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'Trees, trains and trade unions' drives nostalgic govt agenda, says Bill English

Wednesday 31st January 2018

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The Labour-led government's policy agenda is driven by "a nostalgic belief in trees, trains and trade unions," said Opposition leader Bill English in a State of the Nation address in Wellington overshadowed by media speculation about how long he will last as leader of the National Party.

Defeated at the Sept 23 general election by a coaliton of the Labour, NZ First and Green parties despite National winning the most seats in the new Parliament, English bemoaned the abandonment of poverty reduction goals implemented under his brain-child 'social investment approach' and predicted Labour's industrial relations reforms would stifle the creation of thousands of jobs.

"The strong economy and finances will allow the government to muddle along with inconsistent, poorly thought out policies for some time," said English to a business audience. "But the lessons of history are that this small open economy needs consistent attention to policy that supports growth if we are to continue performing long-term."

He announced the launch of a 'Protect New Zealand Jobs' campaign.

He attacked also the new government's decision to drop Maori land law reforms that he said would have opened up development underused Maori land at a time when Forestry and Regional Development Minister Shane Jones is seeking land for its plan to double forest plantations over the next decade.

"Guess where most of it (underused Maori land) is," said English. "In Northland and Bay of Plenty, which have the highest rates of 'nephews sitting on couches', as Mr Jones put it."

On proposed labour relations reforms, English said government officials would have advised Labour that its commitment to raise the minimum wage quickly to $20 an hour, by 2022, would cost "tens of thousands of jobs", while its Fair Pay Agreement policy would stifle new job creation by taking workplace arrangements out of the hands of individual firms and their employees.

Fair Pay Agreements would allow a union to approach an industry body "representing, for instance, fishing, racing, hospitality or construction, and demand collective negotiations". 

"An employer cannot refuse to be part of an industry agreement - it will be bound by a collective agreement setting minimum standards for wages, allowances, hours of work and leave arrangements for an entire industry," English said. "Employers and employees in a workplace covered by the agreements may not even be part of the negotiations." 

That approach was at odds with Labour's own 'Future of Work' study, which had identified that workers in the future were "more likely to be self-employed, own their own business and earn income from several sources". 

"The reforms are about supporting union officials, not New Zealand workers," said English, who urged employers to lobby the government to moderate its proposals, as it had when leaving in place the 90 day trial period for employees of small and medium-sized businesses, in announcements made last week.

On poverty reduction, English said the previous government's social investment approach had worked to "very specific targets ... and they drove the public services to work together to achieve them". 

Those targets were only being abandoned "because they were introduced by National," said English and would undo "six years of work to focus the public services on changing lives rather than just spending money, on digging into our hardest social problems rather than just brushing over them to do the easy stuff". 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern unveiled her signature Child Poverty Reduction Bill yesterday and will be outlining high-level targets, most relating to ratios of household income to housing costs, in coming days and weeks.


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