PM’S leadership style is still evolv­ing

South Waikato News - - Your Paper, Your Place - DO­MIN­ION POST EDI­TO­RIAL

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.

CHRIS SKELTON/FAIRFAX NZ

Prime Min­is­ter Bill English

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