The week in politics: the winners from polling

Watch Grant Walker debate the week's political moves with Jennifer Curtin and Brent Edwards.
The Week in Politics

The political week started with National Party leader Simon Bridges stealing a march on the coalition by announcing his party would set up a National Cancer Agency.

Bridges also promised at National annual conference at the weekend to spend an extra $200 million over four years on cancer drugs.

By the end of the week Education Minister Chris Hipkins had confirmed the government would go ahead with the comprehensive reform of vocational education and industry training, including merging the country’s 16 institutes of technology and polytechnics into one organisation.

In the week in politics Auckland University politics professor Jennifer Curtin judges Bridges’ cancer announcement a good political move.

Curtin said there had been a lot of issues with the government’s drug buying agency Pharmac and increasing community dissatisfaction about access to prescription medicines, particularly for the treatment of cancer. This too had been an issue in Australia.

“Actually, cancer drug funds were part of the Australian election campaign and we know that Bridges is looking at Australia to see why Scott Morrison did so well there, so this is a real win-win.”

She said people might ask what would happen to primary health care but this was a win for National and Health Minister David Clark’s response attacking National was unfortunate.

But what about the fact National had ditched a national committee in 2015 and criticised Labour’s 2017 policy to set up a National Cancer Agency?

“Yes, National ditched the policy on this back when it was in government but voters have short-term memories.”

Curtin said the policy was a good way for National to shore up its support and it was an issue that cut across ideological grounds because so many people were affected by cancer.

Polling support

The next day One News’ Colmar Brunton poll showed National was the country’s most popular party on 45% support, just a week after media speculation that the party’s support had fallen below 40%. That had raised renewed speculation about Bridges’ leadership.

Curtin said the poll was a good result for National and as a result Bridges’ leadership was safe. But the poll was also a win for Labour and the Greens whose combined support was higher than National.

At the beginning of the week Justice Minister Andrew Little had tabled two bills – one allowing people to enrol and vote on election day and the other setting out the parameters for referendum votes.

It prompted National’s electoral reform spokesperson Nick Smith to declare the changes outrageous and an attempt by the government to change electoral rules to aid its re-election. He said it was inevitable that late enrolments tended to favour parties of the left.

“It is the sort of thing that we expect to occur in the Zimbabwes and banana republics. It is not New Zealand’s way.”

He said countries like Australia, Canada and the US had constitutional protections against this sort of thing happening.

Curtin said Smith’s comments were a bit extreme. Voters were allowed to enrol and vote on the same day in 20 US states and in Canada. Part of the reason for that was to encourage voter turnout.

“It’s really important for those who don’t have fixed addresses all the time because they might drop off rolls or they might not get the reminder to get on the roll,” she said. "And, also the argument being made in the US is about potential hacking of electoral rolls and stripping voters off rolls and you may not find that you’ve fallen off the roll until you turn up to vote on election day. So, this measure could be as much about protecting our democracy as eroding it.” 

Industry training

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Hipkins announced the establishment of a single institution of technology and the replacement of industry training organisations with four to seven workforce development councils.

He said under the existing system a national construction company, for example, would be dealing with 16 polytechnics and multiple ITOs. This reform would streamline the system.

“You’ll be dealing with one polytech and you’ll be dealing with one workforce development council. It’s actually going to make the system much easier to navigate for business.”

Curtin was not so sure about the reform. She said she could see the logic of the consolidation of polytechnics in a sector in which many were not doing well financially. But how long would it take before savings were made?

“It’s such a significant merger, 16 into one, different cultures, different ways of working, definitely different regional needs in terms of a lot of the skills and workforces needed but they are looking to the future and the future of work and the future needs of industries. I do wonder though about the small and medium enterprises. Talking about national building organisations and so on doesn’t necessarily capture everything that the New Zealand labour market looks like and the skills and needs of different regions.”

She said it was a good thing the government had said the head office of the new organisation would not be in either Wellington or Auckland. But how much responsibility for training would remain in the regions? The messaging on that needed to be clearer.

“Just so it doesn’t look as if it is centralisation in the making and too much government control over something that needs to be attentive to the fact that so much else of what’s delivered to the regions is sitting in the regions, like district health board. So, we’ve had this culture of devolution over time. Why would we shift that?”

Political editor