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Q+A: Panel discusses interview with Finance Minister Bill English (8:00)

Published: 10:38AM Sunday November 01, 2009 Source: Q+A

PAUL So what do the panel make of what Finance Minister Bill English had to say.  Therese Arseneau, Don Brash and Sue Bradford are our panel.  Well let's deal with the housing issue first of all.  He regrets but does not say sorry.  Let's have a look at this.

 'Guyon:  Are you sorry?  Bill English:  No it wasn't wrong I stand by the decisions I made.  Guyon:  And you're not sorry.   Bill:  Well I regret the impression that was created, and I regret any concern that caused particularly for my family but also for my colleagues.'

PAUL So Therese has that whole housing entitlement allowance business damaged Bill English, or is it an inside the beltway.

THERESE ARSENEAU - Political Analyst
 I think probably both actually, if I can answer it that way.  I think in the short term it has hurt him politically.

PAUL Do you think?

THERESE Well I do in the sense that we're in tough times.  He comes on TV and says we're going to have to take money from you know basic services, or it looks like they're clamping down in terms of ACC and women on the DPB and I mean it doesn't look good in terms of the Minister himself isn't to type, but look he's got a lot of people down in the foxhole with him.  I mean in the same week you have Rodney Hide taking his partner off on an expensive trip overseas.  I think overall what's happened though is it's left an impression with the public, sort of a plague on all their houses ...

PAUL Or is it that it's so confusing people just go phssh - can't be bothered thinking about it.

THERESE Well I think people you're right, people in the beltway, the term that you use, it matters much more perhaps to people in the beltway, but don't underestimate how much it niggles at people if they feel they're elected representatives are not being as careful with the money that they should be.

PAUL Are they in the trough is what people worry about I spose.  Do you think it's damaged him?

SUE BRADFORD - Former Green Party MP
 Oh I think it has and I fail to understand why the professional media minders that will be around people like Bill English very strongly, the Crosby texters of the world as well don't actually say to people like him, wouldn't it be good if you were just up front and apologised from your heart for what's happened.  Just be really up front, he'd win so much political kudos if he did that, and seeing that that was such a professionally managed statement that he made there.

PAUL Don what do you think?

DON BRASH - Former National Party MP
 Oh suspect it has damaged him, I think that's unfortunately the case, but he's right, technically he hasn't broken any rules and the Auditor General's just confirmed that, but it certainly isn't a good look and I understand exactly what Therese is saying.

THERESE The other issue here is that the rules need to be looked at.  I mean I think they're out of step with what is acceptable now to the general public.

PAUL  Guyon was making the point that things aren't always fair, that the Chief Executives seem always to be getting the bonuses, always to be getting the pay rises where the benefits and the entitlements are reduced and tightened up.  Do you think the government's been fair Sue?

SUE Oh not at all, and they're heading absolutely down in this direction and I'm really worried by what Bill English is saying this morning, particularly of course what he's saying about beneficiaries, and his total lack of consideration for low wage workers, or for the 245 Bridgestone tyre workers laid off the other week.  He's acting as if it's all solved and it's not a problem.

PAUL Yeah but he makes the point though that you can't have people going on welfare for a prolonged period of time because they cease to participate.

SUE Well that's all very well but does he really want a society where people don't get welfare?  Is that the direction National's going in?  In for the people who are on the long term invalids' benefits, and he's not that up on the play with benefits there I don't think, cos I think he had some confusion, I think he was probably talking about Invalids' beneficiaries, because the sickness benefit is a short term benefit and very tightly controlled and harassed.  I think he was probably talking about invalids, I'm not sure, but very worrying that they're proceeding with plans to cut back on benefit entitlements and to harass beneficiaries further at a time of high unemployment.

PAUL Is there a sense the government really isn't being fair with people that while they might disapprove of the high salary increases and so forth, it doesn't stop does it?

DON Well speaking Paul as a director of one of the SOEs, we've certainly been told in no uncertain terms by the Minister of SOEs, no increases in directors' fees this year, or for some time.  So I mean the government has in fact put a stop to many of those increases, and Sue talks about benefits, I mean there's been an explosion of people on the invalids benefit over the last decade.  It's very hard to see why that would be the case, we haven't had a great war, we haven't had a polio epidemic, nothing which has driven a massive increase in incapacity, and yet there's been a very big increase...

SUE It's the aging population actually.

PAUL Well one of the very important parts of that interview was his commitment not even to consider any changes to the age of entitlement for superannuation and so forth.   Here's what he said about this.

 Guyon:  As long as you are Finance Minister you will not increase the age of eligibility for superannuation?  Bill:  'Well the Prime Minister speaks for the government and he's being absolutely unequivocal that as long as he's Prime Minister there won't be changes in entitlement to National Super.'

PAUL They won't go near it will they?  Don Brash do we need once and for all a debate about superannuation?

DON Oh I don't have any doubt about that at all.  It's been a debate which the Retirement Commissioner has been talking about for some considerable time, and as the Treasury's forecast this week, if we leave New Zealand super entitlements exactly as they are we're faced with either cutting back drastically on other government spending, or sharply increasing tax.  Now if we sharply increase tax we slow down our growth potential as a country, accelerate people going to Australia, and basically say we'll never catch Australia.

PAUL Therese I spose they're terrified of the politics of toughing super, going near super, and of course waiting in the wings is Winston Raymond Peters - he's the elephant in the room.

THERESE Yes exactly and could very well benefit from as you say the politics of this.  But look I think it's actually really important for the New Zealand public to go out and actually read the document that Treasury put out.  Now it's actually quite a readable document and it's not just about finance, it is the ultimate in strategic planning for this country, and we are facing some very difficult challenges and we need to make choices.  We have a population bomb on our doorstep where the percentage of our population who are going to be over the age of 65 is increasing by 150%, and even over 85 is going up 400% by 2050.  So we do have a social contract in terms of super, that the people who are working now will get super, be looked after when they retire, but you know what this document also point out is what about the ethics of indebting the future generations, and what we're looking at now is per capita debt of about $4000 per person.  What some projections are is by 2050 that will be $400,000 per person.

PAUL You are of course are head of the 2025 Task Force which aims at getting New Zealand up to the level of Australia in terms of income and so forth by 2025, what are the options for us?

DON How long have we got Paul?  I mean the reality is, we will not catch Australia on current policy settings, that's absolutely crystal clear.  Since the early 90s we've been growing at roughly the same speed as Australia, but the gap which emerged between the late 60s and the early 90s hasn't been closed at all, and in fact if we're gonna close it we have to roughly double our growth rate per capita over the next 16 years.  We won't do it on current policies.

PAUL It's frightening, it's a nightmare.

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