Andrew Little in testing times

5:52 am on 30 January 2015

Just a couple of months into his new job as Labour Party leader Andrew Little is finding out how difficult it can be.

Labour Leader Andrew Little at his state of the nation speech.

Labour Party leader Andrew Little. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

This week Mr Little gave his state-of-the-nation speech in Auckland and it was almost immediately criticised by commentators and journalists for a lack of detail.

The new Labour leader did not help himself by not knowing the lowest rate of unemployment in the developed world after stating his party's goal was to get New Zealand's unemployment rate lower than any other member of the rich countries' club - the OECD.

But his speech was not, and was never intended to be about policy.

Instead it signalled the direction for the Labour Party under his leadership.

While Mr Little was criticised for his lack of detail, the state of the nation speech by Prime Minister John Key was generally praised.

Yet, Mr Key did not know all the details of the housing policy he announced in his speech.

Under the plan the Government will sell State houses as it moves to pass on more responsibility for what it calls social housing to community housing groups.

It expects to sell 1000-2000 State houses this year and possibly more in subsequent years.

But Mr Key cannot say how much the houses will be sold for, although community groups will not be charged market prices.

Nor can he be precise about how many will be sold, although he says by 2017 Housing New Zealand will continue to own or lease at least 60,000 houses.

There is nothing unusual about that. Details of Government policy are often further developed as the policy is put into place.

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But nor is there anything unusual about Mr Little releasing no policy detail in his first major speech of 2015, with almost three years before the next election.

In his speech he said Labour stands for jobs and was committed to ensuring those jobs were skilled and well paid.

In that way he argues inequality can be reduced and more people can benefit from a growing economy. But he also made the point jobs can only be created by a strong economy.

Mr Little says the health of small businesses is crucial to achieving Labour's aim. So he has promised a future Labour government would do all it can to make life easier for small businesses.

Labour would, however, not back away from its plans to change employment law, including scrapping the 90-day trial period for new employees.

While Mr Little focused on jobs and economic growth Mr Key chose to focus on the Government's plan to push more responsibility on to community housing providers.

The Prime Minister argues National's policy will result in more, not fewer, people getting help with their housing.

As well as selling State houses the Government intends making the income-related rent subsidy available to more people.

But critics question whether the policy will work or push rents higher.

Nor is it clear how community providers will be able to afford to buy thousands of State houses, even if they are sold below market rates.

Presumably they will be bought with borrowed money which will put pressure on the community providers to ensure they get enough of a return to pay the interest on their debt.

Uncertainty about the policy is perhaps the reason why the Government is proceeding with caution.

Politics is also a reason.

John Key in Wellington in November 2014.

John Key Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Mr Key was not unhappy about speculation before his speech that the Government could sell as many as 20,000 State houses.

This week's announcement was less ambitious as he tests public reaction to the plan.

If he believes the majority of voters are unworried about the proposal he has signalled National might go into the 2017 election with a more ambitious plan.

Details of that though will not be released until then.

Andrew Little, too, is unlikely to release details of Labour's plan to boost economic growth, help small businesses and create jobs until election year.

Who will be scrutinised more?