Tipping points: Changing fortunes of parties and elections

Public sentiment is full of ‘tipping points’ – critical moments when small influences trigger more significant developments.

We’ve seen a number of political tipping points over recent years that have contributed to the changing fortunes of parties and elections.

The performance of United Future’s Leader Peter Dunne during a televised leaders’ debate in 2002 triggered a tipping point that rejuvenated his party. An electronic worm representing the views of 100 ‘undecided’ voters in the audience, reared skywards every time he gave a “common sense” response, putting his party back on the map and delivering 8 MPs on election night, instead of one.

In January 2004, National’s new leader Dr Don Brash delivered a tipping point speech on race relations at the Orewa Rotary Club. “Nationhood” struck such a chord with the public that it created a massive surge in the polls, lifting National from virtual political oblivion to coming within a hair’s breadth of the Treasury benches at the 2005 election.

Dr Brash ended his speech with a comment that is just as relevant today as it was back then: “In this country, it should not matter what colour you are, or what your ethnic origin might be. It should not matter whether you have migrated to this country and only recently become a citizen, or whether your ancestors arrived two, five, 10 or 20 generations ago. We must build a modern, prosperous, democratic nation based on one rule for all. We cannot allow the loose threads of 19th century law and custom to unravel our attempts at nation-building in the 21st century.”

It turned out that plenty of New Zealanders agreed with Dr Brash, even if they were reluctant to say so in public. This situation is unlikely to have changed and replacing race-based laws with those promoting equal rights and a ‘colour blind’ society, remains a crucial cause in search of a champion.

In 2008, Helen Clark’s Labour-led Government, supported by the Green Party, triggered a tipping point through their sustainable development agenda. The measures they announced to improve energy efficiency and water conservation – which included banning incandescent light bulbs and regulating shower heads – led to complaints that they were interfering too much in people’s lives.

The accusations that they had turned into a ‘nanny-state’ government became widespread and contributed to their election defeat.

The elevation of Jacinda Ardern to Labour Party leader just eight weeks out from the 2017 election could be described as a tipping point since it not only dramatically improved the Party’s fortunes at the election, but thanks to Winston Peters, elevated them into government.

Another tipping point involving a party leader was triggered in July 2017, when the Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei scored an ‘own goal’ by bragging about benefit fraud during an election speech on welfare reform. The fallout was dramatic – the party lost a third of its support and the co-leader was forced to resign.

Now, another Green Party co-leader, James Shaw, is embroiled in a major controversy. At issue is a decision he made as the Associate Minister of Finance, to commit $11.7 million of taxpayer funding into the expansion of the Green School in Taranaki.

Having supported Jacinda Ardern’s decision to ban new deep sea oil and gas exploration in Taranaki, with an estimated to cost the region $30 billion by 2050 and the loss of 11,000 industry-related jobs, James Shaw justified the Green School funding on the basis that its expansion from 120 to 250 students would create 200 construction jobs and contribute $43 million a year to the region – figures that hardly seem credible.

The Minister rationalised the $11.7m in taxpayer spending by saying, “The support we are providing will help Green School to meet growing demand from parents all over New Zealand, and the rest of the world, wanting to enrol their children. This will mean more families can take the opportunity to put down roots in Taranaki and contribute to the future growth of the region.”

What James Shaw didn’t spell out is that this brand new school, which has no record of success and hasn’t even gained full registration, is a private school.

The Green School charges $5,300 in registration fees, with annual tuition fees of $24,000 for New Zealand students and $43,000 for international students.

With the current roll of 50 students – only half of whom are domestic – James Shaw’s grant equates to an average subsidy of $480,000 per New Zealand student. This compares to normal government subsidies of around $6,000 for students in State schools and $1,500 for private schools.

The public education sector is rightly incensed by the funding decision. Last December, when the Government announced a $400 million package to upgrade New Zealand’s ageing public school infrastructure, even though many schools are struggling with leaky buildings and other expensive legacy problems, the grants were capped at $400,000 per school. The funding that James Shaw approved for the Green School is thirty-times that rate.

It’s no wonder that his decision has created a scandal. It’s simply beyond belief that a Minister charged with doing what’s right for New Zealand taxpayers thinks it’s OK for $12 million to be given to the owners of a private school that caters for the children of the world’s most privileged elite.

This issue raises serious concerns about Minister Shaw’s judgement and suitability for Office – more so because the funding proposal had been rejected by Treasury. In addition, the four Ministers responsible for evaluating which shovel-ready infrastructure projects should be approved for funding from the $3 billion Covid-19 Response and Recovery Fund – Associate Finance Minister David Parker, Finance Minister Grant Robertson, Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford and Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones – declined it as well.

As political journalist Richard Harman explains, “The projects were then considered by the Cabinet Economic Committee chaired by Robertson and with 17 members including James Shaw… the Labour and New Zealand First Ministers on the committee refused to agree to fund the green school.”

