Hard News by Russell Brown

Interesting day

On Monday, David Slack noted that the odds-setters at Centrebet were sitting tight and waiting for a big bang in the election campaign. I wonder if yesterday was it.

There was, of course, the TV3 poll, which suggested a staggering turnaround in party fortunes: Labour 45, National 36; with the Greens clocking in with a screaming 7% for a Labour-Green landslide. This may simply mean that you can't trust the polls in this election, but it wiped out any hint of a feelgood factor from Sunday's Colmar Brunton poll.

And then there was Winston, who yesterday declared that he would not go into coalition with anyone, but would remain on the cross benches. He would discuss an offer of support on confidence and supply with the highest-polling party.

Winston’s decision makes perfect sense for him. On Sunday’s poll Labour would be irrelevant, but he’d risk a collapse in support if he declared for National. On last night’s poll he’s irrelevant as a coalition partner.

It’s a really horrible scenario for National, which (unless United Future suddenly trebles its vote) could at best hope for support on confidence and supply and a lame-duck life of issue-by-issue votes thereafter. It would be quite possible for a National government to be outvoted on most of its policy programme.

And then there's the Exclusive Brethren business. Talking to Noelle McCarthy this morning, Don Brash answered the question he refused to answer yesterday: when he met with Brethren leaders two weeks ago, did they discuss the sect's campaign activities? Answer: yes, the Brethren leaders told him that they would be distributing their anti-Green-and-Labour leaflets. So why did National spend days pretending it had no idea who was behind the pamphlets?

I spoke off-air to two callers to my bFM show yesterday who were emphatic that EB members (who do nothing without direction from the sect leaders) were putting up National Party billboards in Auckland. I've since received three emails claiming that EB members are distributing not only their own literature, but National's as well, in Christchurch and Dunedin at least. This one, from someone who doesn't usually lie to me, was quite funny:

Yesterday a close friend was talking with a member of the Nats. Apart from the EB's own pamphlets, they apparently have been used to distribute Nats' literature as well, as it is so hard to get Nat volunteers to do the letter dropping, whereas these cults, that's what they do to pass their time...

Now, it's a democracy: individuals and organisations can and should participate in the political process. But Gerry Brownlee's declaration that there was "no relation" between National and the Exclusive Brethren seems disingenuous at best.

This isn't to do with churches getting involved in campaigns either. The centre-left has had church backing of various forms (Ratana included) in the past, and churches represent real communities of opinion. But the Exclusive Brethren simply is not just another church. Some quotes:

The public face of the church is a group of hard working, honest people who keep very much to themselves and do no harm. But there is a more sinister side of the church which is involved in extreme forms of psychological blackmail that is used to rip families apart in the name of Christianity … The church organised a mass turnout of cars and church people to intimidate the couple and prevent them from taking back their children … even more upsetting was the knowledge that their children had been brainwashed … a sinister underlying agenda … Ex-members refer to it as the three F's - family, fear and finance - and these three weapons are used with brutal force … commercial blackmail and people being driven to suicide … the huge financial resources that the church will put in to ruin anybody who dares to speak out … I suggest that we should not become so tolerant that we condone, by our silence, extreme intolerance … I believe it is time Parliament revisited key aspects of our family law to provide greater protection against sects of this type.

These quotes come from two speeches made to Parliament by National MP Nick Smith. But that was 1992. It's not your Dad's National Party any more.

National is just a bit closer to this outfit than I am personally comfortable with a mainstream political party being. Brash concluded his interview with Noelle by saying: "I'll accept support from anybody at all who wants to get rid of this lousy government." He may come to regret saying that.

Anyway, final word to PA reader Nat Curnow:

Why can't they just vote like everybody else?

You want policy, not conspiracy? Alright. An excerpt from Brash yesterday, in conversation with Linda Clark (actually, the whole thing's worth reading):

Clark: Let's talk about housing, because your housing policy came up earlier in the week. Rather quietly. National is promising a return to market rents for state housing, yes?
Brash: What we're saying is that income-related rents have caused huge distortions. They're only available in Housing Corporation accommodation and of course as a consequence, the Housing Corporation waiting list is huge. Everybody wants income-related rents; they can only get them from the Housing Corporation, and that generates a huge demand for their accommodation. What we're saying is, healthy, affordable housing is of critical importance to our society. It should be available in both the public and the private sector, and we want to deliver that benefit primarily through the accommodation supplement.
Clark: Which is what National did in the '90s.
Brash: And we did it very effectively.
Clark: Do you know what the impact of that policy was in the '90s?
Brash: I'm not sure what you mean by that.
Clark: Well, do you know what the social impact of that policy was in the '90s? Pretty straightforward question.
Brash: I don't have a comprehensive study there, but I know that it got many people into affordable housing.
Clark: The Child Poverty Action Group, which was formed essentially on the back of that policy, says that when market rents came in last time under a National government, the level of child poverty in this country was tripled.
Brash: I certainly don't regard that group as an objective group assessing anyone's policy. Certainly not the National Party's policy.
Clark: Well, one of the health researchers who's involved in the meningococcal B campaign for the Ministry for Health at the moment said, about three years ago, that the meningococcal epidemic began at the same time as market rents were introduced, and one

