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What will happen to Labour's legacy? Part II
The Sixth Labour Government passed plenty of policy. How much of it will survive? Part two of a two-part series covering the workplace, climate, and more.
Good morning! Today is part two of my look at what will happen to Labour’s policy legacy, should National win the election. You can catch up on part one here. I’ve also written two pieces about Winston Peters this week, one summing up his appeal as a cranky handbrake The Guardian, and one surveying the various different Winstons for The Spinoff.
The Labour Party likes to reform labour law.
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Labour in Government has passed a range of workplace legislation across its time in Government. Some of this was basically resetting things to where they were under Helen Clark. Other changes have been more ambitious.
Instituted a new Fair Pay Agreements regime that looks to set “floors” for pay and conditions for workers across entire industries, if not by negotiation then by an enforced floor set by the Employment Relations Authority.
Banned 90-day trials for employers with more than 19 employees.
Lifted the hourly minimum wage from $15.75 to $21.20. This six-year raise of $5.45 compared to a rise of $2.75 the six years prior.
Re-instituted a general legal right to “rest and meal breaks”.
Doubled statutory sick leave from five days to 10 days a year.
Introduced a new public holiday - Matariki.
A host of other smaller legal changes aimed at helping unions, such as allowing union representatives to enter a workplace without the consent of the employer in certain circumstances, changing timeframes for collective bargaining negotiations, and re-introducing a duty to negotiate in good faith if a union attempted a multi-employer collective agreement. These changes largely reversed a set of changes the last National Government made in 2015.
This is a big list but workplace law is one of the main areas where you can really see a pendulum swing between Labour-led and National-led governments. It’s a policy area that is generally quite zero sum (when employees get more rights employers get less, and vice versa), an area in which both party’s base are very invested, and also an area where small bits of legislation can change quite a lot.
Let’s deal with them in order.
Fair Pay Agreements are anathema to both National and ACT, who have promised many times to repeal them. There are seven FPAs currently at the bargaining stage which one assumes will be thrown out, although if National really wanted to it could allow these FPAs to exist as single little mini-laws. I highly doubt it given they are not in place yet.
National and ACT have also repeatedly confirmed they would like to get rid of 90 day trials. ACT’s actually pushed for 12 month trials.
The minimum wage won’t go down under National but it is very unlikely that it will rise by the same amount. ACT are keen on a three-year freeze on the minimum wage.
I’ve asked about rest breaks and not got a response from National.
Luxon has said he has no plans to reduce statutory sick leave, but ACT wants to take it back to five days.
There’s been a lot of noise about Matariki after Luxon got himself into a bit of a mess suggesting that it should replace another holiday like Labour Day. He later clarified that if elected National would not look to get rid of any public holidays. ACT said the party would “reverse” the introduction of Matariki or swap it out for another public holiday. Realistically this would be an incredibly unpopular move for an incoming government.
The other changes to union organising are likely to be somewhat reversed. ACT have promised to repeal all of Labour’s workplace changes and National will likely see the arguments that they made for these changes in 2015 still make sense for them in 2024.
Legacy survivability rating: 2/10. Matariki and sick leave changes will likely survive.
Labour came into Government promising to get the prison population down and has managed that - something the Opposition argues has led to a rise in crime.
Finding the exact policy that led to this reduction in the prison population is not that easy. Some of it will have to do with judicial, prosecutorial, and police discretion.
Here are Labour’s key policy changes in this area.
Ended the ‘three strikes’ sentencing law.
Banned “military style semi-automatic” rifles after the March 15 terror attack, and introduced a gun register.
Removed the blanket ban on prisoners voting, allowing those on sentences less than three years long to vote.
Boosted legal aid.
It’s also worth noting that the Government was attempting to strengthen NZ’s hate speech laws but this was dropped as part of the great Bread and Buttering.
Three strikes will definitely return - National and ACT are clear on that one. ACT are keen to strip away the firearms reforms but will face some pushback from National on that - how much is unclear.
And removing the vote from prisoners? Last time National were in Government it happened via a members’ bill. I can see that happening again, although the courts having had such a forceful say on the issue might stay some hands.
