A year of learn­ing things the hard way

The Southland Times - - Opinion - Tracy Watkins tracy.watkins@stuff.co.nz Tim Cado­gan Mayor of Cen­tral Otago

Time flies. Around this time last year, give or take a few days, Win­ston Peters took what we thought we knew, threw ev­ery­thing in the air, and anointed Jacinda Ardern New Zealand’s next prime min­is­ter.

It was to be an­other week be­fore the new Gov­ern­ment was sworn in but Labour could have prob­a­bly done with four times that long and it would have still been a fran­tic scram­ble.

When Na­tional was swept out of of­fice so too was the ma­chin­ery of a decade in power. Labour came into of­fice with vir­tu­ally noth­ing to re­place that with. Maybe that’s why this Gov­ern­ment has made so much about its first year look hard.

In Op­po­si­tion, there had been no se­ri­ous ef­fort to put a skele­ton gov­ern­ment in place in readi­ness to oc­cupy the Bee­hive while An­drew Lit­tle was in charge.

By the time Ardern re­placed Lit­tle just weeks out from the elec­tion, it was too late, and the cam­paign too all con­sum­ing any­way, to start even try­ing.

Labour’s first weeks in of­fice were a mad dash to move of­fices, find good staff (a des­per­ate call went out to for­mer staffers un­der He­len Clark), and put sys­tems in place for the ill-fit­ting, three­headed Gov­ern­ment Ardern leads.

Be­lief in vic­tory un­der Lit­tle had been so low that some staff had al­ready booked lengthy hol­i­days for the post-elec­tion pe­riod.

It has been a steep learn­ing curve. But there have been signs this week that Labour is fi­nally start­ing to get on top of things – rather than the other way round.

It is still green shoots and it may be as much to do with Win­ston Peters tak­ing a back seat since Ardern re­turned from New York. His in­flu­ence had con­trib­uted to the sense of first-year speed wob­bles. But Ardern’s at­tack on the petrol com­pa­nies for ‘‘fleec­ing’’ mo­torists over soar­ing petrol prices is a sign of Labour be­ing more nim­ble in spot­ting – and re­act­ing – to a loom­ing cri­sis.

Fleec­ing is not a word that sits nat­u­rally with Ardern. But that gave her mes­sage more cut­through, not less.

It’s de­bat­able whether giv­ing the Com­merce Com­mis­sion more teeth, as an­nounced by Ardern, will have much of an ef­fect. But her in­ter­ven­tion was about de­flect­ing the grow­ing back­lash to the Gov­ern­ment’s new petrol taxes as the cause of all the pain at the pump, as pushed by Na­tional.

In re­al­ity, the fall­ing New Zealand dollar has had a far big­ger ef­fect. But Na­tional has been run­ning a clever at­tack cam­paign on the petrol taxes.

Labour was blind­sided by the back­lash ear­lier this year when it an­nounced a rise in petrol taxes as part of a pack­age to beef up in­fras­truc­ture spend­ing on roads, rail and pub­lic trans­port.

Ardern and Fi­nance Min­is­ter Grant Robert­son in­vested a lot of time ex­plain­ing that there was noth­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary about this, but ex­plain­ing is al­most al­ways los­ing, even when there was wide­spread acknowledgement that the in­vest­ment was long over­due.

The Gov­ern­ment’s per­cep­tion prob­lem was only go­ing to get big­ger when the Crown accounts were pub­lished the next day, re­veal­ing a $5.5 bil­lion sur­plus. With a sur­plus that big, mo­torists aren’t in­ter­ested in hear­ing all the fis­cal ins and outs of why the two – petrol taxes and sur­pluses – are un­re­lated. Es­pe­cially when cou­pled with the fact that the Gov­ern­ment col­lected a stag­ger­ing $1.9 bil­lion in fuel ex­cise last year.

But while it was po­lit­i­cally ex­pe­di­ent for Ardern to talk tough on petrol prices, it also high­lights the size of the headache ahead.

There is ac­tu­ally noth­ing de­sir­able about lower petrol prices in terms of this Gov­ern­ment’s cli­mate change poli­cies.

The op­po­site is in fact true – that if we want to de­crease our re­liance on fos­sil fu­els, petrol prices will need to go up – and taxes will be a part of the mix to achieve that.

But Ardern on Mon­day opted for the po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency of kick­ing that can down the road.

Ihave had a mi­nor mid-life cri­sis re­cently fol­low­ing a friend telling me I was start­ing to look like a cer­tain Mayor from just down the road and as a con­se­quence I have pur­chased a sec­ond-hand bike and started pedalling into work from Clyde when my sched­ule al­lows.

Bik­ing lets the rider see a lot of things you don’t nor­mally see and al­lows time to muse upon what has been seen.

One day I no­ticed some­thing un­der a tree on the Rail Trail in Alexan­dra. Ac­tu­ally, it was a num­ber of some­things, seven or eight tidily wrapped doggy poo bags all in a neat pile, all the same colour, ap­pear­ing to all have been placed by the same per­son.

As I car­ried on, I tried to un­der­stand the per­son who had done this (pre­sum­ing it was just one per­son). I guessed they had got their dog and bags and headed for a stroll. The dog had done what dogs do and the owner com­mend­ably stopped, picked up the un­pleas­ant­ness, tied the bag up and car­ried on. 100 per cent good cit­i­zen so far.

Then, and this bit baf­fles me, go­ing to those ef­forts, they threw that and sub­se­quent bags un­der a tree and wan­dered on. I can’t even start to un­der­stand this be­hav­iour.

I got to think­ing that this si­t­u­a­tion might pro­vide a worth­while thought ex­er­cise for any­one con­sid­er­ing putting their hand up in the lo­cal body elec­tions in just over a year’s time.

So, if that could be you, here’s a starter for ten. What do you think the coun­cil’s re­ac­tion to this si­t­u­a­tion should be?

Firstly, a ser­vice call to the coun­cil will get a con­trac­tor to clean up the mess, or you could do what I did and go back to clean it up your­self (to find some­one had al­ready done so).

But that is not an ideal longterm so­lu­tion.

So should coun­cil in­stall bins with bags near this spot, so that peo­ple walk­ing dogs on the trail have some­where to de­posit their dog’s busi­ness?

That would seem prac­ti­cal, but if we put one there, do we put one at the other end, and in

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