Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern admits 'legitimate' use of utes remarks 'could have been clearer'

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has admitted her comments about "legitimate" use of utes "could have been clearer" amid continuing debate over the clean car scheme. 

"I stand by the point I was making, even though I will absolutely say that I think I could have been clearer in the way I made it," Ardern said in Parliament on Tuesday under questioning from ACT leader David Seymour. 

Ardern made the comments last week as she revealed the Government considered exempting utes from financial penalties in the electric car (EV) and clean vehicle incentive scheme - but the Government ended up ruling it out. 

"We did discuss that because we recognised that there is a lag in the technology right now. But after discussing it, debating it and working it through, it was going to be very difficult to operationalize," Ardern said at the time.  

"A large number of those buyers of those vehicles are not using them for legitimate use as those who work in the primary sector and the trades."

Ardern's remarks led to backlash from the Opposition, who posted images of Labour MPs - including Ardern - in utes, asking if they were being used for "legitimate" purposes.  

Seymour, who last week dubbed the Prime Minister "Car Tsar Ardern", asked her in Parliament why the Government ruled out an exemption for utes when there is currently no electric or hybrid alternative for those who genuinely need one for work. 

"I'd like to clarify that it was not the advice of officials that we have a carve out; in fact, their view was that we should not," Ardern said. 

"That did not stop Cabinet having a discussion... But ultimately, there were issues around how you would implement such a carve out. So ultimately, the decision was taken to have a much more straight-forward scheme, recognising what was coming on stream.

"I would say again to the member, the vast majority of utes purchased by New Zealanders are from within the secondhand market which is not affected and this policy that we've applied does cover incentives or no fees for low and hybrid vehicles - not just EVs.

"We are behind the rest of the world when it comes to the uptake of electric vehicles and a good reason for that is the price point at the point of sale is high. This is one way we can support New Zealanders and it will reduce the lifetime cost of their vehicle. That member wants them to pay more at the pump instead."

The debate heated up when Seymour asked Ardern if electric Toyota utes - when they do exist - will be able to use the standalone cycle and walking bridge over the Waitemata Harbour, which is estimated to cost $785 million to build.  

"I do want to applaud the ACT Party for finally agreeing that climate change exists. That's a vast improvement on where you were 10 years ago," Ardern said in Parliament. 

"I sat here in this House when Rodney Hide instigated a select committee inquiry into the existence of climate change. So, look, congratulations for moving on some way.

"But the member, if he wants to acknowledge climate change exists, perhaps now is the time to actually support some initiatives that will actually do something about it."

Seymour responded: "Is this line of questioning getting under the Prime Minister's skin?"

Ardern came under fire last week for telling The AM Show Toyota was looking to deliver EV utes within 12 to 24 months. 

Toyota NZ chief executive Neeraj Lala confirmed the company had no such plans, and said it was "irresponsible to suggest that customers stop buying non-electric vehicles immediately until there is an electric option available".

Ardern said in Parliament car manufacturer LDV is looking to introduce an electric range within the next 12 to 24 months.

The Government will give rebates or discounts of up to $8625 for newly imported electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles from July 1. Used EVs will fetch discounts of up to $3450. 

The discounts will only apply to vehicles below $80,000 and the vehicle must have a three-star safety rating. The secondhand market will not be affected.