Legacy survivability rating: 0.5/10.
Climate has a minister but no ministry. It is one of the big meta-issues that will shape New Zealand’s public life for the coming decades, but it is so all-encompassing that often a policy that lives in another area has massive climate implications.
For example: The medium density residential standard which I mentioned in the housing section of part one is arguably the most important climate change policy the Government has. Few things would get New Zealand’s emissions down more than a shift to people living in urban areas where they got to work and play without a car. But it is still a housing policy.
Similarly, while the Government has never actually managed to charge farmers for their emissions, it’s moves on freshwater are generally expected to bring down methane emissions.
So this list focuses on things that are more squarely within the climate space, but will undoubtedly miss some of the bigger policies that will impact emissions.
Introduced the Zero Carbon Act which sets emissions targets and budgets into law.
Made some changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) - most crucially by capping the total number of “credits” for emissions in the system.
Banned new exploration permits for offshore oil and gas.
Allocated the money from the ETS to a huge range of decarbonisation measures, from getting rid of coal boilers to a deal with NZ Steel.
Introduced a new Green Investment Fund.
There is a lively policy debate on whether everything bar the ETS is basically a waste of time.
Given the ETS is theoretically supposed to cover all emissions and there is now a cap on the number of “credits” that can be used for these emissions, the idea is that anything that takes away emissions without reducing the cap itself does nothing to reduce overall net emissions, because the same amount of credits remain in the system. Instead, these people argue, the ETS cap should be lowered gradually, which will in turn increase the cost of emitting and make the market work out how to decarbonise without Government help.
This is a position now adopted by National - it wants to use the funding from the ETS for its tax cuts instead of direct decarbonisation projects. The counter-argument to this one - and one of the Government favours - is that investment is needed now because the ETS cannot yet do the heavy lifting. They say you would need a carbon price five or six times higher than what it currently is to get these companies to make the climate investments they are now, and they doubt that a price this high would be politically feasible. It is difficult to see any New Zealand Government supporting the ETS getting to a point where driving a petrol car becomes a luxury, for example. Hanging over all of this is the fact that our largest emitter - agriculture - isn’t in the ETS at all.
That debate is one for another post, not near the end of one this long.
But the big picture is that National would look to “stick to the targets” set in the Zero Carbon Bill but rely on the ETS to get there, instead of these other deals. The party is also keen to re-introduce new permits for offshore oil and gas exploration. Whether this will result in new exploration is another question - finding the oil or gas and then setting up the infrastructure to use it would take years, and at some point in the future Labour will hold office again, putting that investment at some risk.
Legacy survivability rating: 6/10. If the Zero Carbon Bill survives with its current targets that is a fairly big deal.
Yes, it’s different from climate. Don’t let politicians or anyone else try to talk about recycling or plastic bag bans as climate solutions. They have little to do with it.
Anyway - Labour have enacted a few chunky bits of environmental policy. It has helped that David Parker, one of the Government’s most effective and experienced legislators, has been Environment Minister for the entire length of the Government.
Replaced the RMA with separate bills.
Issued a policy statement on freshwater that restricts how farmers operate in several ways in a bid to clean up rivers.
Ended subsidies for irrigation projects.
The plastic bag ban.
Reformed the Crown Minerals Act so that there is no longer a presumption that governments should promote the extraction of resources.
National have promised to replace Parker’s replacement of the RMA. That will likely take a few years.
National have also promised to repeal a lot of the freshwater regulations, but not quite all of them. Their website still says a full agricultural policy is on its way.
I’ve asked about the irrigation subsidies and not received a response.
The plastic bag ban is settled law and I doubt any future Government would try to reverse it.
National opposed the Crown Minerals Act changes but from what I can see have not promised to repeal it.
Legacy survivability rating: 3/10. It’s hard to see a return to plastic bags or irrigation subsidies.
Great piece from John Burn-Murdoch on the problems with running a Government based on polling - when you ask questions differently you get wildly different answers.
Shanti Mathias interviewing Michael Woodhouse in The Spinoff.
A great Labour Party campaign diary from Thomas Manch.
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