Taieri MP’s exercise in trivialities

The voters of Taieri got their money’s worth out of local MP Ingrid Leary this week, at least in terms of time taken up speaking in Parliament.

Much of the House’s time this week was taken up with the Taxation (Annual Rates 2023-24, Multinational Tax, and Remedial Matters) Bill, which sounds complex, but which is simply the legislative tool by which the government sets tax rates for the coming year, as well as tweaks any regulations which need adjusting.

It is a "business as usual" Bill which received unanimous support to be passed as drafted when reported back by select committee.

None of which has prevented previous Parliaments debating the Bill in exhaustive, and exhausting, detail, and which certainly aren’t going to stop the latest incarnation of the Opposition, which stretched this latest episode across sitting weeks, let alone many sitting days.

Why, you might reasonably ask. Essentially, because the debate has evolved into one on all aspects of government revenue gathering — and hence, arguably, government expenditure, so it offers Opposition MPs free rein to have a pop at the government about just about anything during the committee stage, so long as the Speaker is prepared to accept it remains roughly in scope of the section being discussed.

Also, Labour leader Chris Hipkins had declared tax was back on the table in his State of the Nation speech, a statement which gave his MPs a loose rein to allude to their own inclinations which it came to tax.

Hence on Tuesday a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Ms Leary told madam chair that it was "great to be able to continue the call that I took last week, when, I do note, there was quite a lot of interruption from the government members, who were clearly very keen to debate taxation."

As was Ms Leary, who by my count took eight calls in this week’s committee stages — not a bad effort given this is not even a portfolio responsibility area for her.

So, well done on the filibustering, but did Ms Leary actually say anything of note in that hour-plus of verbiage?

Her opening salvo was philosophic, noting the fairness issues advanced by Labour last term in its Taxation Principles Reporting Act (since repealed in the first 100 days fire storm) and wondering whether the minister might have considered them at all?

Revenue minister Simon Watts was too wily to be drawn out by that one, saying merely that his views around tax principles were well documented.

Despite assistant Speaker Greg O'Connor’s self-admittedly optimistic reminder to members that they should ask short, sharp questions to the minister, Ms Leary was in full flow again soon after, asking about the average tax rate and tax thresholds, particularly at higher income levels.

By now Chris Penk was the minister chairing the committee and he took some delight in mischievously noting Ms Leary’s speech "articulated actually, I think, quite a good argument, if one were inclined to make it, for a flatter tax system," — knowing full well that such a move is Act New Zealand policy, not Labours, and that back in the 1980s David Lange had squashed just such a proposal.

Undeterred, Ms Leary ventured into dangerous territory with a speech on so-called wasteful spending, in which she asked if the money saved by axing school lunches and the potential laying off of two staff from the Ministry for Ethnic Communities who work in Dunedin was really addressing waste?

"Because if they are not wasteful, as I believe they're not, then how can he justify them?," she asked.

Mr Penk didn’t even try, arguing that the question of expenditure was not within the scope of the Bill ... which was possibly true, but he left Ms Leary’s political punches unblocked.

With that Ms Leary took a break, but she was back for part two of the debate and had fire in her belly.

"I'm so grateful to get this burning question off my chest," she said, as she asked questions about charities with overseas donee status taxation, gift-exempt tax status, temporary exemptions to making child support payments, retrospectively in tax law, with varying degrees of engagement. Some issues, she was told, were considered and rejected. Others were considered and a "taxpayer friendly" adjustment made.

In general, Ms Leary had to quickly get used to the explanation that the committee considered the issue and decided to make no change, because she heard it quite a lot.

Which might suggest this was an exercise in trivialities, but Ms Leary gets marks for delving deeply into the depths of the Bill and teasing out some potential issues, as well as helping Labour’s House strategy no end, which at the end of the day — scratch that, days — was the object of the exercise.

The big question

The Rural Communities Minister, New Zealand First Taieri list MP Mark Patterson, made full use of the opportunity afforded to him through taking a call in the first reading debate on the Regulatory Systems (Primary Industries) Amendment Bill to raise a major farming issue.

"Could I appeal, please, to the Primary Production committee, if you can get to the bottom of the greatest mystery in agriculture: what happened to the Wool Board art collection?," he beseeched the House.

"That is the burning question that sits at the base of every farmer meeting. If you can unlock that conundrum, I would thank you greatly."

Rapture, part 2

As noted a few weeks back, Taieri Green list MP Scott Willis’ rhetoric got extravagantly biblical when speaking on the removal of the Auckland regional fuel tax. He reached similarly florid heights this week when addressing the House on road user charges for light electric vehicles: "This Government has clearly been getting dizzy by sniffing fossil fuels. It is simply impossible to get to the rapture driving a sport utility vehicle, however. We will see the Earth turned into Hell in trying to do just that."

Faux outrage

The grilling of Invercargill National MP Penny Simmonds for her performance as Disability Issues Minister continued this week, but she found herself in the firing line for a different reason on Thursday, this time with her Environment Minister hat on.

That afternoon the government had decided not to progress the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary Bill, prompting much dismay from some MPS on the other side of the House ... which would have been perfectly reasonable, but for the fact that the Bill has languished on the Order Paper since 2016 — i.e., the entirety of the previous Labour government, plus change. It is a complex question, but one which Labour opted not to take on when it had ample chance.