The politics of urgency

The real challenge confronting John Key's new National-led Government is the rush to judgment on its sense of urgency

“The world is experiencing what is now being described as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Global credit flows have dried up, financial institutions have fallen over, share markets have plunged and economies worldwide are falling into recession.”

Governor General Anand Satyanand’s speech from the throne clearly stated the challenge confronting not only his new government, but New Zealand and the wider world.

“My government… commits to an ongoing programme of personal tax reductions; a step up in infrastructure investment, a reduction in government bureaucracy in favour of frontline services; an across the board commitment to lifting productivity growth and a renewed effort to lift education standards.”

His new government’s general strategy is equally clear. It was also well-flagged in pre-election policy releases, in campaign announcements, and in an action plan for the new government’s first 100 days.

Within five days of Parliament’s opening, his new government’s critics were having a field day. Talk about “fire at will”. These critics are firing at anything that moves. Too much urgency – too little urgency. Too much stimulus – too little stimulus. Too much new law – too much stale stuff. Parliamentary novices – parliamentary manipulators. The only consistent element in this flood of criticism is the fact that it is consistently critical.

John Key’s response to this seems to be: “bring it on”. By last weekend, he could tick off an impressive list of promises already honoured.

  • Extension of publicly funded Herceptin treatment for cancer patients from 9 weeks to 12 months;
  • Another tranche of tax cuts to be implemented in April;
  • A 90-day probation provision for new employees;
  • Stiffer sentencing for violence of neglect of children
  • Tougher public risk criteria in decisions to grant bail
  • Authorisation for the establishment of national education standards in literacy and numeracy
  • Initiation of the review of emissions trading law
  • Scrapping the “expert panel / citizens forum” review of electoral issues and organization.

This week, he has embarked on a plan to expand his Christmas gift list to include

  • Repeal of the requirement for oil companies to supply biofuels
  • Repeal of the prohibition on the development of new fossil fuel power stations
  • Repeal of proscriptive Electoral Finance Act

He has also introduced himself to the political leadership of the Asia-Pacific region at APEC, visited his UK counterpart Gordon Brown, put the airforce on alert to fly stranded New Zealanders out of Thailand, sent his trade minister to initiate discussions on the post-Kyoto treatment of nations with agriculture-based economies, and has his foreign affairs minister resisting the efforts of Fiji’s Commander of All Things to bluster his way through the sanctions on travel to New Zealand by his colleagues and their relatives.

All in all, that is not a bad list.

Unfortunately, it has been rolled out and presented piece-by-piece rather than all-in-all. The inevitable result is that each action has been picked to pieces and the bigger picture is obscured.

Key needs to keep convincing the public that all the urgency is necessary, and that each action is part of a coherent plan to put New Zealand into a state of readiness for the worst that the world recession can throw our way.

He also needs to keep emphasizing the burnt-out financial state of his inheritance from the last Labour-led government. He will have an opportunity to do that when Bill English publishes the Treasury’s post-election economic and fiscal update this week.

We have been conditioned to expect the next set of Government books will be in worse shape than the last. There have been signs of unexpected strains in the individual State agencies’ briefs to the incoming Ministers, such as the previously unrevealed blow-out in the ACC non-earners’ account, the deferred maintenance of the State housing stock, and a whole host of individual project cost-overruns. We have yet to see the cumulative effect. It will be ugly.

So far, Key seems to have been prepared to endure the Labour opposition’s dubious suggestion that he has somehow deprived lower income New Zealanders of tax breaks, home insulation subsidies and other benefits that Labour promised but – in the changed real world – had little prospect of delivering.

He has still to capitalize on the Treasury’s assessment that New Zealand – on the track that he proposes taking – will have its government providing one of the larger economic stimulus programmes in the developed world.

He has yet to point to another list of government actions – where he has modified policy and plans in the face of reasoned criticism: abolition of the Maori seats and amendments to the KiwiSaver scheme adjustment being prime examples.

To those who decry his use of urgency and his short-cutting of the select committee process, he simply needs to point to the Electoral Finance Act and the much-modified and incomprehensibly complex Emissions Trading legislation to show that select committee consideration is no guarantee of a perfect outcome.

Fundamentally, Key needs to imbue all New Zealanders with his own sense of urgency and his own desire to see the country reacting quickly to the sudden, savage convulsions that are gripping the global economy. In this, he must move faster than his critics’ rush to judgment.