National’s big housing announcement: tinkering for the middle-class, hand-outs for the rich

One-word summary: Pathetic.

Scoop cartoon housing crisis I’ve blogged before about National’s staggering denial of the housing affordability crisis. It seems they’ve now woken up somewhat, as they’ve released a housing policy as the flagship policy announcement of their campaign launch.

They claim to have “overhauled” the existing scheme (introduced by Labour in 2007) whereby you can withdraw from your KiwiSaver savings for a deposit on your first home, and many people can get a government top-up too.

In fact, they’re only making a few changes to the scheme:

1) They’re increasing the house price limits – you can now buy a house worth more and still be eligible for the top-up. This is good and necessary, given our skyrocketing house prices. But it will be generally wealthier people gaining eligibility.

2) That’s even more true for the second change: Currently, the top-up is $1,000 for every year you’ve been in KiwiSaver, to a maximum of $5,000. National will double these amounts, but here’s the kicker: only for those buying or building brand new houses.

3) Aside from the top-up, you can currently only withdraw your employee and employer contributions for your first home deposit. National propose to let you withdraw your annual government contributions (max $521/year) too. I’m actually 100% behind this, and don’t know why it’s not already the case – but, again, the people with the maximum government contributions will usually be wealthier.

4) In October, the Reserve Bank introduced Loan-to-Value ratio restrictions, meaning most buyers now need a 20% deposit for a home loan. This has slowed house-price inflation, but also priced poorer people out of the market. Under National’s proposal, first home buyers will now only need a 10% deposit. This will certainly help, but it’s only a partial backing-away from the Reserve Bank’s policy.

I agree with most of the above, and I’m glad the government have stopped ignoring at least one aspect of the housing crisis.

But there are at least five significant problems, which mean this policy completely misses the mark:

Firstly, it’s pretty small-fry. A lot of it is good, but “tinkered” or at best “expanded” is more accurate than “overhauled.” A couple with maximum eligibility will be able to draw $7,294 more of their savings for their house deposit. If they can afford a new house, they’ll also get $10,000 more from the government. They’ll also probably benefit from being able to buy with a lower deposit – let’s round up the total benefit to $20,000. But that’s still only how much house prices inflate in Auckland and Christchurch every few months. (If you’re buying on your own, all these amounts will be halved, except the house cost/inflation of course.)

Secondly, it helps the better-off the most. “Maximum eligibility” does not correspond to maximum need, but maximum privilege. This is already a flaw with KiwiSaver and the home withdrawal scheme – the people with the most to withdraw are those who’ve earned the most since 2007. But it’s compounded under National’s proposals.

Even more significantly, while the proposed expansions let normal buyers withdraw more of their own savings, they give an extra hand-out of $5,000 per person free money to those who can afford to build or buy new houses. How many people do you know who can afford a new house, let alone for their first home? If you can think of anyone, I’m guessing they either have parental assistance, inherited wealth or very high-earning jobs (you can earn quite a lot and still be eligible, btw). Acknowledging that even these privileged people need help buying homes is admission that our house prices are out of control. But it’s disgusting that the less-well-off are denied this generous and much-needed hand-out.

Thirdly, National’s numbers look impressive by themselves (90,000 helped! Thousands of $ of support! Only costs $218 million!), but if you actually whip out your calculator and analyse them, you’ll notice that only the 10,000 luckiest will be eligible for the big bucks, their mortgages will still be officially classified as 150% unaffordable, and even with these big benefactors pushing up the average, the average assistance is only about $2,000 per home-buyer.

Fourthly, this only helps people buy their first home; it doesn’t do anything about the investors with multiple homes, crowding the market and pushing both rents and house prices sky-high. Unlike in most other countries, you can still “earn” tax-free passive parasite income off other people’s poverty, and unlike Mana, Green and Labour, National don’t see a problem with this (not surprising, since many of them are property investors themselves).

