Nicola Willis March 09, 2022
Here we are with the Minister of Finance presenting his Budget Policy Statement, and the most animated he got and the most excited he got about spending billions of dollars of New Zealanders' money was when he talked about National's plan. Is it any wonder, because that finance Minister is now in a position where he is defending his right to take billions of dollars out of New Zealanders' back pockets at a time when they are doing it tougher than ever, and he says he has to make tough decisions. He has to make difficult calls. Well, I'll tell you which side he has come down on when he's gone to make those difficult calls. What this Budget Policy Statement sets out very clearly is that he has decided to take New Zealanders' money and spend more of it than ever. That's the tough decision that he has made.
So what is the context in which this Budget Policy Statement is published? We are facing a cost of living crisis in this country.
Kiwis are doing it extraordinarily tough, and Duncan Webb may agree with the Prime Minister that there's no crisis, but let me tell you that the everyday New Zealanders I meet with and the everyday New Zealanders I speak to when I say, "What are the financial concerns you have?", they don't say, "I'm really concerned about how I really want Grant Robertson to put billions of dollars into a health restructuring fund and a climate change pet project fund." That's not what they say to me, Duncan Webb. What they say to me is, "I'm really concerned that every time I go to fill up at the pump, I feel like I'm being fleeced. I feel like it's more expensive every time." What they're saying to me is, "Every time I go to buy my groceries, they seem like they're more expensive, and every week I seem to have less money in my bank account than I did the week before."
Do you know why they feel that way, Duncan Webb—and you should have asked the Treasury about it when they came to brief you about this Budget. The reason New Zealanders feel they are doing it tough is because they are.
We have rampant, record inflation at the moment—a record in 30 years—running at 5.9 percent. So prices are getting more and more expensive, but are wages keeping up? No, they are not. Wages have increased at only 2.6 percent, so the truth is that New Zealanders are spending more and getting less. They are facing a cost of living crisis, and it's not just these costs. It's things like rents, which under Labour have increased, on average, by an additional $140 a week, so that your typical renter in the past year has seen their rent go up by $50 a week. That is the gift that this Government has given working New Zealanders renting their own homes.
The prospects look even bleaker, because what New Zealanders are faced with over the months that this Budget Policy Statement relates to is not only continuing inflation, continuing increases in the petrol price, and continuing increases in the price of groceries but also ratcheting interest rates. So those people who have saved hard and who have struggled to get into a home will see that their mortgage payments will get ever bigger and will eat more and more into their disposable income and into the savings they are making for their family. So we have ahead of us, Labour members, difficult times for everyday New Zealanders.
What does the Minister of Finance think is the right response to that reality? Well, he thinks that this is the time to have a record spend-up. He thinks that this is the time to have the biggest operating allowance ever in a New Zealand Budget in history. So I want to ask Dr Webb whether he's understood where that money comes from, because we on this side of the House understand where Grant Robertson gets his money from. He gets it from hard-working New Zealanders, who, under this Labour Government, have been paying $12.5 billion more in tax than when Grant Robertson came into office. Every dollar that they give Grant, the Minister of Finance, is a dollar that they don't have to spend themselves, and yet at this time, when they so badly need to keep more of their own money, Grant Robertson's priority is to put half a billion dollars into restructuring the health system—that's right; in the middle of a pandemic, he wants to spend half a billion dollars on a back-office restructure—and then he wants to put together some funds for some pet projects for climate change. That is his priority.
Now, he spent four minutes of his speech being very animated about National's plan, so I'm sure that the Speaker will engage me to suggest an alternative approach to this Budget Policy Statement. That is to actually focus on putting more money in the pockets of New Zealanders who are doing it tough, and National would focus on doing that—it is their money.
Inflation has meant that people are in higher tax brackets. They are paying more and more tax, and Grant Robertson is collecting more and more of their money. So National has said, "Well, let's be sensible. Let's make some adjustments to the tax thresholds through modest adjustments so that people who have been caught in higher tax brackets than we ever imagined they would be get some relief.", and we have put forward a package that would achieve that.
Now, it's a modest package. Actually, Grant Robertson has given himself a $6 billion operating allowance. We've said, "Look, you could achieve this with just $1.7 billion of that allowance—so less than a third of your allowance." Grant Robertson would still have $4.3 billion left over, which, by the way, would still be the record highest spend-up by a finance Minister in a Budget operating allowance ever.
Our package would achieve meaningful relief for New Zealanders. It would mean that a family with two adults on the average wage would benefit from about $1,700 a year. Now, I'm the first to admit that that's not going to make anyone rich, but what I also know is that when you're a struggling family, every dollar counts, and $1,700 is more meaningful than a restructure at the Ministry of Health. For someone on $55,000 a year, on a more modest wage, they would be paying $800 less tax. That is the benefit they would get.
For a couple on New Zealand superannuation—and I don't know whether members opposite have actually spoken to a superannuitant lately, but I'll tell you what they have been saying to me. They have been saying, "It's really hard, Nicola, because super is actually paired to after-tax average wages, and my super is not keeping up with inflation. It is not keeping up with the growing cost of living. I'm on a fixed income. I'm finding it harder to afford the bills each week." So our tax plan would give them relief. They would see their superannuation payments increase, if they were a couple, by $546, and we think that that shows where our priorities are and where our values are.
So you have to ask yourself what's the alternative approach that Grant Robertson is suggesting, and we had this hackneyed response today—actually quite intellectually moribund—in which he tried to hoodwink New Zealanders into believing that the choice they face is between having some relief in their material circumstances and having some tax reduction, but the only way that that can be achieved, according to Grant Robertson, is through a slash-and-burn of the health and education systems. I find this despicable, because Grant Robertson knows that these tax reductions that we propose can be achieved and still maintain every dollar that's being spent in New Zealand right now.
What we have to ask ourselves in this House is: do we really believe that this Government is already extracting maximum value from every dollar of taxpayer money that it spends? I put it to you that the answer is absolutely not, and I want to just run you through the small example of what's been going on with housing in this country. Here we are with a Government that's given Kāinga Ora, the State housing entity, an $8.3 billion borrowing facility, and at the same time that State housing agency has overseen a quadrupling in the State house waiting list. We have more people in need than ever before.
This Government is spending the money—that's absolutely true—but is it getting the results for that money? I'll tell you where that money has actually gone: 1,300 new staff have been hired at Kāinga Ora, more than doubling the number of people getting a Government wage to work in that agency. I'll tell you where else that money has gone. Instead of actually into building houses, the Government is now spending $1.2 million a day on emergency motel rooms for people that it can't house because it hasn't built the houses for them, and what we see is that there are still 52,000 State houses that haven't been brought up to the healthy homes standards that the Government says every private landlord in the country must meet.
So what we see from those small examples is that Grant Robertson, in asking New Zealanders to believe that he spends their money better than he does, simply isn't supported by the facts. National can see that this is the time of a cost of living crisis, and we continue to urge the Government to give New Zealanders the tax relief that they deserve.