National ahead in setting tone for 2013

VERNON SMALL
Last updated 09:12 31/01/2013

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OPINION: Chalk up the first round of the political year to National.

Not just because John Key's "state of the nation" speech delivered some actual news, in the shape of a revamped apprenticeship scheme (albeit using recycled money), against a rhetoric-heavy but news-lite offering from David Shearer.

More to the point National has grasped the early initiative by revamping the warrant-of-fitness regime and signalling an end to daily postal deliveries; two decisions that take another step into the 21st century.

The WOF decision will be popular, despite the self- interested protestations of the motor trade lobby. Associate Transport Minister Simon Bridges was on the right side of the voters, and Labour risked getting on the wrong side by not giving its unequivocal backing. The argument that a six-monthly testing regime was necessary to somehow save us from ourselves and our reluctance to self-police car safety is hardly a political winner.

National unveiled the policy on the same day as Shearer's first major speech in a blatant and successful attempt to overshadow it. Arguably they didn't need to bother.

The change to postal services was potentially more fraught, but NZ Post's engagement with rural consumers - the sector that will be worst affected - ensured any criticism was muted. On all sides there was a recognition that the loss of hundreds of jobs should be handled sensitively, with redeployment and retraining where possible. But no-one was arguing against the logic that shrinking mail volumes must lead to a reduction in deliveries - though the likely approval of a cut from six to three days a week is a more radical step than the five-day delivery first mooted by Jim Bolger when he was in the chair at NZ Post.

But consumers, voting with their keyboards by replacing snail mail with email, are hardly going to balk at the change. At the letterboxes of most suburban homes you would be hard- pressed to know on any given day whether there had been a delivery or not - and very little of what is delivered is time-sensitive. Where timing is important, courier and other options are available in most cases.

Even Christmas card volumes - one of the last bastions of private mail where something tangible might be preferred - have dropped by about 20 per cent.

Where Labour does have momentum is over their popular housing policy, although Shearer missed a trick by not using his keynote speech on Sunday to flesh out more detail.

The firepower National is training on the policy - including a new minister and sustained attacks by John Key and Bill English - is clear evidence that it is working for Labour on the political level.

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The mood of the electorate is clearly in favour of more government involvement, especially if it can deliver 10,000 affordable houses a year.

Like the interest-free student loan policy in 2005, it is a measure that has an electoral spinoff that goes far wider than those immediately affected. Then, parents and grandparents were concerned that student debt was forcing young people overseas, delaying house buying - and the arrival of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It was enough to get Labour over the line in a close election.

Now families are concerned that barriers to home ownership are creating the same pressures.

But Labour can only ride the wave for so long. Soon it will need to bring some more specifics to the table if it wants to head off National's attacks.

Tossing around promises to deliver affordable houses at an "average" cost of $300,000 across the country, or confident assurances that prices will come down if developers can build in bulk, can only go so far.

Perhaps its promised "housing conference" will do the trick, but that is still below the horizon.

At some point - and that time is fast approaching - Labour will need to give some concrete examples. If not plans, locations, land prices and costings, then something akin to proof if it wants to wrest the initiative back off National.

That's not to say National is away free on this one. It faces a similar conundrum, but the lack of a specific target has made its policy a harder target. How much will its promised reforms to planning and developers' levies shave off the cost of houses?

Presumably an affordable house is an affordable house, however you get to the price. So what price will the houses built in Auckland, under its plans, sell for?

Maybe in an ideal world - just after we achieve world peace - there would be a compromise that would significantly boost home ownership and lower costs at the entry level; a mix of National's moves on regulation and levies, and Labour's willingness to use the Government as a catalyst to build cheaply and in bulk.

But who would be the political winner then?

- The Press

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