National veering left on asset sales?

Privatisation of state assets in 2011 looked like a safe bet... until yesterday when Bill English hinted at a 'run better' rather than a 'sell-off' strategy

National's promise not to sell any state assets in its first term was always a two-edged sword for John Key's leadership of the National party.

It was the foundation on which New National was built and set apart from earlier versions of the blue brand; indeed, when pundits list his defining calls as leader and talk about his rejection of Winston Peters and his embracing of the Maori Party, his rejection of his party's beloved privatisation is often omitted. On the other edge of that blade, however, the clear time limit glinted and caught the eye. It has always seemed to say, 'once you get to know me, like me, and are used to me as a centrist, I will to return to my right-wing ways. Come 2011 all bets are off'.

A time limit always hints at expediency, suggesting a promise made out of political calculation rather than conviction. And it implies another promise; that in 2011 when the time limit on the first promise ends, the alternative is not only possible once more, it's a certainty.

'No privatisation until 2011' always meant that privatisation would be a defining issue of that year's election. Key would be under pressure from those on the right of his cabinet to seek a mandate for privatisation. At the very least, they would want the opportunity of partial privatisation along the lines of Air New Zealand, which is owned roughly three-quarters by the state and a quarter by private interests.

That desire is driven in part by purely ideological beliefs and the ACT-like theory that the private sector always manages business better than the public sector (a belief that endures even in the face of a global recession that proved otherwise). But the more considered arguments are that it would give sound, local assets for property-obsessed Kiwis and the Super Fund to invest in and provide some fresh fruit to our wilting stockmarket.

And while none of that has changed, an interesting new interpretation of Key's 2011 promise emerged yesterday in Guyon Espiner's interview with Bill English on TVNZ7's now infamous 'National's First Year' programme last night.

Espiner asked the Finance Minister if he would commit to no partial privatisation while he was in the job. English wouldn't make that promise, saying instead that the government hadn't considered changing that policy "yet". It was the kind of evasion you'd imagine. But what he said next was fascinating:

"Instead of focusing on just a few assets that could be potentially sold, we're looking at all the government's assets. The government has about $150 billion worth of assets it holds on behalf of the taxpayer. The vast bulk of those it will always own and we're looking hard at managing those better because if we can manage those 10 percent better that's a lot more capital available for schools and hospitals and the other public services we want."

He said the performance of SOEs was being "tidied up", but that he wasn't looking for more aggressive commercialisation from them. Rather, he was referring to other state assets.

"The rest of the assets the government owns need to be run better on behalf of the taxpayer, we shouldn't be allowing them to rundown, we should be managing them for the longer-term benefit, not short-term gain."

English didn't spell out which assets he's talking about, but his words put a new light on how this government is looking at state assets. Remarkably, there's more than a hint of Jim Anderton in those words. English seems to be suggesting that the one-off, short-term profit of a sale doesn't make as much sense as running the government sector more efficiently and effectively for the taxpayer.

He certainly didn't rule out some sales and he's not exactly embracing the 'public good' argument. But he seems to be talking about the public sector running the state's assets better, rather than hocking them off. It's the sort of language we used to hear from the fourth Labour government in its first term, before the then plain Roger Douglas went ferrel.

There's still plenty of room for debate about what running these assets "better" means and one or two sentences a new policy doth not make. However, the hint in those words is that a 2011 fire sale may not be as inevitable as it once looked. Given that the words were spoken by English, who's assumed to be to the right of Key and pushing for a more Treasury-like approach to the economy, it's especially interesting.

Given that Key listed his guiding principles this week as "equity, fairness and predictability", could it be that the right of the National party is disappointed when it comes to privatisation policy for the 2011 election?