Paid parental leave: Govt leaves itself open to criticism

9:55 pm on 17 June 2016

Power Play - The government has wielded a rarely used veto to stop an opposition Bill extending paid parental leave in its tracks.

Labour’s spokesperson for Women, Sue Moroney (holding number 7), and a group of mothers supporting thenew paid parental leave bill.

Supporters of the 26-week parental leave campaign, with MP Sue Moroney (number 7). Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

The tale of Labour MP Sue Moroney's attempts to pass legislation extending paid parental leave is a long and circuitous one.

Her first Bill was defeated by a whisker at the start of last year, with accusations of political deception and horse trading.

ACT leader David Seymour was persuaded by the National Party to vote against Ms Moroney's first Bill, which sank it with a tied vote of 60 to 60 after he received government assurances about coverage for the likes of premature babies, multiple births and children with special needs, only some of which actually came to bear.

But luck was on her side when a second Bill was drawn from the member's ballot; some MPs go years or even their whole political careers without getting a Bill on the order paper.

Sue Moroney during caucus run 1.03.16

Sue Moroney Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Another stroke of fortune for Ms Moroney was when the balance of votes in Parliament changed after the Northland by-election. National lost one vote and New Zealand First, a supporter of her Bill, picked one up - enough to give her the numbers.

All that came to an end though, with the stroke of the Finance Minister Bill English's pen.

He has made no bones about his intention to use the veto on the Labour Party Bill, but Ms Moroney would have been quietly hoping both the political and public support would have dissuaded him from doing so.

The veto is not only rarely used but has not been used before to strike down a whole Bill, only opposition amendments. The last time it was used was in 2012 to veto a Green Party amendment seeking to introduce a training incentive allowance.

Arguably, pressure created by the publicity around Ms Moroney's first Bill led to the government extending paid parental leave to 18 weeks, and to seasonal and casual workers.

But advocates will not be satisfied with anything less than 26 weeks, saying the benefits are substantial.

Sue Moroney also argues there are economic benefits, as children who have been given time with their parents are less likely to cause social harm, and therefore cost the government, in later years.

The arguments for paid parental leave have very broad support across Parliament. Everyone agrees it is a good idea in principle, there are just differing views about affordability.

This raises the question of whether it is appropriate to use the veto to strike down a Bill that otherwise would have become law with the majority support of Parliament.

Mr English argues it is also the will of the Parliament that a government of any stripe has the power of the veto because ultimately it is accountable for the way it spends taxpayers' money.

But the government does leave itself vulnerable if it just uses the affordability argument, as Mr English has in this case; he says it is not just $278 million over four years, but an additional cost on top of the extensions to the scheme the government has already introduced.

There are some items of core spending the government has no choice but to fund. It recently announced $20 billion for defence over the next 15 years and while one could argue the toss over the size of that spending, and what it is going to be spent on, if New Zealand is to have a defence force it has to be resourced properly.

Where the government has left itself open to criticism is spending on the likes of the flag referendum, but even that was a one-off and not a cost that has to be built into annual, ongoing budgets.

Tax cuts however are another story. In order for them to make a noticeable difference to taxpayers' bank accounts they will cost a lot and create a big hole in the government's accounts, and on an ongoing basis.

Paid parental leave is much more targeted, which means potentially benefiting fewer voters.

The government, however, will not have failed to notice the popularity of the policy, which is why Mr English has left the door open to further changes saying he is sure "it will remain part of the political discussion".

Election year of course is just around the corner, and the government will be eyeing any policy with broad appeal that will help it to secure a fourth term in office.