Simon Wilson: The ‘thrilling’ news about Judith Collins in State of the Nation speech

OPINION:

Judith Collins stood up before the great and the good of Auckland Rotary this week, plus a fair few of her own MPs, to deliver an inspirational “State of the Nation” speech.

Well, that’s probably what they hoped for. But she spoke quietly, flatly. She tossed out the odd joke in a way that suggested she knew no one would laugh. No one laughed.

She had no big announcements, no devastating observations or revelations. Nobody applauded anything she said, until the end, when there was a bit of polite clapping.

Even when she declared “I strongly believe that if you are willing to put in the hard yards then you should enjoy the benefits”, there was silence.

That, by the way, is one of the usual tropes of National Party philosophy, but it’s also an excellent reason to pay supermarket workers more. That wasn’t what she meant.

Of Kelvin Davis, Minister of Corrections, she said: “He thinks prisoners taking over a prison and setting it on fire is okay.”

That’s actually a blatant untruth – Davis repeatedly condemned the Waikeria Prison rioters over new year – but it didn’t get anyone going, either.

Dull and a bit dubious. What was she thinking?

Judith Collins cares, deeply. But if she didn’t care at all, this was the performance she would have given. Her good friend the MP for Botany, Chris Luxon, was in the audience, picking up a few tips as a newbie, presumably.

Collins did make two attempts to grab the headlines. First, she said she’s going to write another book. A thriller.

Because she has so much time on her hands? Because getting characters and plot worked out – thrillers are hard to write – is the intellectual challenge she now craves? Formerly prominent backbenchers write thrillers. Not party leaders who are not yet formerly anything.

Or maybe it was nothing more than a play for a clickbait headline. It worked! You’re welcome, Judith.

Second, she had some thoughts about housing. She wants the Government to “introduce urgent temporary legislation to make it easier to build a house”, and has written to the PM to propose working together to get it done.

The PM responded by saying they were already doing it.

Okay, points scoring. But why don’t they work together on housing? It’s only the single most important thing they could all do this parliamentary term, excepting Covid and the climate and possibly even including them.

The housing market is a wrecking ball in our economy, destroying the dreams of first-home buyers, renters and everyone living in conditions that should shame us all in a developed country.

But genuine moves to fix this are stalled. Why? Because to undermine the housing market – to bring house prices down – would be seen as destroying the dreams of people who already own their home. And more of them vote, than do the first group.

So, yes, a cross-party accord: brilliant. Whoever seriously addresses the housing catastrophe in this country should not be electorally punished for their efforts.

But was Collins really proposing to bring to the table the unpopular measures that will be needed to do this? She said several things.

First, she wants pesky regulations set aside.

It’s true that regulations, in the Resource Management Act and elsewhere, make it harder and more expensive than it should be to build houses. But the Government already has RMA reforms under way.

And Jacinda Ardern was right: an emergency procedure is in place to shortcut the process, on merit, while those reforms work their way through the system. It’s being used for a development on Dominion Rd right now, for example.

As for the RMA, the reforms were proposed by a high-level working group, led by retired judge Tony Randerson. They’re far-sighted and have been widely praised and largely accepted by the Government. They won’t go through Parliament under urgency, because the full consultative process of select committee hearings is essential for big changes like this.

But the minister in charge, David Parker, has many times committed the Government to getting them through this term.

“Three years isn’t fast enough,” said Collins this week. Actually, for something this complex it’s pretty fast.

“The Government has to get out of the way,”Collins said.

Really? Regulations aren’t bad in themselves. The good ones save lives, ensure long-term quality and therefore economic efficiency and better health, and help meet social goals by declaring what can be built where.

Right now, thanks to inaction by both previous governments, we need a better Building Code, not a worse one.

Steve Evans, the chief executive of Fletchers’ Residential and Development arm, and thus the biggest builder in the country, has some interesting things to say about this. He told a conference in Auckland last year that the carbon impact of building houses is “17 to 20 times what it needs to be”.

He called that a “frightening statistic” and his solution was this: “Nothing will happen without the regulations to require it to occur.”

So, yes, it should be much easier to build houses. But not by removing the regulations that control urban sprawl, stop developers from putting the wrong buildings in the wrong places and allow construction to remain uncoupled from the climate crisis.

Collins took the opposite view: she called for reforms that would make spreading the city further into the countryside easier.

But she may also favour more density. She told the assembled media after her speech: “If we want to get houses built we have to stop Nimbyism.”

Whoa. That’s a remarkable thing for her to say. But did she mean it should be easier to build four-to-six-storey apartment blocks in the suburbs? She wouldn’t answer that.

We also need to get the community housing sector much more involved. They’re desperate to do more, they have the skills and need only the funding support. Collins explicitly said she favours this.

And we need a mass state-housing programme where factories print out homes and deliver them flatpacked to the site. Collins will likely favour this too: she champions new technologies whenever she gets the chance.

Would a cross-party accord make progress? Because the Nimby battle can never be won, it would if National and Labour together did everything possible to speed up the construction of low-cost, good-value homes, at scale, inside existing urban areas and near transport corridors.

It would if they gave us not just houses but well-planned communities, with the services and facilities they need to prosper. And if they required the banks to enable and champion the whole programme.

And, most of all, an accord would work if they jointly announced reforms to asset taxes, so supercharged property values no longer blight the aspirations of everyone who wants to buy a home. Capital gains, a wealth tax, a land tax, a transaction tax: there are many ways to do it.

If everyone’s in favour, are voters really not going to understand?

For the record, Collins definitely did not say that’s what she has in mind. Ardern is already on record saying no. But come on. It’s the right thing to do.

Collins’ speech was hosted at the Ellerslie Events Centre, looking over the vast expanse of the race track. One of her senior MPs suggested to me, tongue in cheek, I think, that they should fill the place up with apartments.

Making the reforms we really do need would surely be easier than that.

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