PM’S leadership style is still evolving
Prime Minister Bill English tried to accomplish a fair bit with his ‘‘state of the nation’’ speech, a calm, confident but also somewhat disjointed statement of priorities.
He offered a brief sketch of himself to those who missed him the first time around – a Southland farmer who struggled for a time in the 1980s, a proud member of large, busy families, and a conservative who prioritises individual hard work and community spirit over other political values.
English also expanded on his ‘‘social investment’’ approach to government, a style based on the intensive use of data to identify those likely to cost the state a lot of money over the long-term, more upfront funding for social services that help them, and challenging targets for the public service to ensure that the spending is working.
That’s the theory, anyway. It’s not far from the old metaphor about putting fences at the top of the cliff, instead of ambulances at the bottom. And, in theory, there’s plenty to recommend it.
But then English bolted on a much more prosaic and even cynical piece of election-year politics: a big boost to police funding and numbers.
English cast this as top-of-thecliff spending, but that was a stretch. In fact, it doesn’t sit easily with all the social investment talk.
Nobody doubts that the police sometimes do what is essentially social work, helping troubled families right themselves and forestalling tragedies before they occur, but they are still, obviously, an emergency service first, charged with mopping up the worst of society’s messes.
Improving police attendance rates at burglaries, to take one example from English’s speech, is not an especially preventive (or useful) policy.
English’s announcement was more about pilfering a piece of Opposition policy than enlightened government spending – Labour’s Andrew Little promised last year to put 1000 more cops on the beat.
It will also presumably help to soothe an electorate that has voiced some anxiety about closed police stations.
In summary, it was hardline law-and-order stuff ahead of an election, which always tempts politicians.
This is a shame, because English has often seemed among the more enlightened politicians on justice issues.
Certainly Labour, also bent on being seen as tough on crime, is unlikely to offer a different vision.
One question for the year ahead is which English will dominate – the thoughtful social policymaker, or the politician happy to resort to the hoary election cliches?
It could be that this tension has been part of his hesitancy as leader so far.
He should go for the former. English’s strengths are his seeming decency and his capacity for nuance.
There are certainly still questions about ‘‘social investment’’, including a new sort of technocratic over-confidence it seems to imply.
Even English’s own measures need care: he brags about the diminished numbers of people on benefits, for instance, which might be evidence of a successful policy – or a merely punitive one.
But it is at the very least an interesting, coherent approach to government spending. He should flesh it out with more convincing policies.
If he does, with a buoyant economy and his party still sailing in the polls, he will be hard to beat in September.
Prime Minister Bill English