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SMELLIE SNIFFS THE BREEZE: The trouble with lists

Article – Businesswire

Dec. 4 (BusinessWire) – Back in the day as a junior press secretary for Finance Minister Roger Douglas, it was my duty, along with other beady-eyed enthusiasts, to work long nights and whole weekends preparing the press kits for various of Roger’s “packages”.

SMELLIE SNIFFS THE BREEZE: The trouble with lists

By Pattrick Smellie

Dec. 4 (BusinessWire) – Back in the day as a junior press secretary for Finance Minister Roger Douglas, it was my duty, along with other beady-eyed enthusiasts, to work long nights and whole weekends preparing the press kits for various of Roger’s “packages”.

Everything was always a package, partly because big changes are hard to achieve one step at a time, and painting the big picture can make the rock-strewn path to nirvana a little easier to cope with. Roger was a big fan of getting everything out of the way at once, in the hope that when the dust settled the result would be seen as a magical transformation and not a pile of broken crockery.

The other great advantage of doing things as packages is that there’s so much going on it’s hard for opponents to grasp completely, especially if you’re careful to frame the reforms in terms of what they’ll do for the country in the long run, even it hurts at first.

I learnt that lesson starkly one Saturday afternoon in 1986.

Being a helpful sort of cove, it occurred to me that there were so many separate announcements in the press kit that perhaps it would be helpful to write them all down in one place.

Several hours later, the list was complete and handed with a flourish to the Minister. He contemplated it for a few minutes and then, in the kindly way that made him such a great boss, Roger said: “I think we’ll just keep this one for our own reference, mate.”

In other words, when you wrote it all down like THAT, it was a bloody scary list.

Whether Don Brash meant his list of 35 recommendations from this week’s 2025 Taskforce to be a similarly scary list, or whether he was just being helpful by writing them all down in one place is debatable. It’s more likely, knowing Don, that he was just trying to be helpful.

But listening to the Press Gallery heavyweights gleefully agreeing amongst themselves that its contents were completely politically unsaleable before the embargo was even lifted, it was tempting to wonder whether the government’s plan all along was to let the ageing Rogernomes hang themselves.

It certainly looks that way, since no matter how much credit Douglas can take for the relative resilience of the New Zealand economy today, the hard-wired national “story” only remembers the broken crockery.

Those wrenching changes account for the fact that New Zealand’s farmers are among the most productive in the world, that unemployment is lower here than just about anywhere in the OECD, and set the stage for improvements in the government accounts which, in the early 2000’s, allowed Michael Cullen, Douglas’s nemesis in the Lange Cabinet, to go on a spending spree.

It may suit Cullen now to write waspish letters to the editor claiming New Zealand reached its lowest ebb when those reforms were occurring, but that is as disingenuous as claiming he made the economy grow strongly when all he was doing was spending Budget surpluses that previous reforms made possible and, during his time, seemed to stretch to the horizon.

As we now know, they weren’t anywhere near as sustainable as the last government portrayed them, and as the dust settles on 18 years of fiddling by the Bolger and Clark governments, the hard-nosed truth is that this economy still needs work. The consumer debt boom that ended with the global credit crunch last year hid that depressing detail.

In that sense, the 2025 taskforce might have created an opportunity to break through to a new willingness to examine policy options, old and new, with fresh eyes. Instead, it was set up to fail.

From a purely public relations perspective, it was nuts to have Brash front the taskforce if the intention was to have it break fresh ground. The number of people like me, who think Brash’s political sins owed more to George Costanza-style bumbling than Machiavelli, has dwindled to a nano-speck.

For the electorate, he is the unattractive symbol of a past generation. Apart from the attempt to funk things up by including poor old Jeremy Moon, the Icebreaker knitwear king, the taskforce looked not so much like a re-run of The Hollow Men as a last hurrah from yesterday’s men.

Which is tragic, because much of what the taskforce recommends is still pretty much what needs to happen. Fonterra needs to trade on the basis of its value as a company, not on the value of a litre of milk. If Zespri is such a great idea, let it trade in a competitive environment like everyone else does. It makes no sense at all that people like me pay $3 for a prescription or can fund our children through university with free money from the government that we’ll just pay off for them when the kids graduate.

It’s still middle-class parents rather than the working poor who get the greatest benefit from childcare subsidies. And there’s no doubt in the mind of anyone who’s got lost in the resource consent maze while trying to build a deck – let alone a wind farm – that both central and local government processes are too often adding costs that are unmatched by consequent added value.

On top of that, the inter-generational outlook for public debt picture is, frankly, ugly. One way to deal with that is to sell things the state doesn’t need to own. Step up MightyRiverPower, Genesis Energy, Kiwibank, and Kordia, to name a few. The sentimental attachment to public ownership is a high price to pay for putting lead in the saddlebag for the next generation, too many of whom will leave if there aren’t great opportunities here. The size of government, let alone its capacity to be a spanner in the works of productive enteprise, needs fixing.

As Paul Aitken, the English-born director of Wellington-based global leadership consultancy Concordia said this week: “People back home are horrified when I tell them there are still 35 separate departments of government for a population of four million people.”

Harnessed well, that could be a hugely beneficial resource, but all the evidence suggests that non-tradeable and public sector activity has not only accounted for most of the growth in recent years, but that it has also been the least productive.

To that extent, at least, the 2025 taskforce plays to the government’s clearly stated intention to tighten the screws on government spending, with an annual new spending cap for each of the next few years of just $1.1 billion. The taskforce’s target of government spending falling to 29% of gross domestic product from around 37% at present, will not be reached any time soon, but the argument for fiscal restraint is becoming entrenched.

In the meantime, the word from both Prime Minister John Key and Finance Minister Bill English is that big bang packages are too politically risky, and that there is much to learn from the more gradual approach that seems to have served Australia better.

The trouble with that is the contradiction it creates with the supposed urgency of the task of “catching Australia” by 2025.

If there is a gradualist path to that goal, it has yet to emerge.

Instead, the unfortunate fact appears to be that, like Helen Clark’s lofty aim of returning New Zealand to the top half of the OECD wealth tables, Key’s choice of catching Australia as a national aspirational target has superficial appeal, but will prove an unachievable embarrassment as time ticks on without a plan to get there.

Perhaps Key would have been better to adopt another of Roger Douglas’s less publicly aired aphorisms: “Fire! Whatever you hit, call it the target.”


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  1. chris webster, 4. December 2009, 15:27

    Pattrick —

    Shouldn’t it be “fire” then “aim?”

  2. Pattrick Smellie, 4. December 2009, 18:03

    I’m afraid not.