Claire Trevett: Will Labour’s feebate scheme come with a backlash for PM Jacinda Ardern?

OPINION:

Transport Minister Michael Wood is rapidly becoming the minister of grabbing the bull by the horns.

The “feebates” scheme announced by Wood on Sunday was first touted in 2019, and it was controversial then for the same reason it is controversial now.

It will deliver a hefty discount to people who can afford electric cars, but sting people who buy petrol cars because electric vehicles are not yet either an affordable or practical option.

As David Seymour pithily put it, it was “taxing tradies to subsidise Teslas”.

As yet, farmers and other rural drivers, as well as workers and families who need large vehicles have limited or no options for electric vehicles.

Even city dwellers in places such as hilly Wellington, where many houses do not have car parking, could struggle with the practicality of it.

The feebates scheme was proposed by then associate transport minister, Green Party MP Julie Ann Genter, last term. It was eventually put on ice, for which NZ First has been given the credit.

But that also happened after National ran a successful campaign pitching the feebate as a “car tax”.

It was partly on the back of that campaign that National was polling higher than Labour until Covid demolished its support in March 2020.

National is a much weaker force, and Labour much stronger now but Labour may well be a tad nervous about the reaction this time round.

Within minutes of its announcement, Labour stood accused of putting up middle-class welfare for EV buyers, and letting down poorer and middle New Zealand by imposing a tax on petrol cars.

National and Act have both already tried to reignite that same debate as in 2019.

National’s transport spokesman Michael Woodhouse has described it as a new tax, and said it ran foul of Labour’s promise not to introduce new taxes without campaigning on them first.

Whether the car fee amounts to a “tax” is a matter of interpretation – but whatever the name given to it, few people relish it when the Government decides to take more money from them.

What National is right about is that Labour did not campaign on the feebate scheme.

Back in 2019, Labour let Genter slug it out with NZ First and National, steering well clear of the whole debate.

It too had its concerns about the political palatability of charging a fee for petrol cars to offset EV subsidies. It focused its attentions instead on the “clean car standards” side of things: setting emissions standards for cars being imported into New Zealand.

Many expected Sunday’s announcement to contain incentives – but not the fees side of the scheme.

The Government had been careful to leave out the most expensive of the electric vehicles, and to allow for some discount for low emission cars as well such as hybrids. The least gas-guzzler of the gas-guzzler cars will also not face any levy on them.

But it had the fees and even the same name as the original feebate proposal: the Clean Car Discount.

Wood has shown he has an appetite for forging on with politically contentious moves – moves that might be core Labour, but aren’t necessarily going to please everybody.

There were the fair pay agreements, and last week Wood announced the rejig in the Government’s transport infrastructure plan after cost blowouts almost doubled the price tag of the original $6.8 billion plan.

He announced a new cycle bridge for Auckland’s harbour – and the scrapping of the long-awaited and on again, off again projects of Mill Rd highway and upgrades to State Highway 2 north of Tauranga.

Those decisions were forced more by cost than climate, but Wood used the convenient release of the Climate Commission report as a further justification for his priority choices.
Voters will be keenly watching to see how the Government responds to the rest of the recommendations in the Climate Commission Report, which include banning imports of petrol cars altogether in the next 10 years or so.

Those voters should perhaps adopt the brace position, for the first actions in transport have shown the Government is willing to take the risk of moves that penalise the people who voted for it.

Michael Wood does not act alone in making these decisions, although he is the frontman for them. It takes all of Cabinet and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

She has political capital to burn, and could hardly say climate change was a “life and death” matter, and then water down the recipe for getting emissions down for political convenience.

Ardern and her ministers had sold the climate-change message well – persuading people of the need to act, and signalling early what it might mean to people’s lives.

However, it now faces something of a perilous period as the rhetoric and science of climate change turns to the reality: and starts to hit middle New Zealand in the pocket.

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