Fifthly, the best National can offer is modifying an old Labour idea, which speaks volumes about their lack of vision. Labour thought up KiwiSaver in the first place, and now they, Green and Mana actually have new ideas to help people into home ownership – and, unlike for National, the most emphasis goes to the people that need it the most.

National’s policy-free politics and colossal hypocrisy

key-and-slaterThe two faces of National’s hitherto successful PR strategy

UPDATE (19 Aug, evening): Literally in the last few hours, National have unveiled some policy on their website. This renders the first two graphs and table out-of-date. But the second half is still relevant, and I reckon it’s worth leaving the first half online as a time capsule of what National’s campaign looked like until WhaleGate. Coincidence? What do you think?

Original blog (19 Aug, afternoon):

The latest of John Key’s increasingly desperate defences against Dirty Politics and Whaledump is to say:

“the left have given up on the policy argument. They don’t think they can beat the National Government on the issues … so what they’ve decided is they’ll play the man, not the ball … but we’re going to keep talking about the ball.”

This is similar to his quip when Laila Harré announced she was running against Key in his local seat:

“we won’t be having much of a debate about policy – the only policy the Internet Party has is to make sure Dotcom isn’t extradited.”

In fact, I’ve been following and compiling the various parties’ policies, and the Internet Party have far more policy on their website than National do – even though the IP have only had a few months to formulate theirs. In fact, National have less policy on their (single) policy page than any other party – significantly less than most of them. On word count, they only provide literally 2.4% as much as Labour or 1.1% as much as NZ First:

Word count on main policy pages

It is true that some parties (notably Labour, the Greens and the Internet Party) provide fuller versions of their policies or additional documents, linked from their main policy pages. This is the main difference between National’s and the IP’s policy websites.

If we’re generous, we can include a couple of documents from January about their 2014 priorities in this category… the speech is largely not policy, but they do link to these documents at the bottom of their policy page. This time National manage to claw their way up to 2nd-to-last, because ACT only expand upon two of their policies – but they’re still left in the dust by the left-of-NZ-First parties he accuses of giving up on policy:

Page counts of expanded statements & linked docs

It’s also worth noting that Labour and the IP both state that even more policy is forthcoming, and the Greens are frequently updating theirs. I wonder if National’s are on the way, too? [update: I guess so! National also now say there's more on the way]

Here’s the full data, if you’re interested:

Full data on policy counts

While I spent an embarrassingly long time on this [update: now-obsolete! grrr...] number-crunching, we actually didn’t need these numbers to know that National try to run policy-free campaigns and policy-free politics wherever possible. They don’t engage with public questions like this, this or this. They don’t engage (openly) with blogs; certainly not opposition ones, and certainly not on policy questions.They don’t really put policy on their billboards – some people had to do it for them last election. Their flagship policies are generally pretty unpopular. They [update: still] have [basically] no policy about some of the biggest issues facing NZ (climate change, child poverty, inequality and the housing crisis) – in fact, they often deny that they’re issues.

Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics has provided some alarming insight into what kind of politics they do instead of policy politics. I haven’t read it, but Danyl McLaughlin helpfully summarises the basic thesis thus:

John Key’s National government uses a ‘two tier’ communications strategy; positive communications, which are focused around John Key, who is presented as ‘relaxed’ and decent, and negative/attack communications, which are conducted covertly by senior staffers in Key’s office and fed to the media mostly – but not exclusively – through Cameron Slater’s WhaleOil blog.

Obviously, the emphasis of the book is on the negative ‘tier'; the positive ‘tier’ was already quite obvious… but in fact both strategies involve “playing the man, not the ball” … positively, they focus on “the man” of John Key, his smiling face [update: which emblazons 12/18 of these and 4/4 of these plus a bonus] and perhaps some content-free feel-good generalities coming out of it. Negatively – well, you can read the book or the excerpts or the leaks or the blogs yourself.

Playing the man in these two ways has been a winning strategy so far, and has kept National riding high since Key took over (they’re currently polling well over double their 2002 election result). Will Dirty Politics and Whaledump change that? I hope so, but I can’t say with confidence.

