Home > The Body Politic > “The Nation” reveals gobsmacking incompetence by Ministers English and Lotu-Iiga

“The Nation” reveals gobsmacking incompetence by Ministers English and Lotu-Iiga

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If there is a crystal-clear example why a functioning democracy must have  vibrant, critical current affairs programmes on free-to-air televesion, then  TV3’s ‘The Nation‘ on the morning of 2 May was top-of-the-pile. Without doubt, this land-mark episode was a powerful insight into the general competence (or lack, thereof) of two of the government’s senior ministers; Finance Minister Bill English and Corrections Minister, Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga.

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Corrections Minister, Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga -- TV3's 'The Nation' host & interviewer, Lisa Owen -- Finance Minister Bill English

(L-R) Corrections Minister, Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga — TV3’s ‘The Nation’ host & interviewer, Lisa Owen — Finance Minister Bill English

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The highly talented host-interviewer, Lisa Owen, interviewed both, drilling deep down, and extracting information; admissions; and more critically – waving aside pathetic attempts to fudge legitimate answers. The resulting exchanges did not make for a ‘happy day’ for either government minister, revealing one totally out of his depth, and the other unwilling to admit that his stewardship of the country’s economy has been an abject failure.

1. Finance Minister Bill English

In  the opening months of World War 2, there was a period from September 1939 to May 1940, known as “the Phoney War“. Both the Allied Nations (led by Great Britain) and the expanding Third Reich were technically at war, but major military operations did not commence until Nazi Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg on 10 May 1940.

In New Zealand, we might have referred to those first eight months as a “Clayton’s War” – the war you’re having when you’re not really having a war. (For those old enough to remember, “Clayton’s” refers to a non-alcoholic beverage marketed in New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s. It was heavily promoted with the catch-phrase, “the drink you have when you’re not having a drink”. The marketing campaign was an advertisers dream-come-true, catching the public’s attention. The product, unfortunately for the manufacturers, was less successful. )

The same could be said of New Zealand’s so-called “rock star economy” and “recovery”.

By nearly all accounts, our recent growth has been predicated on three factors;

  1. The Auckland housing boom/bubble
  2. The Christchurch Earthquakes re-build
  3. Exports – particularly dairy – to China

The first is reliant purely on borrowing from off-shore to fund speculative activity. When that bubble finally bursts, we will be left with a multi-billion debt; thousands of bankruptcies; and an economy in tatters as capital flight takes place.

The second is a short-term growth-spurt which owes it’s origins to two natural disasters – literally disaster capitalism.

The third is built upon China’s unsustainable growth, and has recently fallen away, returning Australia as our number one trading partner, as the value of dairy commodities plummet.

The first two are unsustainable. The last is reliant on a major trading partner’s economic well-being. As with New Zealand’s lamb and butter exports to the UK prior to it joining the EEC in January 1973, we have placed our export “eggs” in one, very big, very fragile, basket.

Against this backdrop of The Phoney Economic Recovery,  the following financial facts should give us cause for concern;

  1. The on-going cost of the 2009 and 2010 tax-cuts, estimated to be around $3.8 billion per year, and up to $4.26 billion last year
  2. Plummeting dairy prices resulting in lower payout to farmers and taking $7 billion out of the economy
  3. Reduced tax-take by the government is around $4.5 billion

In view of unsustainable tax-cuts in 2009 and 2010; the economy taking a $7 billion “hit”; and lower than anticipated tax revenue by this government, it was hardly unexpected that Bill English’s promises of a surplus this year have collapsed.

Lisa Owen challenged the hapless Finance Minister in a sixteen minute long interview. In this excerpt, English is evasive when asked questions about the governments surplus;

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Full interview here

Throughout the interview, English was upbeat and insisted that a surplus was just around the corner;

“Well, okay, it would be nice if the number got there this year; it’ll just take a bit longer. What’s important here is the trajectory. So Government is closing its deficits; it’s getting to surplus. We’ll soon be in a position to start paying off debt. Our expenditure’s under control; the revenue’s a  bit harder. You’ve just seen in the last day or two, dairy prices are going down again; that has an impact. So we’re sufficiently confident in the direction that we’re not going to cut services or cut entitlements to try and chase a larger surplus number.”

Lisa Owen asked the Minister: “Okay. Well, before on The Nation, you said that the Government would not make any cuts to reach surplus. Is that still your plan?

