NZ Herald | Seymour and Swarbrick on a telling night in Parnell

OPINION

It was a small-business meeting in Parnell on Wednesday night, hosted by the Parnell Business Association, and what they all wanted to know was: when will it end?

Not the election campaign, although maybe that too. They meant the Covid crisis.

“Give us a date. We need a date,” pleaded a man whose travel agency has been all but destroyed.

It was the last night of level 2, no masks except the guy on the door, but table service drinks and a separate platter of finger food for every participant.

“You cannot share your crackers,” they told us.

Chloe Swarbrick, there for the Greens, said she was sorry but asking for a definite date was crazy and impossible to answer. We have to make plans knowing we can’t know.

David Seymour for Act said he usually took great pleasure in disagreeing with the Greens, “But on this one occasion Chloe is right. You want a date and no one can give you that.”

But the next questioner, and the next, wanted a date.

The meeting was run by Hamish Firth, who owns a planning consultancy. He’s a big, shirt-and-jeans rugby type who poked fun at all the candidates. Made a change from the po-faced seriousness moderators usually adopt. And he had a keen sense of what matters.

“The ASB Classic tennis tournaments have been cancelled,” he reminded them. His concern wasn’t just for the tournaments themselves, but for the $3 million they raise each year. “That money all gets spent on kids’ tennis. Growing the grassroots. What are you going to do about that?”

The question wasn’t just about tennis, just as the lockdowns aren’t a problem just for business. The damage has been felt in the arts, in events, in all sports, in all the things that bind us together. None of the candidates really had an answer.

You can argue the Government’s greatest achievement in this pandemic is not the low rates of death and infection, nor its success in stamping out the virus, twice. Rather, it’s the social consensus asked for by the PM, and given by us, over the Covid strategy.

A whole new social contract. Because of that contract, all the rest has been possible. If you think it’s easy, look at how few others managed to do it.

The Government is quite right not to put this at risk. That’s why it’s been so cautious over the second lockdown and so hesitant to talk about a new approach to bringing in essential workers, students, visitors from Pacific islands and others. They probably know a third lockdown would break that contract. We wouldn’t stand for it.

But there are other risks.

Come summer, what happens if we discover the Government is giving special treatment to wealthy America’s Cup visitors – without having developed a wider approach to entry? That’s not going to wash.

A new approach to border control is one of many things the Government is finding too hard to talk about right now. Will that change after the election?

Also on the too-hard-right-now list: the bleak future of tourism, which infrastructure projects will go ahead, the unemployment that will follow the end of the wage subsidy. Rebuilding without increasing inequality. Tax reform.

In Parnell, Labour’s Camilla Belich said we had “a chance to look at things afresh”. But National’s Paul Goldsmith berated Labour for wanting “slow trams on Dominion Rd” and the Greens for believing “tax is love”. Swarbrick gave the room a little lecture on GDP, which was invented to measure financial activity but not the wealth of nations.

The crowd was strongly opposed to raising the minimum wage. “I’ve got 20 per cent of my business left,” said one woman. “How am I supposed to pay my staff more?”

That went to the heart of something. National and Act say: if you increase business costs you make it harder to do business. Individual companies are hurt.

Labour and the Greens say: if you raise wages, especially at the bottom end, you create more customers for businesses. The economy activity helps them and everyone else.

They’re both right.

But when Seymour told the meeting Act wants to freeze the minimum wage for three years because “we need some certainty”, he wasn’t talking about “we” New Zealand or “we” the economy or even “we” the business sector. That “we” referred to each individual business.

And by definition, it excluded low-income workers. Why is it okay to exclude low-income workers from the recovery plans? Because they’ll benefit later? You believe it or you don’t.

And is tax love? The theory is that tax is the financial expression of our commitment to living in a functional society that benefits all its citizens. Tax is love because it creates community. Paying tax is a moral responsibility.

You’ll find echoes of that philosophy in both Labour and the Greens’ policies.

“Tax is love” is a response to “tax is theft”, which holds that it’s our money and the Government has no right to it. Therefore, it’s morally defensible to want to be taxed as little as possible.

You’ll find echoes in National and Act’s statements: Goldsmith, National’s finance spokesperson, often talks about the Government “taking more of your money”.

In Parnell, the candidates were tired but the humour was good. When Hamish Firth referred to Seymour’s “End of Choice Act”, Seymour was quick to laugh.

“No one’s ever accused me of standing for the end of choice before,” he said. “It’s the End of Life Choice Act.”

Voting’s open and there’s a week to go before the End of Election Choice is upon us.

NZ Herald 9 October 2020

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