According to information leaked to Newshub, the proposal was only signed off by that Committee after James Shaw threatened to hold up the other ‘shovel ready’ projects. An email from James Shaw’s office to Government Ministers and Treasury included an ultimatum: “Minister Shaw won’t sign this briefing until the Green School in Taranaki is incorporated… Sorry to be the spanner-in-the-works, but if we can get the project included, he’ll sign everything this afternoon.”

Labour’s Education Minister Chris Hipkins distanced himself from the decision, pointing out that while approval of the project was a victory for James Shaw, he would not have funded it.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said he would not have funded the project either but is refusing to reverse the decision, saying , “I think the Government’s got to act in good faith here with an Applicant and so I’ve got no intention to do that”.

The problem for James Shaw, and the reason that this decision could end up becoming a major tipping point for the Greens, is that it goes directly against the party’s core policy of opposing private education.

Over the years the Green Party has campaigned strongly on ‘phasing out’ public funding for private schools, yet their co-leader is now responsible for approving an exorbitant level of public funding for this exclusive private facility.

Green Party members are said to be outraged by the decision. Whether this will lead to them abandoning the party – as they did when Metiria Turei made her blunder – remains to be seen.

The problem for the Greens is that they are perilously close to the 5 percent MMP threshold for Parliamentary representation. Without an electorate seat to fall back on, there are fears this scandal could fatally damage their reputation.

In holding the Government to ransom by threatening to withdraw support for other shovel-ready projects if he did not get his way, James Shaw exposed unprecedented hypocrisy for a Party that stands on a pedestal of integrity and honesty. Their image is now being challenged as fake.

As Stuff explains, “The fear since 2017 is that the Greens would be somehow tainted by the proximity to power. No one minds too much when other parties flip-flop on their principles. We almost expect it from some. But the Green brand is based on a holier-than-thou sense of moral purpose. If that seems unfair, it is an image they courted.”

Stuff’s political editor Luke Malpass argues that this scandal has exposed the true nature of the party: “The leader of the Green Party, which purports publicly to be the party of the downtrodden and dispossessed, has inadvertently revealed itself for what many think it actually is – a party that mostly serves well-heeled Kiwis in secure and well-paid employment that care about the environment, climate change and want to go cycling and tramping on the weekend.”

Meanwhile National Party leader Judith Collins has called for James Shaw’s resignation. She says his judgement cannot be trusted.

Many in the agricultural sector who are also victims of James Shaw’s appalling lack of judgement would no doubt agree. They watched as he ignored the advice of New Zealand scientists to force onto farmers the harshest restrictions on methane in the world, knowingly breaching Article 2 of the United Nation’s Paris Agreement, which prohibits governments from introducing climate change policies that threaten food production.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is the former MP and Federated Farmers President Owen Jennings, who outlines the implications of James Shaw’s unwarranted attack on methane – explaining that this trace gas is part of an ancient natural cycle that nurtures the grasslands that sustain the livestock that feeds the world:

“What is new is that the Coalition Government has decided to tax the Methane on its way around this natural, been-there-forever, cycle. The same Methane on its cycle is going to be taxed over and over again.  It sounds more like a blatant tax grab than an honest attempt to deal with climate change.  It also sounds like very poor quality science. It’s not just pennies in the dollar tax. If the full extent of the measures are imposed an average farm will be required to find over $300,000 a year – an impossibility given the profitability of farming.”

With serious questions now being raised about the judgement of James Shaw, surely a review of his Ministerial decisions should be undertaken – especially the Zero Carbon Act and the recent changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme, since between them, they will significantly undermine New Zealand’s economic recovery.

Concerns have also been raised that the overly bureaucratic measures being introduced by Labour’s Minister for the Environment David Parker – that even go so far as to specify dates by which farmers must plant their crops – may become a tipping point for rural New Zealand. These changes are not only being described as unworkable, but there are fears they are turning farming into a controlled activity.

The Minister is even attempting to regulate mud, through his National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management. It specifies that pugging must not be deeper than 20 cm nor cover more than 50 percent of a paddock, even though, as anyone who has had anything at all to do with farming knows, the amount of mud is largely dependent on the weather – if it’s cold and wet for prolonged periods, pugging will be worse, whereas if its dry and mild, there may be almost no pugging at all.

So, from James Shaw’s breaching of the Paris Agreement, to David Parker’s nanny-state outlawing of mud, it’s no wonder that farmers are talking about protest action in the lead up to the election. If other New Zealanders really understood the extent to which this Government has been persecuting our country’s leading export sector, they would no doubt support the protest as well!

Other scandals will undoubtedly arise between now and the election, but whether any have the potential to tip the election result remains to be seen.

 

 

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