Chris Hipkins announces end to public media merger, social insurance scheme not proceeding as planned

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has begun his policy bonfire, taking the axe to the public media merger, not proceeding with the social insurance scheme this term and pushing hate speech to the Law Commission.

Upon taking office, Hipkins promised his Government would focus on bread-and-butter issues, like the cost of living crisis currently straining Kiwis.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Hipkins announced the policies that have fallen victim to his reprioritisation programme. This is the "first set" of changes.

"I think it is an acknowledgement that governments only have so much bandwidth to take on a variety of different projects and a variety of different challenges and if you take on too many all at once - I think that is probably something we have done - you can lose focus," said Hipkins.

"In the decisions we have taken today, you will see we are re-focusing down and we would rather do a smaller number of things, do them more thoroughly and communicate better about them."

Work on the proposed $370m merger of Television New Zealand (TVNZ) and Radio New Zealand (RNZ) will be stopped entirely, with Hipkins saying support for public media "needs to be at a lower cost and without such significant structural change".

RNZ will receive additional funding to strengthen its public media role, while New Zealand on Air will also receive more funding to support public media content.

"That funding will be available to a wider range of broadcasters. Remaining funding will be redirected to other Government priorities."

The social insurance scheme will also not proceed as proposed this term. It was meant to support workers by retaining 80 percent of their income for a period after they lost their jobs, but workers and employers would need to contribute to an ACC-style fund to pay for it. 

Hipkins said it is not the right time to put additional costs on Kiwis. It is off the table until there is a "significant improvement in economic conditions".

"We will need to see a significant improvement in economic conditions before anything is advanced," Hipkins said. "Work will continue to explore ways to best address these inequities in the long term when the economy is better placed to make change. But it is off the table for now."

In last November's Newshub-Reid Research poll, we put the policy to voters and asked whether they'd support it. About 50 percent don't, 33 percent do, and 17 percent don't know. But Finance Minister Grant Robertson said at the time it's "something we're committed to". 

Hipkins said on Wednesday that Robertson has acknowledged now is not the right time for it.

The Government's controversial work on hate speech has also been kicked to the Law Commission. Significantly watered down from original proposals, the hate speech change would have explicitly protected religious communities. 

"The Human Rights (Incitement on Ground of Religious Belief) Amendment Bill will be withdrawn and the matter referred to the Law Commission. This will allow the Law Commission the opportunity to consider a difficult and highly contested area of law in totality."

The Government initially wanted to create new protections for members of different groups, like those of religious groups and for those of different genders, sexualities and disabilities. A new criminal offence would have been created in the Crimes Act that was clearer and easier to understand.

But after more than 19,000 submissions, it was announced in November that Cabinet had agreed to throw most of that over to the Law Commission to consider and instead only make one immediate change - to protect religious groups.

PM Hipkins made the announcement at a press conference on Wednesday.
PM Hipkins made the announcement at a press conference on Wednesday. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Also being slashed is the Government's biofuels mandate. From April 1, 2023, it would have required fuel wholesalers to cut the total greenhouse gas emissions for transport fuels they sell by a set percentage each year by increasing biofuels in their supply.

But Hipkins said this would have increased the price of fuel.

"Given the pressure on households, that's not something I'm prepared to do." 

The Energy and Resources Minister and Transport Minister said in 2021 that the mandate would have prevented "around one million tonnes of emissions from cars, trucks, trains and ships over the next three years and up to 10 million tonnes by 2035 to help us meet our climate commitments".

No significant changes have been announced for the Three Waters programme, with Hipkins saying the need for reform is "unquestionable". 

"The events in Auckland have once again demonstrated the limits of our existing infrastructure and the need for change. But careful consideration is required.

"This is the first and most significant set of decisions that reprioritises the Government agenda and sets out our new direction. It will help to provide greater bandwidth and resource for where focus is needed most – the cost of living."

To help lower-income Kiwis with the cost of living, Cabinet has also agreed to increase the minimum wage in line with inflation. That means it will rise by $1.50 to $22.70 an hour from April 1. The Starting-Out and Training minimum wage rates will be maintained at 80 percent of the adult minimum wage. 

"In tough times, it's critical to support those who struggle the most to make ends meet. Those on low incomes make impossible trade-offs between food and medical care, dry homes and a pair of shoes. These families need our support now more than ever and an inflation-adjusted lift in the minimum wage will means thousands of New Zealanders do not go backwards.

"We've tried to find the right balance. Analysis from MBIE that fed into our decision suggests this increase is unlikely to have a significant impact on unemployment, because it is broadly in line with existing average wage growth across the economy."

Hipkins said the impact on inflation would be "negligible". 

"In the 2022 Review, MBIE estimates that an increase of 7 percent in the minimum wage will have only a minor inflationary impact of 0.1 percent on the wages portion of GDP.

"These decisions are a start and show the new direction of our Government. Increased support for business, increased support for those on low incomes and a reprioritisation of our work programme to shift it to the bread and butter issues New Zealanders want us focused on."

TVNZ-RNZ merger

The axing of the public media merger had been widely anticipated. 

Work on the two organisations merging into the Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media (ANZPM) began nearly three years ago. Legislation creating the new entity had its first reading last year and has since been at Select Committee.

It was planned for the entity to be established on March 1 and to begin operating from July. 

The Government's attempted to justify the merger by saying it is necessary to ensure Kiwi stories are told in a rapidly changing media landscape. 

"With increasing levels of misinformation around the world, a rapidly changing media landscape, and increasing global competition, New Zealand needs strong, independent, public media more than ever – it is critical to the functioning of a healthy democracy," Broadcasting and Media Minister Willie Jackson said last year.

Former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson.
Former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson. Photo credit: Getty Images.

In December, then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was possible to both ensure "people have access to news and information" and support "them through a cost of living crisis". She also suggested RNZ could "collapse" if the Government didn't go ahead with the merger.

"If we want to make sure that we are supporting New Zealanders through this rough period, getting rid of our public service broadcasters or having Radio New Zealand collapse doesn't help them and it actually doesn't help New Zealand."

However, media organisations had significant concerns about the potential implications for commercial operators and that there wasn't explicit enough editorial independence for the new entity. 

ANZPM was meant to be an Autonomous Crown Entity. 

"An Autonomous Crown Entity allows for ministerial direction. A Crown Entity Company does not allow for ministerial direction. If public media independence is the core idea of the new entity then why would we want to blur that perception?" TVNZ chief executive Simon Power said at a Select Committee last year.

The National Party has argued it's an unnecessary use of money during a cost of living crisis.

"It's obvious the TVNZ/RNZ merger has become another ideological pet project for Labour, who have never been able to give a good reason for spending taxpayer money on this costly exercise," said spokesperson Melissa Lee.