of the complicating factors of--one of the consequences of market rents was overcrowding, and one of the contributing factors to that epidemic was overcrowding.
Brash: Well, we've still got the epidemic, Linda, and we've had income-related rents for the last six years.
Clark: So you don't accept that poverty was increased by that policy?
Brash: I want a situation where every New Zealand family has access to healthy and affordable housing.
Clark: Everyone wants that.
Brash: Okay. Now the question is: What's the best way of doing that? I think the public sector--that's Housing Corporation New Zealand--and the private sector, both have a role to play in achieving that end.
Clark: And that's what happens now. Have you studied the policy in the '90s?
Brash: Not in detail, no.
Clark: Do you not think it would have been a good idea to study the policy before you went back to it?
Brash: Linda, we've committed to ensuring that New Zealanders have access to affordable, healthy housing, and we're committed to make nobody who's now getting subsidised housing through the Housing Corporation, worse off.

The commitment at the end there does not feature in the policy released on Monday; it was conjured after the fact by John Key, and I don't believe it is viable. What Key proposed - apparently off the top of his head - was some sort of special welfare benefit only available to state house tenants, which represents a major new spending commitment. It's just not credible.

Anyway, what does the research say about our last fling with market rents in public housing? I interviewed Charles Waldegrave from the Family Centre about this yesterday (MP3 file here). Excerpts from what he had to say about market rents:

I think all the evaluations have shown that it was absolutely disastrous, the market rents policy …

And we were part of groups that provided research and worked extraordinarily hard for a decade to get back to income-related rents, and they have been so successful in helping those households who've received them.

When they moved to market rents they said they'd make up for it by providing an accommodation supplement. But our research showed that when you put the accommodation supplement together with the market rent, in the cities on average people were paying 40% of their income in rent - that's a 15 per cent jump - and there were 15-16% who were paying over half their income in rent.

My real concern with this is, that policy caused enormous misery in New Zealand for many households and many innocent children really suffered through that, and I just think it is an extraordinarily backward step, against all the evidence, that they would consider re-introducing this

"I honestly think it hasn't been thought through. It's not a coherent policy, what they're putting forward. And what has been achieved in the turn back to income-related rents has been so successful and so helpful to families that it's just really quite vicious, the implications of the turn back to market rents. It seems more ideological than practical …

"I don't think you can do policy in the hop like this. I don't think it'll work its way through the public systems that are necessary for it. And I think it's extremely dangerous. And we're now getting a combination of these things. It's not just the market rents for low-income people. They've also removed the last part of Working for Families, the family support package, which is $10 for each child in 2007 … that's being removed also from the poorest people.

"I honestly don't think that they've really studied it. Clearly from what Dr Brash and John Key were saying, this is not something that they've personally worked on. So it's policy that's just coming through, and it's a group of people who aren't ready, aren't ready to govern in these particular policy areas, because they're clearly not on top of it. It would be disastrous. I'm sure all the advice they would get from officials who work in this area would be against adopting this, which is really quite an extreme policy.

Couple more things: poor old Sean Plunket. I thought his interview with Jeanette Fitzsimons was swaggering and poorly judged in comparison to the matey follow-up with Gerry Brownlee. But that's Sean. Suspension seems way over the top, even in the extra-sensitive setting of an election campaign. [NB: Word from RNZ now says the suspension is an "employment issue" and nothing to do with the interviews.]

And finally: The National Party Billboard Maker is the people's art, totally. One of the Public Address bloggers is holding steady at number four with a stylish and subtle effort, and I'm loving this geek joke. And another geek joke. I like geek jokes. Hey! There's even an All your base are belong to us joke! It's just like Slashdot! (Petrolhead version here.)

This effort is rather coarse, but has the gritty charm of a British TV drama.

Nice to see a culinary theme. I find food metaphors satisfying. medical theme. And finally, a policy wonk theme.

Oh, and … heh.