The Man With The Plan: The “Housing Crisis” strikes at the core expectations of hundreds-of-thousands of New Zealanders. By promising to meet those expectations, the Labour-led government has made itself a hostage to the supremely-confident individual who insists that he alone has the political skills to end the crisis – Phil Twyford.
PHIL TWYFORD is an eye-roller. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We all know eye-rollers: those guys (and gals) who consider themselves to be so incontestably “across” a subject that anyone offering a contrary viewpoint is dismissed with an exasperated roll of the eyes. All well and good, providing the subject under discussion is rugby, or the best way to cook a Christmas turkey. But, if the subject under scrutiny is housing: the issue upon which this government is positioned to either succeed or fail; well then, that’s not so good. Not so good at all.
It doesn’t help that the Minister of Housing and Transport, in addition to being an eye-roller, is also a chin-jutter. As anyone who’s ever watched him on television can attest, he is prone to sailing into political discussions like one of those Ancient Greek war-galleys: with his chin standing-in for the battering-ram! Unhelpfully, by positioning his head in this way, Phil is more-or-less required to look down his nose – which only makes things worse!
Eye-rolling superiority, coupled with chin-jutting belligerence, can sometimes work for a politician. Especially when they’re simply part of a much larger ensemble of intimidating behavioural gestures. Just think of Sir Robert Muldoon – or Donald Trump! On the other hand, if you’re determined to be Mean Mr Mustard, then there’s absolutely no point in you also attempting to be Sweet Baby James! Or Phil, for that matter.
All very personal. But, a politician’s personality is not something to be casually disregarded. As Jacinda Ardern has so spectacularly demonstrated, the ability to project a likeable personality can take a politician – and her party – a very long way indeed! By the same token, an irritating political persona can all-too-easily distract voters from their government’s core messages, or, even worse, impede the progress of its core policies.
There is no policy more critical to this Government’s political survival than housing. The availability and affordability of warm, dry houses for all New Zealanders was a key voter motivator in the 2017 election. For many working-class Kiwis, simply finding somewhere to live – at a rent they can afford – has become a relentless struggle. At the same time, young middle-class Kiwis are beginning to despair of ever being able to afford to buy a home of their own. The “Housing Crisis” thus strikes at the core expectations of hundreds-of-thousands of New Zealanders. By promising to meet those expectations, the Labour-led government has made itself a hostage to the supremely-confident individual who insists that he alone has the political skills to end the crisis – Phil Twyford.
No pressure, then, Phil.
Except, every day, the pressures bearing on just about every aspect of the housing crisis grow. Most seriously, doubts have been expressed within both the Reserve Bank and Treasury about the viability of Labour’s flagship housing programme, “KiwiBuild”.
Promising to build 100,000 “affordable houses” in ten years, KiwiBuild has stood at the centre of Labour’s housing policy since 2012: a flashy hand-me-down from the doomed leadership of David Shearer. Essentially, KiwiBuild was a feel-good policy, cobbled-together by the Labour Right to defuse an internal party crisis. It was a rickety concept five years ago and, unfortunately, it’s gotten no stronger.
The problem with KiwiBuild, along with Labour’s other big promise to build an additional 1,000 state houses per annum, is that there simply isn’t an agency of sufficient size and authority; with sufficient financial resources, labour and building materials; to turn Labour’s promises into actual houses in anything like the numbers promised. Regardless, Twyford refuses to countenance the socialistic methods adopted by the First Labour Government, preferring, instead, to rely upon “the market” for a construction effort unprecedented in 80 years.
Accordingly, KiwiBuild looks set to become one of the largest Public-Private-Partnerships in New Zealand history. At least as large as the partnership between the First Labour Government and James Fletcher’s state house construction firm. Unfortunately, this is not 1937: there is simply no slack in the building industry: everything, including its labour force, is fully stretched. Nevertheless, Twyford remains “confident” that the private sector will come to the KiwiBuild party. In the absence of substantial state subsidisation, however, that seems unlikely.
The only path to fulfilling Labour’s housing promises is via the creation of a massive state-directed, properly resourced and publicly-funded entity, driven forward with the same monomaniacal zeal displayed by New Zealand’s first housing “czar”, John A Lee. Jacinda Ardern erred in over-loading Twyford with two key portfolios: Transport and Housing. She should have given the whole Transport portfolio to the Greens’ Julie Anne Genter.
Twyford does not believe he is overburdened. Nor does he accept that his reliance on the private sector will ensure Kiwibuild becomes a fatal political failure. Suggest otherwise and he will simply jut out his chin, and roll his eyes.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 November 2017.