NBR's weekly political wrap: National's leadership in question

INQUEST: Watch as Grant Walker debates this week's political moves with NBR's political columnist Brent Edwards and commentator Bryce Edwards (no relation).

Political commentator Bryce Edwards is convinced there is widespread dissatisfaction with Simon Bridges’ leadership among National Party MPs.

But Dr Edwards says there is still no talk of a coup to unseat Mr Bridges.

National’s housing spokeswoman Judith Collins has been identified as the most likely challenger although she has shrugged off that speculation.

Ms Collins has continued to strongly attack the government’s troubled KiwiBuild programme but is not so clear about why that is not damaging Labour’s standing in opinion polls.

She says National’s message on the government's performance is getting through but it has got to “have a very clear, co-ordinated attack.”

So, are the columns in a range of media outlets about a potential leadership change, just beat-ups?

Dr Edwards says it is always important to ask whether the media is exaggerating leadership worries but in this case he has no doubt there are major questions in the National caucus about Mr Bridges continuing to head the party.

He says he has talked to people within National to see whether the leadership speculation is just nonsense. The message he got is that there is huge concern but at the same time there has been no talk of a coup.

While National might be distracted by leadership speculation the government continues to be dogged by criticism of KiwiBuild, with Ms Collins calling Labour’s policy a “dog.”

She told NBR this week developers just smile when she says they must be laughing at the guaranteed price they get under the KiwiBuild programme.

The perfect customer

Ms Collins says Housing Minister Phil Twyford has failed because the scheme gives guaranteed prices to developments built in areas where people do not necessarily want to live or involves apartments or smaller homes they do not want to live in.

“These guys (developers) are just looking at Phil and they’re saying ‘hey, this guy, he’s our perfect customer. Loads of money and no sense’.”

Dr Edwards says the policy has been a “dog” from the time it was first announced in 2012 by then Labour leader David Shearer. Developers seem to be the only ones getting any benefit from it.

He says housing is one of the big intractable issues for any government. The previous National-led government did not deal with it well but Labour campaigned so hard on housing and inequality during the election campaign.

“I wouldn’t even be surprised if KiwiBuild gets ditched by this government. I mean it would be a hard thing to do. They’d have to have something better to replace it with.”

Dr Edwards warns Mr Twyford’s position is under threat when an expected cabinet reshuffle takes place after the May 30 budget.

He also believes the government’s response to loan sharks has undermined its credibility for dealing with poverty and inequality.

Loan sharks

Social agencies have criticised the Credit Contracts Legislation Amendment Bill because it does not include a cap on the interest rate lenders can charge. Instead, it caps the total amount borrowers have to pay back at 100%. So, someone taking out a $500 loan would never have to pay back more than $1000 in total, including fees and interest rates.

The community ministries programme co-ordinator for the Salvation Army, Jodi Hoare, says the government’s failure to put a cap on interest rates undermines what it is trying to do to reduce child poverty.

“This does let it down,” Ms Hoare says.

Bryce Edwards says the government is looking mild and meek on what is an important issue.

“Here we’ve got Labour still delivering something but it did promise more and so it is therefore vulnerable for losing maybe some of its votes to the Greens. Maybe, you know, this will actually help the Greens because they’re thinking Labour has lacked courage on this issue. But, certainly, that narrative could start building, especially after the capital gains decision, that this government doesn’t care enough about poverty or inequality.”

China relations

Meanwhile, relations with China appear back on track after the Chinese were upset by the GCSB decision to block Huawei from involvement in Spark’s 5G network roll-out.

It is an issue complicated by the fact the US opposes other countries using Huawei’s technology.

Trade Minister David Parker led a trade mission to China last week and attended the Belt and Road forum in Beijing.

Mr Parker says the government treats the Huawei decision as a security issue, not a trade or investment issue.

“We’re polite, we distance politicians from those important decisions and we’re consistent through time across governments. We stick to our principles and we try to chart a fair course through the middle of sometimes choppy waters between different superpowers.”

He also came back more enthusiastic about New Zealand's involvement involved in the Belt and Road initiative.

Dr Edwards says Mr Parker has made all the right noises about China.

He says Labour has always been supportive of the BRI but New Zealand First has not been keen. That has been a problem with New Zealand’s foreign policy under the coalition.

“We’ve had Winston Peters, Ron Mark and their chief of staff, Jon Johansson, really re-orientating New Zealand’s foreign policy away from China, back toward the US and doing it against, I believe, Labour’s desires and instincts, so what we’re seeing now is Labour reasserting themselves a bit on this.”

Dr Edwards says it is always difficult to manage the relationships with China and the US but things had tilted too far toward America.

While the Belt and Road initiative is a bit vague, he says it is a “no-brainer” to be involved because it is about trade.

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