English replied;  “That’s right. We’re not going to make any specific extra decisions now just because our tax revenue’s a percentage point – 1% down.”

Then, incredibly, English maintained that tax-cuts were still on National’s agenda;

Owen: “I just want to look at some of the big promises, like tax cuts. They were meant to come from that $500 million that you now don’t have. But is it fair to say that they’re not really likely now?

English: “As we indicated last year, we wouldn’t be able to contemplate that until 2017 for some of the reasons that you’ve outlined. So at the moment, the ability to deliver some kind of moderate tax cut hasn’t changed and we would have the next couple of budgets to work out how that would happen.”

Owen: “Hang on, Minister. It has changed, hasn’t it, Minister, because you’ve just identified the fact you’ve got less money, so it must have changed.

English: “Well, we’ve shifted the money from next year to the year after; that’s technically what’s actually happened. We’ll deal with that as time goes on, but the point I’m making is our finances are-“

Owen: “Is it likely that your tax cuts then will be delayed as well? Maybe 2018, not 2017?

English: “No, we’re not suggesting that. We said at the end of last year that they would be possible in 2017. We’ve made allowance for that.”

It beggars belief that we have a Finance Minister willing to entertain the notion of tax cuts at a time when dairy prices are dropping; tax revenue is falling; and public debt has ballooned to $59.9 billion  and rising by $27 million per day, every day.

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public debt - NZ Treasury

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Never mind tax cuts – when do we, as a nation, start to repay this debt mountain?!

The reality is that if National proceeds with promises of tax cuts in 2017 (which is an election year – bribe anyone?) New Zealand will have to  borrow from offshore to make up the shortfall in revenue. Our debt mountain will continue to grow.

English himself admitted that the deficit this year will be in the order of around half a billion dollars;

“…It is what it is, and that is for the 14/15 year, we budgeted $370 million surplus. It looks like it will be a $500 or $600 million deficit, and the surplus will be the next year. So we’re on track.”

Somewhere in National’s gross mis-management of the economy, they have gone from a $370 million surplus to a potential $600 million deficit – just shy of $1 billion lost.

How does a government make such a colossal mistake? “It is what it is” is hardly an explanation.

Throughout the interview, English kept repeating the mantra of a future surplus;

“The direction is pretty clear. Our surpluses will come and they will grow, and we’ll be able to pay off debt.”

“The target remains getting to surplus, and in the Budget, you’ll see the details of where the Government is up to with it. But I’m indicating that despite falling a bit short in 14/15, we’re on track for surplus.”

Though English insisted that there would be no cuts to spending, he did use coded language for possible reductions to welfare spending;

Owen: “Is it likely that your tax cuts then will be delayed as well? Maybe 2018, not 2017?”

English: “No, we’re not suggesting that. We said at the end of last year that they would be possible in 2017. We’ve made allowance for that.”

Owen: “Okay. So what about measures to curb poverty, then? Will they have to be delayed? Because the Prime Minister identified them as something of a priority. Is that going to be delayed?”

English: “Well, we’ve been working on these issues for a while, particularly focused on communities and families with persistent deprivation and caught in a cycle of dependence. And so you could expect to see us continue with that sort of programme through this Budget…

… Or sickness and invalids beneficiaries with more support for their health issues and more support for employment, could actually get out of dependency, off welfare and remain in work.

Because as we all know, invalids don’t actually have real disabilities or debilitating injuries or diseases – they are simply on a “cycle of dependence”.

When in trouble, blame someone else. In this case, invalids.

Owen then moved on to the issue of Auckland’s growing housing crisis and nailed English on this government’s spectacular inability to manage and address that city’s housing shortage. English simply blamed the Auckland Council;

“Well, the migration numbers have stayed high, bearing in mind about half of migrants appear to go to Auckland; the other half go to the rest of the country. But there’s pretty clear signals that Auckland City Council need to get on with the job. They are the ultimate decision-maker around the infrastructure and around the consenting for new houses. We’re giving them the toolkit to enable them to do it faster, but there’s clearly a lot more to be done, and we’ll keep looking for more tools to help the Auckland City Council to do the job they need to do.”

When still in trouble, keep blaming someone else. In this case, the Auckland Council.

