Parliament’s fiscal warriors rode into Whanganui yesterday except that it turned out only one had come to keep the fiscal faith.
National Leader Judith Collins was the heretic and was there to announce $30 million for childhood oral health programmes.
This follows on Monday’s announcement of $97 million on early childhood education; last Friday’s announcement of $93 million over four years on electric vehicles and last Tuesday’s $400 million announcement of a new Hawke’s Bay hospital.
The Government will release its Pre-Election Economics and Fiscal Update today and will have to come clean in that document about its spending plans and will have to project its deficits out for four years.
National is under no such requirement and in January opposed a move by Labour and The Greens to set up a Parliamentary Budget Office whose role would have been to provide an independent costing of all political parties’ policies during an election campaign.
Such offices are common in OECD countries.
Instead, National promised that it would provide an independent costing of its policies.
There is no sign of that yet and yesterday, in Whanganui announcing the free dental care policy, Collins was batting away questions about how much additional expenditure in total National was now committed to spending.
“You’ll have to wait because we haven’t actually finished on our promises,” she said.
How much was she proposing to spend?
“You’re going to have to wait for the fiscal update which we’re doing very soon.”
She offered no more detail on that, so what she actually meant is unclear.
Meanwhile ACT Leader, David Seymour was also in Whanganui. He was also talking about National’s promises.
“Look, I’m a recovering electrical engineer and I know a bit about numbers, but it beats me if I can add up all their promises right now,” he told media at a press conference.
“The National Party are getting into an advanced auction in stolen goods alongside Labour and for people who can’t tell the difference, I understand, and ACT is there to represent them.”
And that representation seems to be working.
For the first time since he assumed the ACT leadership in 2014, the party is surging in the polls and attracting numbers (within Covid limits) to its meetings.
Seymour is one of the few politicians holding public meetings. Yesetrday he held two; one in the mid afternoon in Whanganui which attracted around 20 and then in the evening in Palmerston North he reached the Covid limit of 100 socially distanced attendees.
The themes at both were the same; how ACT would manage Covid better; what it would do about spending and debt and his proposal that New Zealand could have a smarter broder management system which would allow essential workers and big spending tourists in.
But the heart of ACT’s campaign (as might be expected) is its campaign against debt; particularly the $140 billion borrowed to cover Covid-19.
“Spending without discipline is a form of fiscal child abuse,” he said.
“I literally am getting 12 year olds asking me about the debt because they can see that it’s going to affect their future.
“They can see by the end of this decade, we’re going to be spending more on interest payments on the debt than the education budget, according to Treasury’s fiscal strategy model.
“Now, if we can’t start having an honest conversation about the government’s borrowing, I think we are being negligent towards the next generation who will have either higher taxes or fewer government services as a result of us dealing with Covid as though money is all free.
“And some people say, don’t worry, interest rates are low.
“No student of human history thinks that debt is something you can escape in the long term.
“Interest rates will rise.”
Collins however argued that her dental health programme would help people become aprt of the economy.
“One of the really hard things that people who have lost some of their teeth or all their teeth is dealing with stigma around that and also around confidence levels,” she said.
“And the problem is that it holds them back from being part of the economy, from jobs and from taking opportunities that other people have.”
Collins is choosing her photo oppurtunities with care.
The dental practice she visited was in low-income Castlecliff and was established by Hadleigh Reid who also has a practice in the central city. He runs the Castlecliff practice as a non profit
And she visited a medical practice, Gonville Health which is aprt of the Whanganui Regional health network which runs as a charitable trust.
Collins’ softer, big spending persona must confound Seymour because back in 2015 ACT was obviously courting her, presumably to become Leader.
She had been banished to National’s backbenches because of her connections with the blogger Whaleoil which had been revealed in Nicky Hagar’s “Dirty Politics.”
But she was invited to be the guest speaker at ACT’s Auckland regional conference and she accepted; made a speech about the Auckland Council on the Saturday and was reinstated by Prime Minister, John Key, into the Cabinet on the Monday.
Since then she has ostentatiously drifted well away from ACT’s position on many issues.
Under Seymour ACT would bring the debt to GDP ratio back to 20 per cent over the next decade.
National’s finance spokesperson, Paul Goldsmith, had committed National to getting it down to 30 per cent over the same period but Collins says that target is not set in stone.
Therein lies the fundamental tension on the centre-right side of Parliament.
During his first term in Parliamwent, in a cionfidence and supply agreement with National, Seymour was content enough to get low hanging fruit as policy wins from Naitonal on issues likeC harter schools.
But now, after two terms, he is contesting Naitonall’s core economic policy.
As a consequence, doing a formation of government deal with him (and with what the polls suggest could be as many as eight ACT MPs) could prove to be very diffciult.
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