What I can say with confidence, though, is that Key’s latest accusation is the most brazen hypocrisy I’ve witnessed since I’ve been following NZ politics.

Post-script (21 August):

Here’s the updated first graph now that National finally have some policy (5965 words of it, to be precise):

Word counts UPDATED

They’ve also deleted the two documents they previously linked to, but they’ve added a whole lot of links on each of their policy pages (mostly past news stories about what they’ve done while in government, which is kind of cheating… but also some fuller policy statements). I can’t be bothered counting that up at this stage. My guess is it’s still much less than Labour and probably less than the Greens and Internet Party too (definitely if we only include policy announcements proper).

Exodus: God and Oppressors

exodus cast

So Ridley Scott is bringing out a movie version of the Exodus story – Exodus: Gods and Kings. It’s the latest biblical blockbuster to cast mostly white actors to play Middle-Eastern people. It looks like this will be a particularly bad example: all the major and powerful characters are white, while thieves, servants and assassins are black. This is yet another example of the “perpetual maintenance of the White savior standing over the ethnic servant/villain/imbecile.”

This is indefensible, and to paraphrase chanters at a recent political rally: Fuck Ridley Scott. (Or Public Enemy: Straight up racist that sucker is, simple and plain)

The sad irony is the Exodus is the prototypical story of liberation of an oppressed group (e.g. people of colour) from a dominant empire (e.g. white-dominated capitalism/film industry), as noted by Liberation Theologians, or in fact any orthodox theologians/historians.

I don’t think it’s blasphemous to paraphrase Exodus 2:23-25 thusly:
“The P.O.C. groaned in their racist oppression and cried out, and their cry for help because of their racist oppression went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the P.O.C. and was concerned about them.”
(The paraphrased story doesn’t end well for Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox, by the way)

Killing civilians

APTOPIX Ukraine Plane Emergency workers carry the body of one of the people killed when Flight MH17 was shot down
military-kill-civiliansA Gallup poll, of Americans by religious affiliation, about whether it’s ever justified for “the military” to target and kill civilians
individuals-kill-civiliansThe same poll, posing the same question about individuals or small groups
gazadeaths
Israeli and Palestinian soldiers and civilians killed in the Gaza conflict, as at July 31
shrinking palestine Palestinian and Jewish/Israeli-controlled land since 1946
afghan-child-killed A 4-yr-old Afghan boy killed in January by US Marines, who said the weather was “dusty” and they assumed he was an enemy.

John Key and the New Zealand Parliament are right to condemn the killing of 298 civilians on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, and the impeding of investigations into it by Ukrainian separatists, and to express condolences to the victims’ families. Assuming it was a “tragic blunder,” it reminds us of the risks unrelated people are exposed to whenever anybody goes to war – a similar blunder was made by the US military in 1988, killing 290 civilians.

It’s a pity our government is not so decisive and unanimous in condemning the slaughter of civilians by our allies (or “very very good friends”).

The most obvious example at the moment is the Gaza conflict, in which over 1000 people (and counting) have died, mostly Palestinian civilians killed by our new allies, Israel. This is nothing new: since 2000, Israel have killed one Palestinian child every three days on average. The latest slaughter includes potential war crimes from Israel, such as deliberately targeting schools, hospitals, power plants and homes.

Here, Key has condemned the violence from both sides, pledged $250,000 humanitarian assistance for Gaza, called for a ceasefire and called the death toll “a blot on the world.” This is a good start, but his refusal to focus criticism on who’s doing most of the blotting (unlike Labour’s David Shearer or the Greens’ Kennedy Graham) makes his response ultimately inadequate.