Thus far, National’s grand strategy to cope with Auckland’s housing crisis is to shift ownership of 2,800 properties from Housing NZ to the Tamaki Redevelopment Company – as if shifting properties around on a giant ‘Monopoly’ board will somehow solve the problem?

Owen pointed out to English that in transferring 2,800 houses to the Tamaki Redevelopment Company, that he was breaking a previous committment;

Owen: “Now, hang on a minute. There you offloaded 2800 houses, and I thought you had a cap on getting rid of state houses of about 2000. So is that cap gone now?

English: “Well, no. What we’ve said is Housing New Zealand will own at least 60,000 houses, and that certainly hasn’t changed. Government remains the owner—”

Owen: “No, you said a cap, Minister. So has the cap gone now with this 2800 houses? The cap’s blown?

English: “No. Government will remain the owner of the Tamaki houses. We’ve simply put them in a different government company, which has been set up specifically to regenerate that community, because it’s a very particular skillset.”

English had all but surrendered to Owen’s persistent questioning by outright admitting his government’s failure to address Auckland’s mounting housing crisis;

“That’s right. We’re not meeting demand. I certainly agree with that. Whether it gets worse before it gets better, forecasters can argue over that. We’ve got plenty to do to meet the demand that’s been there for a while. And as I said, the Government’s supporting Auckland City, trying to get them a better toolkit and making our own contribution through redeveloping our own land in Auckland.”

For English, this interview was possibly the worst in his political career. He had to explain why his commitment to returning to surplus this year was now in tatters, and why his government’s housing plan for Auckland consisted of moving state housing from owner to owner, without adding significantly to the overall stock.

The only reason why National’s reputation for being a “sound prudent fiscal manager” survives intact is because New Zealanders are not paying attention.

But worse was to come when Corrections Minister, Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga took the chair and was also interviewed by Lisa Owen. What followed was a debacle of Hekia Parata proportions.

2. Corrections Minister, Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga

With on-going  privatisation of State services dressed up as so-called “Public-Private Partnerships” (PPPs), Lisa Owen put several questions to the Corrections Minister on the role of UK company, Serco, which has been contracted to run the new prison at Wiri.

His responses were jaw-droppingly incompetant. The man was totally out of his depth, as these excerpts show;

Owen: “So are they getting paid and how much?”

Lotu-Iiga: “Well, the contract is between Serco and PlaceMakers, and I’m not privy to those sums, but—”

 

Owen: “So you don’t know how much the business is going to make—”

Lotu-Iiga: “I don’t have the figures on me, but we could ask Serco what the contract’s for.”

 

Owen: “Out of the inmates building framing and having these contracts. So who makes the profit out of the contract?”

Lotu-Iiga: “ Well, we don’t know whether there’s profits being made, but what PlaceMakers—”

 

Owen: “Why don’t you know that, Minister? Because this is under your watch.”

Lotu-Iiga: “Well, I spoke to the managing director of PlaceMakers yesterday, and they said that they will pay a standard contract for fees to Serco. I don’t know what that amount is…”

 

Owen: “Right, so in terms of rehabilitation, but you don’t know who’s making a profit or if one’s being made?

Lotu-Iiga: ” Hang on. They’ve got a commercial transaction between Serco and PlaceMakers. I don’t know what that figure is, but we can work it out.”

 

Owen: “Even with that $30 million? Even with that $30 million profit that they’re making per annum?”

Lotu-Iiga: “I don’t think they’re making a $30 million profit.”

 

Owen: “You don’t think it’ll make $30 million, and what you’re saying is it’s still saving money even though this company is making a profit out of it? It’s still saving us money even though they’re taking that profit.”

Lotu-Iiga: “It’s… Well, it’s saving the taxpayer money. It is saving the taxpayer money.”

 

And then this astounding admission from the Minister that must have had every viewer that Saturday morning choking on his/her milo/tea/coffee, and the Prime Minister speed-dialling his Chief-of-Staff;

Owen: “Who employs those monitors? Who employs the monitor in the prison? “

Lotu-Iiga: “There will be— If I can just finish, there will be an ombudsman. They will be subject to complaints—”

Owen: “So the monitor in the prison, Minister, just to be clear, the monitor in the prison; who employs the monitor?
Lotu-Iiga: “My understand is that the monitors are based in the prisons, but they report to the Department of Corrections.”

Owen: “Who employs the monitor and pays their wages, Minister?

