Winston Peters got a weekend of great publicity out of a "bottom line" that is ultimately meaningless. But in the midst another bottom line emerged that may be harder to wriggle out of
After Winston Peters' elephantine stomping through the superannuation minefield over the past few days setting off explosions left, right and centre, we can rule out one thing and guarantee another, at least.
First, there's no chance of getting a sensible answer out of Peters about potential coalition partners before the next election. He'll say yes, no and maybe to everyone and commit to no-one.
Second, it looks like Peters has identified super as his hot-button vote-winner this term. As Raymond Miller sagely pointed out on Q+A:
"...he’s going to be the politician who’s not only representing the 65-plus, now he’s moving down a generation to people in their 30s and 40s who are worried about retirement, and Winston will be the person who says, ‘Look, I’m the calming influence. I’m the status quo politician. 65 it is'. "
This past weekend of debate is classic Peters. He enters the minefield willingly, giving a pre-conference interview to the Herald, in which he describes keeping the age of eligibility for superannuation at 65 as "a bottom line". A debate ensues and he sits at the centre of it, refusing to give straight answers, hinting that he could go both ways at once and complaining that the nasty media is trying to entrap him.
But of course he started it all and the chaos suits him just fine. He gains publicity, a vague public awareness that he'll 'protect super' and yet gets away with making no accountable promises.
Or did he? We'll get to that in a moment, but first let's review the web he spun around the super age.
Having raised it and tied it to coalition negotiations himself, he then dodged the ensuing questions... "I"m not going to fall for that", he said, or "we’re not going to engage in these trite ideas" and, referring to himself in the third person, "do not ask Winston Peters or NZ First to start answering questions about forming coalitions two and a half years out from an election..."
So at the end of it all, we know little more than we did about what Peters believes regarding the super age. The critical point is how long it must stay at age 65. Until when? The next term? A generation? Forever?
When Greg Boyed pressed him on Q+A about that, he avoided giving a straight answer. Peters said:
Well, no one can tell you the demographics of society 35, 50 years from now. They claim to, but that’s not correct. There’s a whole lot of things that could change all that, and if we want to have that debate, we could. But the fact is as far as we know and as far as all the calculations that I used for the super referendum of ’97 or the Cullen fund used for their Cullen fund predictions, nothing has changed.
And the more he was pushed, the more caveats he added.
"The fact is that nobody has made out a case for changing the age at this point in time.”
“65 is a date or time from which we’re not going to move until we see some fundamental facts as to why we should.”
So could New Zealand First form a coalition with Labour, which has a policy of raising the super age to 67? Well yes, that can't be ruled out because Labour doesn't intend to start raising the age until 2020 and it wouldn't reach 67 until 2033. Peters could wriggle out of the impression his words give by saying the age isn't going up in the next term of government.
Is it more likely he'll deal with National to keep the super age at 65? Well you'd think not, given that Peters calls Key corrupt for his time at Merrill Lynch and hates National's asset sales policy as much as he loves the super age.
So as a "bottom line", keeping the age at 65 is meaningless.
The second bottom line he gave this weekend, however, is more significant.
He told Q+A that an increasing super would be another "bottom line" in coalition negotiations. New Zealand First policy is to increase the rate of super from 66% of the average wage to 68% and Peters is now on the record as saying that's a must for him.
And that's not so easy to kick forward to future governments. People on super will want their increase now.And it's a harder one to manage, politically. Every other party except National is looking at how it can limit and constrain the rapidly rising costs of super; and the chance of Bill English increasing super is about the same as the spending increases in this year's budget - zero.
So whilst that's had less publicity, let's not forget that one as the next election draws near. It'll be entertaining seeing him try to wriggle out of that one.
Then again, as John Armstrong has pointed out in the Herald, this is Winston Peters insisting that super is affordable is the same Winston Peters who in the 1990s tried to introduce compulsory super savings, because of the enormous pressure super will put on the government's books this century.
So, after this weekend's fuss, maybe there's something else we can guarantee - Peters will keep on wriggling, as shamelessly and cynically as ever.