Language like “Israel and Palestine have to learn to live side-by-side with each other” makes it sound like Israel and Palestine are two naughty kids who can’t stop fighting in the back seat of the car, rather than acknowledging that this is a situation of oppression and resistance (if that’s not clear to you, this video is a good, clear intro). Trying to be “balanced” or “neutral” on Israel/Palestine is exactly like being “balanced” on Australian colonial genocide or “neutral” between blacks and whites in apartheid South Africa. Israel bear the vast majority of responsibility for all those killed on both sides, because they’re in the position of the oppressor, coloniser and aggressor. Without acknowledging Israel’s occupation and domination of Palestine, we cannot understand the Israel-Palestine conflict, and without addressing it, we cannot genuinely hope for peace.

(Please note that I also oppose Hamas and Palestinian rocket attacks, for both ethical and tactical reasons. But it’s also vital to remember that in normal situations, people don’t elect governments like Hamas, or fire rockets at their neighbours. As Shearer, who worked for the UN in Israel, said: “It is not normal for 1.6 million Palestinians to be blockaded into a narrow strip of land, a situation that aptly fits its description as the largest prison camp in the world” and “These conditions will inevitably sow the seeds for further conflict if they’re not resolved.”)

Even worse is Key’s attitude to the killing of civilians by the United States, such as the hundreds of thousands (at least) killed by Bush’s war in Iraq, and the hundreds of children killed by Obama’s drone strikes. Even though Helen Clark ostensibly kept New Zealand out of the Iraq war, and drone strikes are contrary to international and NZ law, New Zealand assists with both of the above by providing intelligence gathered by the GCSB.

On this, we see nothing like the righteous indignation our Prime Minister expressed at the shooting down of Flight MH17, nor even the half-criticism of the Gaza slaughter. Key complained that we were “missing in action” in Iraq, has never bothered investigating whether drone strikes are compatible with international law (hint: they’re not), and is “totally comfortable” with GCSB data being used for drone attacks, even though they sometimes mistakenly kill the innocent, because they target “very bad people.”

If Key was “comfortable” with the killing of 298 people on Flight MH17, we would be appalled – we are rightly extremely uncomfortable with this act. We should be every bit as uncomfortable with the killing of civilians in “conventional” warfare by our powerful allies. In fact, we should be even more uncomfortable with the latter: as the Israel-Gaza example shows, our allies’ military superiority and position of dominance means they are able and willing to inflict far more damage on civilians, even if our media and politicians treat those people as less important.

Parliament rises on a good note, thanks to some meddling kids

The above video provides a good introduction to the slavery conditions of workers on foreign charter vessels fishing in NZ waters, as well as the Christchurch Anglican church’s involvement in it. While the Government took a while to act on the problem, rising awareness and public pressure led to them introducing a bill in 2012 to ensure all boats fishing in NZ waters re-flag and become subject to NZ labour/wage laws and health and safety protection.

All parties across the political spectrum supported the bill. But two years later, it was still going through the Parliamentary process and hadn’t had its third reading. A few days before Parliament was set to rise for the election, the bill’s sponsor, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy, thought it was too late, and would have to wait months until after the election. This article’s original title (still visible in the browser title, and when shared on Facebook) was “Anti slave fishing bill fails.”

The Christchurch Anglican Social Justice Unit – whom former Minister of Labour Kate Wilkinson had called “a bunch of do-gooders getting in the way” – heard about this, and started a social media campaign asking people to phone Guy, John Key and Gerry Brownlee (the Leader of the House, who controls Parliament’s agenda), urging them to schedule the third reading for before Parliament rose today. I put in my call to Brownlee, my local MP.

And, well, they did it! The bill was put onto the agenda and passed under urgency (a rare good use of urgency powers) at 1pm today as Parliament’s last act before the election. It will take effect in 2016.

So, well done to the Government for eventually getting their act together (pun intended), well done to the “do-gooders getting in the way” at Anglican Social Justice, and well done to the many other groups who have lobbied and raised awareness on this, including the Indonesian Society, the Maritime Union, reporters (you’re not all bad, Fairfax), and even – eventually – the fisheries companies themselves. This is great news.

PS: Let’s hope the meddling kids get similar cross-party support for their current petition. I’m not holding my breath.