English - pol­icy not per­son­al­ity


With John Key gone, more breath­ing room has been cre­ated for next year’s elec­tion to be fought on poli­cies, not personalities.

Key’s farewell state­ments were quite re­veal­ing in that re­spect. Many of the ac­com­plish­ments he listed were ei­ther ex­ten­sions of poli­cies he in­her­ited or – in the case of the home in­su­la­tion scheme – were con­ceived and de­vel­oped in as­so­ci­a­tion with the Greens.

With pride, Key also men­tioned his steer­ing of the coun­try safely through (a) the Global Fi­nan­cial Cri­sis (b) the Christchurch earth­quakes af­ter­math and (c) the Pike River tragedy.

Pri­mar­ily, these were tri­umphs of po­lit­i­cal man­age­ment, not pol­icy in­no­va­tion.

As one journalist noted at Key’s fi­nal press con­fer­ence as leader, hadn’t he ended up ex­tend­ing the same Work­ing For Fam­i­lies scheme that he’d pre­vi­ously de­nounced as so­cial­ism by stealth?

As Key’s Na­tional Party pre­de­ces­sor Don Brash also in­di­cated, fu­ture his­to­ri­ans could find it hard to de­tect much pol­icy day­light be­tween the Clark/ Cullen team and the Key/English com­bi­na­tion that suc­ceeded it.

Point­edly though, the harsh poli­cies of aus­ter­ity prac­ticed in the UK by Key’s men­tor David Cameron were not pur­sued in New Zealand.

Luck­ily, they weren’t needed. In­sa­tiable de­mand from China – which did so much state spend­ing we didn’t need a stim­u­lus pack­age of our own - kept the economies of both Aus­tralia and New Zealand afloat through­out the Global Fi­nan­cial Cri­sis.

True, the char­ter schools ex­per­i­ment was a bone thrown by Key to Na­tional’s part­ners in gov­ern­ment, and the par­tial as­set sales pro­gramme of­fered con­ces­sions to Na­tional’s cor­po­rate al­lies.

Yet the longer the Key era went on, the scarcer such ex­cep­tions be­came. If any­thing, as the po­lit­i­cal cen­tre shifted slightly left­wards, the Key gov­ern­ment tended to fol­low it.

Again, it was Key’s per­sonal pop­u­lar­ity that en­abled Na­tional to claim this new ter­ri­tory as its own.

Dur­ing elec­tion year 2017, Bill English and his team are likely to be pulled left­wards again by the Auck­land hous­ing cri­sis, and by the re­lated need to in­vest fur­ther in so­cial hous­ing.

There will be pres­sure to boost health fund­ing which - as a ra­tio of GDP - has been in de­cline since 2010. Fur­ther spend­ing on char­ter schools would how­ever seem daft, given that the op­er­a­tional grants to state schools are still on star­va­tion ra­tions.

His­tor­i­cally, tax cuts are the cen­tre-right’s favourite form of elec­tion hand­out.

How­ever, the re­cent earthquake costs – which will re­quire more money for Ki­wirail – will limit the scope for ma­jor in­come tax re­duc­tions. Even so, the be­nign eco­nomic out­look gives English plenty of op­tions.

Job cre­ation is accelerating, wages are (be­lat­edly) ris­ing, and un­em­ploy­ment is low. Next year’s elec­tion is be­ing tipped to come early, soon af­ter the May Bud­get, in or­der to give the English ad­min­is­tra­tion its own man­date.

Cru­cially, Trea­sury is pre­dict­ing bud­get sur­pluses to reach $8.5 bil­lion by June 2021, which will fuel the po­lit­i­cal de­mand for spend­ing on so­cial needs.

In sum, English and his Fi­nance Min­is­ter Steven Joyce will find them­selves in much the same sit­u­a­tion Michael Cullen faced in 2008, dur­ing his fi­nal hur­rah as Fi­nance Min­is­ter. Mean­ing : it is rel­a­tively easy for a gov­ern­ment to look re­spon­si­bly fru­gal.

It is much harder to look as though it is spend­ing wisely.

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