Is car park tax National's 'lightbulb moment'?

23:12, Mar 14 2013

There comes a time in any government's term in office when it does something so unbelievably stupid, so mind-bendingly dumb, so ridiculously petty and so clearly idiotic that you know it's losing the plot. 

I remember well when Labour jumped the shark. It wasn't the anti-smacking legislation - that had a huge impact on its core support but at least it could argue it was doing the right thing, even it wasn't popular at the time. 

And it wasn't even the decision to regulate what schools could sell in tuckshops. Granted, it was ridiculously petty and mind-bendingly dumb, but probably not completely idiotic. Labour could, and did, claim that students needed more help in making healthy eating choices. 

No, what sealed Labour's fate, I reckon, was the ill-advised (and later abandoned) plan to regulate the flow of water from shower heads, and to ban lightbulbs that didn't meet certain energy specifications.

That was when Labour's "nanny state'' tag became attached like a limpet that Helen Clark just couldn't shake. 

National rightly campaigned on a promise to rid voters of such a pestilent and petty administration, and to restore sanity and a little less heavy-handed regulation to our lives. 

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So what, you might well ask, is the Government doing trying to tax the inner-city car parks provided by employers for their staff? Particularly when John Key specifically ruled out such a tax when he was opposition finance spokesman back in 2005?

On the face of it, the move is precisely the sort of petty, mean-spirited, unfair, "nanny state'' idea that Key himself would have heavily criticised Labour for back when it was in government. 

Oh, wait, he did. Here's Key speaking to Rotary before he became prime minister: "National wants ... to remove a substantial amount of the paperwork that currently occupies too much administrative time for many of our businesses, especially the small ones.'.

Hmmm. Apparently the "tax environment has changed'' since then, according to Bill English. Read his lips, not Key's.

The proposed tax would apply only to employees and their companies unlucky enough to work in Wellington and Auckland, and only then in the CBD - in other words, the two most expensive places to park in the country. 

The tax would smack employers with a 50 per cent fringe benefit tax for any car parks offered to staff, which presumably they would then pass on to workers, through either salary sacrifice or a straight parking charge. 

So at a time when a lot of people are doing it tough, when we're constantly hearing how many people are only just getting by, clearing their rent or mortgage payments, paying the bills, and trying to get ahead, National is proposing to make life just that little bit tougher. 

Bill English has tried to justify the proposed new tax by using the old line about fairness, and using a little bit of wedge politics: "It's between all those people who pay for their car parks, and those who have car parks provided,'' he said. 

Unfortunately for the Government, those who can sometimes score a free space in an employer's car park cover pretty much the whole socioeconomic spectrum, from white-collar IT professionals through to teachers through to supermarket packers and cleaners. 

Car parking, and the cost of it, is something that pretty much riles everyone up. It's a hot-button, hip-pocket issue, and the Government should know voters are looking for any way of alleviating the drain on the wallet at the moment, rather than exacerbating it.

Hilariously, the proposed law would even cover Parliament itself, which provides limited parking on a first-come, first-served basis. So we have the unusual situation of Parliamentary Service opposing a piece of legislation dreamed up by its own masters. 

The proposed tax has united old enemies. It isn't often that employers and unions join in a campaign against a government initiative. And when it's the ulta-conservative Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association and the Unite Union, headed by left-wing agitator Matt McCarten, you know you've pretty much annoyed everyone. 

The Government's going to have a hard time even justifying the economics of the proposal, given that preliminary estimates (admittedly funded by the campaign against the move) put the cost of collecting the tax far above the paltry revenue it will attract. 

To make matters worse for National, a group representing 100 or so advertising and media agencies has agreed to put together a pro bono campaign opposing the move, which should guarantee some creative and amusing advertising aimed at making the Government look a fool. 

Already the patter of running feet can be heard on this one. Apparently National sources are blaming United Future MP and Revenue Minister Peter Dunne, who's conveniently out of the country, for the idea, claiming it was never National Party policy. 

If that's the case, someone should tell English, who sometimes has trouble spotting wood for trees, to stop digging on this one.

If National wants to avoid its own "lightbulb moment", it needs to drop the plan as quickly and quietly as possible. 

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