As the waiting period for the forming of the National-led coalition Government dragged on past the forty-day mark, my expectations for the announcement could barely have been lower. However, the initial plans announced for the Government’s first 100 days have been beyond anything I could have hoped for.
I had expected that New Zealand First would again act as a handbrake on the Government, watering down the benefits of having the Act party within cabinet, adding another long three-year wait for a genuinely centre-right Government. While the coalition agreement does contain some obvious boondoggles for the benefit of New Zealand First, such as the new Regional Infrastructure Fund and investigating the case for building rail to Marsden Point and Northport, there are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the direction of the coalition.
Given the open hostility Winston Peters and David Seymour have shown each other over the previous decade, one could be forgiven for doubting the two could ever sit at the negotiating table, never mind enter into a coalition government. In my experience, politicians who openly attack each other in public are more than capable of maintaining cordial relations in private and working together away from the television cameras. Public hostility didn’t prevent Bolger from working with Peters in 1996 or Helen Clark from working with Jim Anderton in 1999. Indeed, it appears that National have conceded more than they otherwise would have were the coalition just between National and Act.
The first policy to be picked up by the media is the repeal of the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Smoked Tobacco) Amendment Act 2022, which reverses the previous Labour Government’s insane plan to progressively ban smoking. The law would have resulted in the number of permitted tobacco retailers restricted to 600 nationwide, nicotine levels in cigarettes slashed and everyone born after 1 January 2009 prohibited from purchasing tobacco. Unfortunately, National’s Finance Minister Nicola Willis has done a poor job in selling the change, touting it as a way to make National’s planned tax cuts affordable by cancelling legislation that was expected to reduce tax revenue by $1 billion annually.
Unsurprisingly the media narrative in New Zealand and across the world is painting the reversal of the laws as using the lives of thousands of Maori and Pasifika to pay for tax cuts. I seriously doubt the $1 billion drop in revenue will come quickly enough to have any impact on the budget in the government’s first term. Data I have collated from the NZ Health Survey 2021/22 show that there are 331,000 daily smokers, spending an average $4613 per year on tobacco excise. To reduce revenue from tobacco excise by $1 billion would require 216,000 daily smokers to quit within the next three years, which would see the total percentage of persons aged over 15 years smoking daily drop from 8% to 1.9%. According to Time Magazine, recent modelling shows the legislation would have reduced health expenditure by $1.3 billion over the next twenty years, which is at most $65 million a year.
While New Zealand’s legislation to ban smoking through generational prohibition was a world first, Bhutan was the first country in the world to ban tobacco, starting with a sales ban in 2004 and a total ban on all products from 2010. The ban was an absolute failure with a booming black market selling cigarettes for a quarter of the price a New Zealander pays, while 24% of the population continued to use tobacco, according to the 2019 WHO STEPS survey. In July 2021, the Bhutan Government reversed the 2010 ban on the use and supply of tobacco, though manufacturing remains prohibited.
The concentration of tobacco sales through just 600 retailers would have increased criminal activity in the areas surrounding retailers, with increased ram raids, armed robbery and general anti-social behaviour. Prior to the eventual prohibition of ‘synthetic cannabis’ in 2014, the number of retailers had been slashed, concentrating the number of users into surrounding neighbourhoods where long queues would form outside before the stores had even opened. Once open, purchasers would use the product in the surrounding areas. When it was finally banned, ‘synthetic cannabis’ became deadly.
On Wednesday, Christopher Luxon released a 49-point plan for the Government to achieve within its first 100 days, which is refreshing, to say the least. It isn’t just because we’ve waited six weeks to see how his Government will function, nor because Labour achieved very few of their plans over the previous six years but because it reads as a long list of Labour policies thrown into the garbage. Newshub’s opening coverage looked like reading the menu at my favourite restaurant. Twenty-one points of the 100-day plan either stop further work on the previous Government’s policies or repeal existing legislation, which is relatively easy to achieve.
I don’t agree with everything in the 100-day plan. I think the policy of banning gang patches is unrealistic and threatens everyone’s freedom of association. I also don’t think banning cell phones in schools is the sort of tedium the government should be interfering with in the education sector. However, plans to re-introduce 90-day trials for new employees and allow medicines containing pseudoephedrine to be sold without a doctor’s prescription are building a positive foundation for the start of the coalition government.
Some political commentators have painted the National/Act/NZ First coalition as being the most right-wing government since the 1990s. In my view, such a label does more to condemn the previous National Government than the current one and I am much more optimistic about the direction of the country than I have been in a long time.