The speech from the throne
It had none of the careful political branding that characterised the last Speech from the Throne. Gone were the multiple references to 'sustainability' and centrally determined appeals to Kiwi identity. Instead, the statement of the Government's legislative and policy intent with which the 49th Parliament was opened presented a direct and, in places, blunt agenda.
That is not to say that this year's Speech from the Throne was without its polemic. The new administration's view of the role of Government versus that of the individual was clear - it will be guided by "individual freedom and New Zealanders' capacity to shape and improve their own goals."
In addition to raising an impudent digit to the surviving remnants of the Labour-led Government, that simple proposition will almost certainly bring the administration into conflict with interventionist minded agencies, like the Ministry of Health and the lobby groups they support. Used to a ready political patronage for the latest "what's good for you" measure it is clear that these organisations will find life radically altered.
The humble and, for some, ego-popping, acknowledgement that "the true builders of a stronger economic future are not sitting in [the Parliamentary] chamber today," was also an important signal that the administration sees itself in a supporting role only. The stars of long-term social and economic security are to be found elsewhere.
Although significant National's ideological burp was generally muted. In the end the Speech was less political than it was a management agenda, the main theme of which was building economic growth and resilience in the face of global recession. Identifying falling productivity levels, the decline in after-tax wage rates relative to Australia, and an historical failure to grasp opportunities as the obstacles, it has set a general goal for New Zealand to lift its game.
The policy priorities
The Government's priorities, as outlined in the Speech from the Throne, were:
National has reaffirmed its commitment to stimulate the economy through an incremental programme of personal tax cuts, and increased infrastructure investment. Signalling an intention to work with the private sector to "maximise the impact of public investments", the focus with be on transport projects, schools and broadband development.
Acknowledging the long-standing business complaint that Government regulation is often more of a hindrance than it is enabling, the Government has also affirmed its intention to undertake a "regulatory review programme" to remove inefficient regulation and ensure regulation is used "sparingly and effectively". Also, it will undertake a two-step reform of the Resource Management Act 1991. The first step will involve measures to remove costs, delays and uncertainties. Step two will involve improvements to decision making in respect of water allocation and urban design.
The Government will continue to shore up the liquidity of the financial system by maintaining support for the retail deposit and wholesale banking government guarantees for as long as they are required to ensure the effective operation of the banking system. Promoting New Zealand investment, the new Government also proposes to set the New Zealand based investment target for the $14 billion of assets in the Government Superannuation Fund at 40%, up from the current 25%.
Also, the Government has indicated its intention to announce details of its "Restart" support package for those affected by the recession and confirmed that it will reduce the minimum employee contributions to Kiwisaver to 2% of an employee's gross salary, to ensure that "saving is a more affordable choice".
An examination of public spending is also on the cards with the objective of eliminating waste and focusing resources on frontline services.
Emissions Trading Scheme
As part of its confidence and supply agreement with the ACT Party, the Government will embark on a review of the Emissions Trading Scheme ("ETS"). It will strive to find a balance between the country's environmental responsibilities against economic means available.
- reducing emissions using least cost methods;
- honouring the country's Kyoto Protocol obligations and building on global alliances;
- working with other countries in finding a pragmatic way to include large emitters such as China, the US, India and Brazil; and
- engaging in international discussion to advocate recognition of New Zealand's "unique agricultural-emissions-profile". There will be increased public investment in research to reduce emissions from livestock.
Reflecting the Prime Minister's own passion for education as a lever for economic development, the Government has announced its intention to modernise the school system, prepare students for employment and ensure that students are equipped to succeed.
National Standards in literacy and numeracy will be introduced at primary level and parents will receive "Plain English" reports on their children's progress. A "Trades in Schools" policy will be introduced at secondary level. Specialised Trades Academies and school-based apprenticeships will be made available, along with "trades and technology-based learning opportunities".
At the senior end of secondary education, the Government will introduce a "Youth Guarantee", providing 16-17 year olds with an entitlement to free school-level education at a greater range of institutions - including wananga, polytechnics and private training establishments.
In tertiary education, the Government aims to reduce the bureaucracy and respond to employers' and students' needs. In particular, "Voluntary bonding schemes", based on student-loan write-offs, will be introduced for graduates in "hard-to-staff professions", including doctors, nurses and teachers.
Law and order
The get tough approach signalled in National's election campaign will be reflected in the provision of stronger sentencing, parole and bail laws, additional police in South Auckland, and giving police the power to issue on-the-spot protection orders and to take DNA at the time of arrest. On the preventative and rehabilitative side of the ledger, the Government will introduce "Fresh Start" programmes for youth offenders, incorporating military-style training and intensive mentoring. It will also increase rehabilitation programmes in prison and introduce compulsory work programmes.
The Government's health priorities will be to reduce surgery waiting lists and deal with the health workforce crisis. In a bland, but potentially significant statement, the Government has also indicated that it will give health professionals more say in the running of the health system and require DHBs to work more collaboratively.
Māori and Treaty issues
Unsurprisingly, fresh energy is to be devoted to the settlement of all Treaty grievances by 2014. Also, under the confidence and supply agreement with the Māori Party, the Government will undertake a review of the Seabed and Foreshore legislation to determine whether it enhances mana whenua. The Government will also establish a group to consider Māori representation as part of a wider constitutional review.
The Government will repeal the Electoral Finance Act which it regards as a "yoke on free speech" and as "eroding the democratic principles that underpin our country". The Electoral Act 1993 will be an interim replacement, with the parts of the Electoral Finance Act dealing with donations incorporated. MMP will be the subject of a referendum, as will a range of alternatives.
A bipartisan approach will be taken to foreign policy decision making, including an "ongoing commitment to trade liberalisation and the pursuit of bilateral, regional and world-wide free trade agreements".