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Unless you’ve been following the news especially closely this week, you might have missed the first rumblings of one of the biggest debates of any election year. During a series of interviews, Bill English suggested that tax cuts were on the table for this year’s budget.
The timing and motivations of the hint are obvious, but tax cuts have been firmly off the table in New Zealand for some time. Their reintroduction and the political responses to them are further intensifying the debate on inequality that was recently stoked with the announcement of changes to superannuation.
This has been a very slow tease for National. Just last year, tax cuts were firmly rejected by John Key’s government with the argument that the $1 billion surplus would only give people an extra $6 to $7 a week. Key suggested it would be better to wait until there was $3 billion in the bank to cover a more substantial $20 a week tax break.
With the forecasts still looking good, English may finally get to deliver on Key’s promise.
Tax cuts are pretty standard fare for National and the political right in general. What is different here, however, is that the cuts are being discussed in the wider context of rising inequality. More importantly still, English isn’t rehashing the well-trodden conservative doctrine that cuts for the wealthy will trickle down to low- and middle-income workers. Instead, he is suggesting that the cuts should go straight to these people in the first place.
Labour’s response was curt. Andrew Little said tax cuts were not an option under a Labour government as the money was better spent elsewhere. Specifically, Little noted that health and education were in desperate need of a funding boost. Little also fell into a familiar political trope by suggesting that, despite the Prime Minister’s assurances, National’s tax cuts tended to “favour the wealthy.”
Whether that’s what the policy actually entails remains to be seen, but the targeting of cuts and the language of addressing inequality are significant moves for National. These are the kinds of policies that have seen them successfully cut into traditional Labour territory and sway low- and middle-income New Zealand for three consecutive elections.
Te Awa Whanganui
Last week, the New Zealand government enjoyed a rare moment in the international media spotlight. Rather than past appearances for Key-related gaffes, however, this was a genuine political and legal story of consequence.
The interest stemmed from the passing of the Whanganui River Claims Settlement Bill, a settlement of the historic claims of the iwi and hapū of Whanganui. Under the new law the Whanganui River gains the same legal standing as a person, albeit with a few exceptions. It is a means of protection that New Zealand companies have enjoyed for some time.
In practice, this means that the river can be looked after by a trust set up with the wellbeing of its sole trustee, Te Awa Whanganui, as its main objective. It is the same kind of legal provision that was used to grant Te Urewera protection under the Ngai Tūhoe settlement in 2014.
While this has managed to outrage former National Party leader Don Brash, it received widespread support in Parliament.
Labour’s Adrian Rurawhe, MP for Te Tai Hauāuru, praised the move for finally recognising a concept that had been enshrined in mātauranga Māori for centuries.
Māori Party co-leader Marama Fox also welcomed the change. She said it recognised the 26-year claims process that iwi leaders battled through to have the river protected.
On the government side, Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson said that while the concept of giving a river legal personhood might seem unusual to some, it was a protection already given to family trusts and incorporated societies.
However this rare cross-party support glosses over the generations of struggle Whanganui iwi and hapū have faced. The battle for protection of the Whanganui River is one of the longest running legal battles in New Zealand history.
As with Te Urewera, however, many of these unique legal innovations ratified in treaty settlements later become political capital to be wheeled out as needed. Yet, as Rurawhe noted, these are not new concepts in Te Ao Māori.
We’re just now catching up.