At the first caucus meeting of 2021, the Prime Minister makes an announcement.
“This year we must be the best we can be,” she says. “There’s nothing to stop us. The handbrake is off. This year, we will find out just how good we are.”
“But what about all those fair-weather National Party types who voted for us?” asks Sarah Pallett, who still can’t quite believe she’s the new MP for Ilam. “Aren’t they the handbrake? Lose them and we lose the next election. You’ve said it often enough yourself.”
“I’ve changed my mind,” says the PM. “They’ll vote for us if we deliver. They won’t vote for us if we don’t.”
She looks around at her colleagues. “A new and better economy, poverty, climate change, all right? We promised. Now we make good. I want you all back here in three days’ time. Bring your best ideas.”
She flashes them her sunniest smile. “Let’s do this!”
WHEN THEY reassembled at the appointed hour, Deputy PM Grant Robertson led the way. “Let’s scrap all those shovel-ready projects,” he said.
The MPs gasped and turned to each other, their eyes widening as they realised: this was going to be thrilling.
“One,” said Robertson, “they’re not shovel ready at all. None of them has even started. Two, we don’t need most of them. Three, they’re absurdly expensive. Four, we have to stop thinking that infrastructure means building more roads.”
“Bit negative,” said the new regional development minister, Stuart Nash. He could see his dream of more motorways in and out of Napier vanishing in front of him.
“Nope,” said Robertson. “Instead, I think we should paint every clubroom in the country. Here’s the beauty of it. Creates jobs, builds communities, helps the clubs, keeps the money local, creates more jobs.”
“A circular economy,” said Priyanca Radhakrishnan, the new Associate Minister for Social Development and Employment. “We pay the painter who pays the butcher who pays the mechanic, and she pays the childcare worker who pays the cleaner who pays the doctor, and the money never leaves the village.”
“Thank you, Priyanca,” said Robertson.
“What about the clubrooms that have already been painted?” said Glenn Bennett, the new MP for New Plymouth, who wanted his colleagues to know he was there.
“It doesn’t have to be literally a paint job,” said Robertson. “Maintenance, expansion. It’s a way to do all those things I just said, right now, at scale. The whole country will cost us less than the price of 10km of motorway.”
The PM had questions. “Why aren’t we already doing this? Wasn’t it suggested last year?”
There was a pause.
“Roads lobby didn’t like it and officials took their side,” said the former Minister for Transport, Phil Twyford, and sighed heavily.
“Is that true?” said the PM.
Robertson hung his head.
“Well,” said the PM brightly. “Those days are over now. Next?”
“Same thing, for conservation work,” said the new Minister of Conservation, Kiri Allan. “Scrub, rubbish, wilding pines, bushwalks.”
The PM cut her off. “We’re definitely already doing that,” she said.
“Yes, but let’s triple the budget!”
“Triple?” said Megan Woods, Minister of Housing. “I want a tenfold increase. Turn all the brownfields land we can into housing, fast-track it, beef up prefab construction and the community housing sector and supercharge urban planning so we build proper, connected communities.”
“Aren’t we doing that too?” asked the PM.
“Going slow, way too slow,” said Woods.
“Some of the developers won’t like it and officials will take their side,” said Twyford. He sighed heavily again.
Woods ignored him. “And I want a family-support package that makes it easy for people to buy a first home, with payments tied to income, just like they did in the 60s when they built a great new world for boomers.”
“Don’t pick on boomers,” said Ōhariu MP Greg O’Connor, who wanted his colleagues to remember he still existed.
“I’m not,” said Woods. “I’m only saying everyone deserves the same help you and your parents got. Who would argue with that?”
The PM had thoughts on housing too. “You remember when Bill English said new housing might have to be built ugly? Well that’s not going to happen. Build it beautiful.”
“My turn,” said Carmel Sepuloni, Minister for Social Development. “Take some of those motorway billions and give it to poor people. Do it with bumped up welfare benefits and a guaranteed minimum income, so no one misses out.”
“It’s a bit Green,” said list MP Helen White, who still couldn’t quite believe she was not the new MP for Auckland Central.
“It’s a bit The Right Thing To Do,” said Sepuloni. “A circular economy? They’ll spend it all locally.”
“Crank up Whānau Ora,” said Minister for Māori Development Willie Jackson. “That’s the way to make it work.”
“What about the farmers?” said Jo Luxton, who could definitely not believe she was now the MP for Rangitata.
The PM herself took this one. “We’ll electrify everything. Vehicles, generators, turn the entire rural sector electric within five years. With loans and subsidies, it’ll be surprisingly easy.”
“And let’s have a big new farm regeneration financial package,” said Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor. “Attrition to reduce the dairy herd, eliminate fertilisers based on fossil fuels, make soil health the key to productivity. If we get the financial support right, within 10 years farmers will be producing more than before and they’ll be happier too.”
“Only one problem,” said Northland MP Willow-Jean Prime, who had met enough sceptical farmers to last a lifetime. “Will they believe it?”
“A communications job?” said the PM. “Leave it with me.”
It was the turn of the new Minister of Transport, Michael Wood. “I want a light rail network all over Auckland and we should start now. Build it on the roads so we can build it fast. And let’s offer contracts to build e-bikes, tens of thousands of them every year. Convert the streets for their use, separated from pedestrians and cars, and we will make the cities splendid.”
“We could start with bike lanes all over Wellington,” said Rongotai MP Paul Eagle. “The capital’s transport planning deserves a decent break.”
“If we’re going to get serious about a circular economy,” said Associate Finance Minister David Parker, we’ll need a decent bank. Why don’t we get Kiwibank to manage it? With new powers they could be the financial glue, with genuinely helpful advisers in every town and every suburban centre.”
“Why don’t we do this already?” asked the PM.
“The big banks wouldn’t like it,” said Robertson.
“That would be the banks that charge high fees to retailers, make lending hard and send their record profits overseas,” said the PM. “The ones that destroy the circular economy.”
“Let’s do this,” said Robertson, grinning from ear to ear, and everyone applauded.
AND SO it came to pass that after a busy, focused and high-minded year, a tired but very happy caucus reassembled in its spacious new rooms high in the Beehive.
Picnickers on the Parliamentary lawns, looking up, saw the open windows, where the windows don’t even open, and, to their astonishment, out flew a steady stream of Labour MPs.
Their round pink bodies gleaming in the sunlight, their eager snouts pointing skywards, their eyes bright, their little tails like corkscrews protruding from their bottoms. Their wings flapping to catch the fresh breeze of an early Wellington summer.
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