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