Hasty U-turn over Su­perGold Card

The Press - - BUSINESSDAY - Colin Espiner

When politi­cians have said what they’ve said but it’s not what they meant, it’s cus­tom­ary for them to is­sue a ‘‘clar­i­fi­ca­tion’’.

A clar­i­fi­ca­tion is usu­ally the di­rect op­po­site of what they have pre­vi­ously said, and most of­ten fol­lows a pub­lic back­lash or a dress­ing-down from the Prime Min­is­ter.

It’s known in po­lit­i­cal cir­cles as a read­just­ment of po­si­tion. You or I might call it a scream­ing U-turn.

There have been plenty of them in re­cent times.

Prime Min­is­ter John Key has man­aged a cou­ple at least, over is­sues as di­verse as cli­mate change and the ad­di­tion of folic acid to bread.

Labour per­formed so many it left rub­ber marks on the road.

The lat­est politi­cian to do the 180-de­gree hand­brake turn is the nor­mally po­lit­i­cally as­tute Trans­port Min­is­ter Steven Joyce, who must have had his radar switched off when he an­nounced a re­view of the Su­perGold Card scheme for the over-65s.

You’ll re­mem­ber the gold card was dreamt up by the for­mer Labour gov­ern­ment, in con­junc­tion with New Zealand First leader Win­ston Peters, in a des­per­ate bid to stave off elec­tion de­feat in 2008. Or to re­ward the coun­try’s se­nior cit­i­zens for their hard work and loy­alty to New Zealand, if you pre­fer.

Let’s be hon­est, the card is a bit of a po­lit­i­cal sop.

Orig­i­nally meant to pro­vide su­per­an­nu­i­tants with gen­uine sav­ings on their power bills and gro­ceries, it ini­tially flopped be­cause Peters couldn’t per­suade enough re­tail­ers to of­fer mean­ing­ful dis­counts.

The for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tion then took mat­ters into its own hands in April 2008, adding free off-peak trans­port on ur­ban bus, rail, and some ferry ser­vices. At that point, the scheme took off, as the over-65s leapt at the op­por­tu­nity of rid­ing the rails or the bus for noth­ing dur­ing the day and all day on week­ends and pub­lic hol­i­days.

You can hardly blame them. Of­fer any­one free pub­lic trans­port – par­tic­u­larly pre­mium ser­vices such as the most en­joy­able Welling­ton to Wairarapa train ser­vice (when it’s ac­tu­ally run­ning) or the Wai­heke Is­land ferry for a nice day trip and they’re go­ing to grab it.

Sud­denly the scheme was cost­ing up­wards of $20 mil­lion a year.

Na­tional had bud­geted $70m for the next four years when it came to of­fice, but it’s not go­ing to be enough.

Na­tional doesn’t agree with the Su­perGold Card, al­though it won’t come out and say so. It has some sound rea­sons for this. It’s rel­a­tively ex­pen­sive, it’s in­equitable, and it isn’t meanstested. Plenty of el­ders who can eas­ily af­ford the price of a bus fare can still ride for free.

Un­less they live out­side the main cities, of course. And that’s the other prob­lem with the card. Its main of­fer­ing is only use­ful if you live in a town or city big enough to have its own pub­lic trans­port sys­tem joined to the scheme. If you live in a ru­ral area, or any­where on the South Is­land’s West Coast, it’s only use­ful for chip­ping ice off the wind­screen.

On the other hand, the Su­perGold card has helped thou­sands of oth­er­wise house­bound over 65s get out and about. ‘‘re­view’’ of the card last week rather strange.

For the sake of sav­ing a cou­ple of mil­lion dol­lars, the Gov­ern­ment alarmed 540,000 Su­perGold-card hold­ers, all of whom take their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties at the bal­lot box ex­tremely se­ri­ously, if you get my drift.

Given many el­derly are al­ready ex­tremely wor­ried about Na­tional’s plans to raise GST from 12.5 to 15 per cent, adding to their travel ex­penses by cut­ting the ser­vices of­fered by the gold card may well have sent plenty flock­ing back to Labour.

Less than 24 hours af­ter Joyce’s ini­tial pro­posal to re­view the def­i­ni­tion of ‘‘off-peak’’ (code for cut­ting back the hours avail­able) and some of the ‘‘high-cost’’ ser­vices (code for get­ting rid of the ferry, the Wairarapa train, and the plush air­port ex­press bus ser­vices) the Gov­ern­ment was pledg­ing no changes to the ser­vices on of­fer.

In­stead, the Gov­ern­ment plans to make the re­quired sav­ings by cut­ting the pay­ments to the trans­port op­er­a­tors, which might mean they put their fares up for every­one else to cover the short­fall, or that they will sim­ply make less money.

At least Joyce had the good hu­mour to blame ‘‘scare­mon­ger­ing by po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents’’ for the clar­i­fi­ca­tion, rather than ei­ther him­self, or his of­fi­cials. But it was a rare er­ror from the Gov­ern­ment’s Mr Fixit.

What was dou­bly strange about Na­tional’s short­lived at­tack on the el­derly was that at the same time as Joyce was hint­ing at cut­backs to the Su­perGold Card, his col­league, Im­mi­gra­tion Min­is­ter Jonathan Cole­man, was rolling out the wel­come mat to the world’s re­tirees.

In a move that has even diehard Nats scratch­ing their heads, Cole­man has of­fered New Zealand res­i­dency to any­one over the age of 65 who can scrape to­gether $750,000 to in­vest and has at least $500,000 in as­sets. In many coun­tries such coin is roughly the av­er­age house price, so the in­vi­ta­tion is likely to be ex­tremely pop­u­lar.

Quite what New Zealand gets from set­ting it­self up as the rest home of the South Pa­cific is, as yet, un­clear.

Cole­man says any­one tak­ing up the of­fer will have to in­dem­nify the Gov­ern­ment from health and wel­fare ex­penses, but whether or not this is legally en­force­able is a moot point.

Labour’s Pete Hodg­son help­fully dredged up a re­port writ­ten by of­fi­cials 10 years ago – the last time Na­tional threat­ened to in­tro­duce such a pol­icy – which said in­dem­ni­fi­ca­tion would be ex­tremely hard to en­force, par­tic­u­larly if a per­son on such a per­mit turned up badly sick or in­jured at a hospi­tal.

Un­like Amer­i­can hos­pi­tals, Kiwi ver­sions don’t check your health in­sur­ance be­fore treat­ing you, and don’t turn you away if you can’t or won’t pay. It’s true the Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vice could re­voke the res­i­dency per­mit, but that wouldn’t help claw back any losses in­curred by the health ser­vice.

If Cole­man’s scheme proves as pop­u­lar as seems prob­a­ble, it would likely place an ad­di­tional bur­den on the health sys­tem re­gard­less of whether or not the new im­mi­grants had in­sur­ance. There’s an ad­di­tional con­cern that treat­ing them dif­fer­ently from other im­mi­grants would in­sti­tute two classes of New Zealand ci­ti­zen – one that is en­ti­tled to help from the state, and one that is not.

At least the new im­mi­grants can still be cer­tain of one thing. Thanks to Joyce’s U-turn, they’ll be able to ap­ply for a Su­perGold card, avail­able to any New Zealand ci­ti­zen, and en­joy the use of in­fra­struc­ture their taxes never paid for.

Photo: MICHAEL FIELD

Po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal: New Zealand First leader Win­ston Peters presents his 95-year-old mother, Joan Peters, with a Su­perGold card in Au­gust, 2007.

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