Mom, apple pie, apprenticeships & not much else

A quick glance of John Key's state of the nation speech reveals a government tipping its hat to next year's election, but with little new to sell

In the early years of John Key's leadership of the National Party, and then the country, many of his critics were keen to say, 'just wait 'til he pulls the mask off'. There was always the worry his affable, centre-right smile hid neo-liberal teeth. Yet his State of the Nation speech today is further evidence that Key is no Brash-in-sheep's-clothing. The critics now ask, 'is that all you've got?'

Near the end of his speech, the Prime Minister says:

As for the National-led Government, our plan will encourage investment, strengthen the economy and boost jobs.

People know what that plan is, we have stuck to it and we will continue to stick to it.

And I've got to say, it's pretty well-rehearsed stuff. Indeed, it reads more like a reflective look back over his year's in power than it does a visionary speech profering his view of, well, the state of the nation and big ideas of making that nation greater. What, for example, is the top of his list of bold things he's doing that the Opposition is poo-pooing? "Tax changes". And they were a political age ago.

The intended headline grabber is clearly the boost given to apprenticeships. If I didn't know that he's summered in Maui I'd assume he'd been hanging out at some BBQs with people saying, 'why don't we have more apprentices?'. It's a common question. Really, apprenticeships are like mom and apple pie - everyone loves 'em, everyone reckons we should have more and is happy to see tax dollars spent getting young folk off the street and given a trade.

Funnily enough I was, last week, part of a group chatting to David Shearer, who urged him to act on apprentices. Key got there quicker, however. And there can hardly be any complaint.

The obvious criticism is that it's taken this government so long to invest in them. Labour is arguing already that apprenticeships have fallen 20 percent under National, but beyond that the Opposition is limited to quibbling about whether National's really creating as many places as it claims. And as we all know, if the best you can do is quibble about when and how many, you're not going to score any points.

Still, my question remains why National has decided it wants to invest in more apprenticeships now, just shy of the second anniversary of the Christchurch earthquake. Key stressed the need for skilled tradespeople to rebuild Christchurch, but that was surely obvious two days after the quake and could have been initiated two months after. Why has it taken two years for the government to invest? Given that we want the rebuilding to start yesterday, it seems rather late in the day to be starting to train the required number of tradespeople.

But fair play, it's a good move and it will be a popular move. And given the contents of the rest of the speech, National needs a vote winner. The rest of Key's big plans for our economy will have eyes glazing over from Kaitaia to Bluff.

Vague promises to reform the RMA, more talk of trade deals of questionable value, a piddling number of new houses (this after so few houses were built last year) and the repeated promise to sell 49 percent of a few state assets... there's little to excite voters.

The apprenticeships is clearly a reaction to the traction Shearer gained from his housing policy last year; a smart counter blow. And its needed. Just look at Key's list of successes:

"Among other things, we’ve introduced 90-day trials; set time limits for the consenting of large projects under the RMA; introduced a competitive new system for awarding oil and gas exploration permits; got ACC back into good financial shape; and kick-started a multi-billion dollar programme of infrastructure investment."

It's very easy to counter that list, saying 'we've undermined workers' rights; cut out the public's tongue; begged foreign oil giants to come here, allowing them to take huge profits offshore; eroded access to ACC after creating a fake crisis; and been hijacked by the roading lobby'.

But perhaps more to the point, it's just not terribly sexy.

In particular, much of the policy Key talks about in the speech is very process-oriented and oddly bureacratic. It's not action-focused and doesn't sound like it will hit me where I live. I guess the spin team could, in the short-term, safely assume that no-one will read past the 'more apprenticeships' headline, but it does nothing to establish a narrative for the year (or two years) ahead. It's treading water.

That lack of action is ironic, given that the heart of the speech stresses the need for investment. But the core initiatives National is pushing involve changes to laws, regulations and processes. They won't, themselves, invest. They want investors to do as they say, not as they do.

National is still stubbornly wed to its surplus by 2014/15 goal, no matter what, when the reality remains that the greatest hope for growth is some stimulus sparked by smart government spending. Business is lacking confidence as much as anything. As Key intimated, capital will go where it thinks there's a pay-off, where there's a buzz. Key insists in the speech he's hands-on and hard at work - but his examples amount to little more than fiddling with red tape and building roads, which just isn't enough. Coming out of a financial crisis, the private sector will invest more when it sees the public sector investing, such as in apprenticeships.

The other omissions from Key's speech is any question about the right kind of investment. We want investment from New Zealanders, from foreign companies wanting to grow jobs, start businesses and re-invest here. What we're mostly getting, still, is foreigners buying land and existing firms.

Other impressions: Key finally seemed to confirm there'd be only two partial asset sales this year, not three. And it's clearer than ever that what we do with our natural resources is a clear and distinct line between those in government and those outside.

So while there are nuggets in this speech, and a fighting tone that's welcome for those of us who like a bit of robust democracy, it feels very much like a second-term speech where the government of the day is simply ticking off a to-do list it wrote three years ago. The question remains, 'is that all you've got?'.

And given National's refusal to invest in New Zealand, it seems the answer is 'yes'.