Houses are big in 2013 - big in size and way too big in price
for too many people. That is the stuff of big politics.
It encapsulates a distinction between politics' two sides.
The Government relies on resetting regulation so the market
economy meets the demand, wants builders to lift
productivity, says it will ''work with'' local councils,
particularly Auckland, to get more land freed up so it is
cheaper and new houses on it are cheaper and wants councils'
regulatory costs to developers and builders cut.
National ally Federated Farmers disapproves on one count:
spreading cities eat up good land. The Feds think cities
should go up, not out. On that point they and social liberals
The Labour Party and its allies think the market is not
enough. They and Auckland's council point to land within its
zoned areas on which builders aren't building. They note
community projects which get people into houses.
They propose ''active'' government. David Shearer on January
27: ''You're doing your bit. It's time you had a government
that did its bit too.''
The ''you'' was ''hardworking, forgotten'' individuals and
Mr Shearer was in effect pitching to the old folk-notion of a
''fair go'', a concrete notion by contrast with
social-liberals' usual anaemic ''fairness''. Conservatives,
liberals and social-liberals can all go with a ''fair go''.
So would all those - including some offspring of well-off
households - who can't buy or have to take huge mortgages.
The political problem for ministers is that the market is not
delivering affordable houses and shows little sign it will
unassisted: in fact, the national average price of a used
house here is nearly twice the United States average. Current
reforms of local government regulation and attempts to drive
more productivity into a building sector populated with
small, inefficient firms might make some difference but will
The persisting house bubble's legacy is an additional
inequality, an inequality between the ''have-houses'' and the
That compounds income inequality, which is now bothering some
conservatives on social cohesion grounds. One dimension is
those on subsistence benefits. The second is those on very
low wages, not much better, if at all, than subsistence.
Ministers' response to benefit subsistence is to get people
into paid work, to lift self-worth and income. But if they
are paid at the minimum wage or just above, the material lift
The fact that there is a minimum wage at all is, of course,
''active government''. But ministers are not keen on lifting
the real value of the minimum wage and are legislating to cut
it for young people. Their reasoning is that the market will
hire fewer people if they have to be paid more.
Politically, the Government can rest its case for now. People
on subsistence incomes are not going to vote in droves for
National and allies (except the Maori Party, where special
factors apply). Middling New Zealand is not yet excited by
concern for subsistence dwellers.
But there is subterranean change. One example is the campaign
for a ''living wage'', about 50% above the minimum. It is the
subject of a conference late this week.
The Government scoffs at this as job-destroying feel-good. Mr
Shearer has picked it up, though it is not yet party policy.
So has his British counterpart.
The intent of a living wage is to lift low-income households
above subsistence. The ideological point is a ''fair go''.
The practical point is a better start for children, the focus
of a growing debate on poverty.
The political point is the process. The core driver is the
Service and Food Workers' Union, representing many of the
worst paid. It has built a coalition of 113 unions,
non-profits, churches, ethnic associations and other groups.
Such coalitions overseas have moved public opinion and got
action, according to recent research. London Citizens, for
example, was persuasive in the Greater London Authority
adopting a living wage for its employees and employees of its
suppliers (some big firms have signed up, too). Wellington
Mayor Celia Wade-Brown is attracted.
The coalition process differs from hard lobbying by an
insider interest group with its favoured party by building
support from the ground up. That is potentially stronger and
more durable and more resistant to the sort of dismissive
response the Government heaps on most Labour-Green-New
Zealand First policy ideas.
It is that dimension which marks the living-wage campaign out
from hand-wringing advocacy.
It is most unlikely to remake government policy quickly. But
might it change the politics? Certainly, ministers' reaction
to Labour's housing push and to the latest unemployment
figures (statistics is too kind a word) reflect some
On the back of high house prices and soggy wages the SFWU
coalition might conceivably change a corner of politics. If
so, then by the time it becomes obvious, it might not be
simple to reverse the momentum.
- Colin James is a leading social and political