda.

“NZ First is largely silent and every now and again try to push themselves into the debate, make themselves relevant but, as I’ve said in other forums the last few days: Where are they on this? They’re completely silent. This is one of the greatest challenges for rural New Zealand and they are silent,” Muller said.

Curtin said water quality was not a new issue. It had been on the political agenda for many years. It was part of the 2014 campaign and again in 2017.

She also questioned whether it would cause problems for NZ First as only a few electorates, mainly in Canterbury, would be deeply affected by the new water standards.

“We also know looking at NZ First’s election platform in 2014 and 2017, they want quality water for swimming and they want to make sure that there’s a national water-use strategy so they’re not completely silent and it may be that they will lose some votes but this does not impact all farms in New Zealand.”

She said Muller was stretching the argument when he suggested NZ First voters wanted it to support a National-led government.

Sex scandal

Meanwhile, Curtin said the scandal enveloping Labour over claims about the way it handled complaints about sexual harassment and sexual assault was serious.

How much responsibility should Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern take for the way it has been handled?

“In terms of Ardern and her responses versus the party, I think we have to remember that this is exactly how parties work. There is the organisational wing and then there’s the caucus and we saw this with National’s response to Jami-Lee Ross’ allegations, which was Peter Goodfellow off working out what needed to be done and how it would be dealt with and that’s what we’re seeing here. But it’s certainly not a good look for the government right now.”

Haworth resigned as Labour Party president after Ardern saw emails indicating the party had known that some of the complaints had related to an allegation of sexual assault.

In Parliament National’s deputy leader Paula Bennett claimed senior staff in the Prime Minister’s office and Finance Minister Grant Robertson had also known earlier about the allegations and suggested more people should resign or be sacked over the matter.

Curtin said the longer this dragged on the worse it would be for Ardern’s reputation and the government’s reputation.

“This is a political decision. She will be working out how long, you know, it will last and how long she needs to take and how much more evidence she might feel she needs to make that call and go for heads.”

But she pointed out that former National Prime Minister John Key had always waited for a while before asking for resignations and getting them.

“It’s about weighing up the ethical dimensions but also the political risks if she doesn’t take action.”

Political editor
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