Debbie Ngarewa-Packer: Government has power to address cost of living crisis today

OPINION:

Whilst recent headlines have focused on the protest, mandates and Covid-19, the rising issue that affects every one of us, whether vaccinated or not, is the cost to live.

As we’ve been responding to Covid, fuel costs have skyrocketed and the prices of fruit and seasonal vegetables have gone up. Rent increases have been compensating the pockets of landlords.

And although the Government looked for praise for its recent tax cuts at the pump, the $350 million tax relief for the next three months is not targeted to those who have low disposable income. Most of those who will gain from the Government’s latest announcement are those with higher disposable income, those who can afford to be using their cars.

We support the income changes the Government is making on the 1st of April, but urge that it increases to match the welfare reform recommendations.

More than two-thirds of whānau Māori live week to week, some worse by the day to keep their heads above the ever-rising tide. Further compromised by the expectations of isolation when it comes to Covid, seven days without going to work is unaffordable for most.

Not all whānau have the luxury to stock their cupboards and “be prepared”, some are right now panicking about providing the next meal for their kids.

The latest child poverty statistics show the overall number of children in poverty is decreasing. But for Māori, tangata moana and disabled tamariki the story remains unchanged – they still endure the same material hardship.

The amount of money someone takes to the supermarket to put kai on the table is determined by how much they make, less the rent they pay to put a roof over the heads of their tamariki and the fuel cost to get there. In short, wage and income rises are not keeping up with inflation.

Within the boundaries of the Te Tai Hauāuru electorate, low-income whānau now need more than twice as many food parcels as they did before Covid. Middle-income whānau are also requesting food assistance, some for the first time in their lives.

The cost-of-living stress is real. We need more than small temporary solutions. We need to totally transform our approach and work to end poverty and inequities.

There have been numerous attempts in the past to address the impact of the cost of living on whānau.

In 2010 Rahui Katene, Māori Party MP for Te Tai Tonga, had a member’s bill proposing an exemption on GST on kai to help struggling low-income families. The Residents Action Movement gathered signatures from 25,000 people marching on Parliament rallying to take GST off food on the grounds that GST hits low-income people disproportionately.

In 2011, Hone Harawira as leader of the Mana Party created a “Hone Heke” tax, dubbed the Robin Hood tax, proposing a 1 per cent financial transaction tax to replace GST. The Hone Heke tax proposed to also target speculators, banks and big corporates with capital gains and asset taxes. He then went on in 2015 to fight for the “feed the kids” bill which got voted down 59/61.

Te Pāti Māori supports a breakup of the Foodstuffs-Woolworths duopoly that keeps the pricing of food hugely competitive and expensive in Aotearoa. We must support independent grocers including our own to keep costs down.

Like Rahui, we repropose the Government adopts a GST food exemption on the price of kai. It’s an easy and effective way to support whānau to afford to eat and be well. GST is a regressive tax that disproportionately impacts those on lower incomes who spend nearly everything they earn – to live.

The wealthy, meanwhile, have untaxed wealth accumulating in housing, trusts and investment funds. Our policies that the Government can go ahead and adopt today propose solutions to the housing crisis and inequality including taxing unearned wealth through capital gains and ghost house taxes.

Māori make up 50 per cent of the waiting list for social housing, 30 per cent of Māori pay rent that is more than 30 per cent of their weekly income. A third of us will shift residence every three years to poorer housing conditions to counter the rise in costs.

At the same time, there were 192,000 unoccupied ghost houses in 2018. At least 12,000 Māori are homeless in their own homeland.

We have a government with the mandate and power to make radical change at the drop of a dime.

It is time for radical solutions to address this shameful crisis. It is time for a new approach to economics. We must prioritise the people and the environment that sustains us – first, second and last.

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer is co-leader of Te Pāti Māori

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