The real value in Tuesday’s surprise grand Kumbaya chorus on housing between National and Labour was not in the detail of what was announced, but in the consensus.
The joint press conference between Labour ministers Megan Woods and David Parker and National leader Judith Collins and MP Nicola Willis may well have been a turning point in a prolonged civil war over a contentious policy area.
It was also like a very awkward first date with a lot of chaperones.
Woods began by giving Collins her choice of which side of the podium to stand on. Collins did not choose the PM’s side.
They did not look at each other very much, or laugh at each other’s jokes. Parker beamed in from on high, a head on a zoom screen.
However, it was also very important for the very reasons Woods and Collins said it was.
It was that consensus on changes to planning laws, especially over intensifcation, would provide certainty to developers, investors and home owners.
It would give them the confidence to make long-term decisions without fearing the rules would change every time the Government changed (the vagaries of MMP permitting).
Joint press conferences between Labour and National are very rare. The last time it happened was in 2007.
That was when National leader John Key fronted with then PM Helen Clark to announce agreement on a change to the anti-smacking legislation which meant National would support it: guaranteeing its passage into law.
There has been political co-operation and consensus since then, including on the Zero Carbon Act.
But at no stage has Government and Opposition shared a stage to announce it.
The reason it is rare is because no government wants to share the credit for a good idea, no matter how much an Opposition party might deserve it.
Sharing the blame is a completely different matter, however.
The anti-smacking legislation was so controversial it was in the interests of the Clark government to stand alongside Key – so both would be seen to be responsible for backing it.
Key needed to look constructive, and like a prime minister in waiting.
Something similar was at play on Tuesday. It let National look constructive.
For Labour, it blunted a line of attack and helped push forward one of their key campaign promises: to address housing affordability.
The announcement involved opening the way for greater intensification of housing in cities. Intensification is widely recognised as one of the key ways to increasing housing supply. The changes are expected to deliver between 48,000 and 105,000 new houses over the next five to eight years.
But it is also controversial – it tackles head-on the bogeyman that has hindered development in the city inner suburbs: the Nimby – those who don’t want three-storey apartment buildings springing up over their back fences as their neighbours subdivide or redevelop.
Willis confronted it head-on, saying it was “a firm yes to housing in our back yard.”
Dealing with housing affordability has been a plague on both houses – and it has also been an easy cudgel for whichever of them is the Opposition to beat the other with.
Throughout National’s tenure, Labour mounted attacks on housing, labelling it a “crisis” and promising to fix it.
Now it is National’s turn. Housing remains one of Labour’s biggest areas of non-delivery, no matter how hard it has tried. National has been there every step of the way to point out when it has fallen short.
Yesterday was a welcome sign the Government was willing to take on good ideas from the other side, and to work with them and then acknowledge that. For National, it showed they could be constructive, and had ideas.
There are other areas of housing policy National can poke at. But it does mean National cannot harp on about Government failures if the measures fail to have the promised impact or prove unpopular.
It is little wonder Labour didn’t mind having National on the stage to share the “credit”.
The harmony did not last long and nobody should expect to see a repeat anytime soon, although the optimists among us might hope for something relating to electoral law reforms.
Despite Collins identifying Covid-19 as another area on which she wished there was more bipartisan work, that is unlikely to happen.
The Government will not be so willing to share the stage on that one.
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