Lotu-Iiga: “Well, I don’t have those facts on me, but they do report—”

Owen: “Well, I do. The person who employs the monitor— the person who employs the monitor is the company, Serco. They employ the monitor, and pay their wages.”

Lotu-Iiga’s spectacular ignorance of his own portfolio has almost certainly destroyed his political career. He will also have disappointed his political strategist and mentor, controversial far right-winger,  Simon Lusk.

Lusk was employed by Lotu-Iiga during the 2008 election campaign for the Maungakiekie Electorate Campaign. In return, as well as being paid by Lotu-Iiga, in his Maiden Speech in Parliament the newly-elected MP openly acknowledged Lusk’s involvement in his election to Parliament. In this Youtube video, Lotu-Iiga mentions Lusk at 3:56. Note who is sitting behind Lotu-Iiga – Aaron Gilmore, another Lusk protégé.

Bad luck, Simon.

It is not often that I feel sympathy for a Minister of a National Government. When I do, it is the pity I feel for a doomed man whose career has come to a grinding, crushing halt.

At the next Cabinet re-shuffle, Lotu-Iiga will be joining Kate Wilkinson, Phil Heatley, and Aaron Gilmore in political oblivion.

Dead Minister Walking.

3. Political Panel

Mike Williams, Bernard Hickey & Jamie Whyte comment on interviews with Bill English and Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga. Note ex-ACT leader, Jamie Whyte’s cringe-worthy apologistic comments on behalf of English, and why he thinks government debt does not matter.

4. The Programme

All in all, this was one of the most outstanding episodes of “The Nation” with excellent interviews; topical subject matter; and insightful analysis by (most) of the panellists. Lisa Owen joins Kim Hill as two of this country’s most formidable interviewers.

This is the sort of programming Mediaworks should be broadcasting at Prime Time. My “money” would be on people desperate for informative television – who are sick to their stomachs on a sickly diet of “reality tv” – to flock to such a viewer-friendly scheduling.

Good, quality, current affairs should never be tucked away as some sort of “guilty pleasure”.

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References

Wikipedia: The Phoney War

Wikipedia: Claytons

Rabobank: Country Report New Zealand

Farming Show: Australia becomes top trading partner once again

Radio NZ: Price drop another blow for dairy farmers

NZ Herald: Brian GaynorPlans for jump-start reveal differing styles

Scoop media:  Govt’s 2010 tax cuts costing $2 billion and counting

Fairfax media: Dairy prices fall at Fonterra GlobalDairyTrade auction

Beehive: Fact sheet – Personal tax cuts

Radio NZ: English concedes surplus target unlikely

Youtube: The Nation – Can National promise a surplus by 2016?

TV3: The Nation – Interview –  Finance Minister Bill English

Treasury: Debt

Fairfax media: Public debt climbs by $27m a day

Fairfax media: Government offloads 2800 state houses to Auckland development company

TV3: The Nation – Interview – Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga

Wikipedia: Serco

Simon Lusk: Clients

Fairfax media: The rapid rise of a well-educated man

Youtube: Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga MP – Maiden Speech

Previous related blogposts

Tax cuts and jobs – how are they working out so far, my fellow New Zealanders?

Did National knowingly commit economic sabotage post-2008?

Budget 2014 – Why we will soon owe $70 billion under this government

The Mendacities of Mr Key #3: tax cuts

When the Rich Whinge about paying tax

Two Tax Strikes against Dunne?

“It’s one of those things we’d love to do if we had the cash”

National’s Ohariu candidate admits contact by Simon Lusk

Power Struggle in the National Party?!

Other blogs

Unframed: John Key has no credibility on debt and no Plan B

Acknowledgement

Tim Watkin, Producer of “The Nation“, for interview transcripts; link to Youtube excerpt featuring Bill English; and valuable insights.


 

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This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 3 May 2015.

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  1. ALH84001
    9 May 2015 at 6:08 am

    Corrections Minister Lotu-Iiga has to be one of the most incompetant ministers since Muldoon stacked his cabinet with his cronies, some of them spending more time intoxicated and asleep on their counches in their offices than working.

    English isn’t so much incompetant as a liar and unable to see alternatives to his neo-liberal bullshit.

    I despair at what New Zealanders vote into office.

  1. 30 July 2015 at 8:44 am
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