Unique circumstances that keep on happening... and Australia

The government had its hand firmly on the economic tiller this week, tacking strongly through the waves of crisis and public opinion. Then Bill English gave a speech and stumbled

National hasn't won many fans this past week, what with the waka and the move to prop up insurance company AMI. But it actually deserves a round of applause, not least for acknowledging that we live in a mixed economy that requires governments to get their hands dirty now and then.

Another bailout - even a mere potential one that at this stage has not cost taxpayers a cent and actually earned us $15 million - is the last thing New Zealanders want to read about. The government is in part victim of its own rhetoric - talking up our debt and the need for austerity, only to find that circumstances in the real economy demand a more generous approach. But let's be clear - it did the right thing with AMI, just as it did the right thing with South Canterbury Finance, just as Labour did the right thing with Air New Zealand, and so on.

Indeed, what the AMI deal shows is that governments have learnt to man up when dealing with the private sector. When the fourth Labour government started doing deals under Roger Douglas, we were ripped off and played for chumps by Michael Fay and his partners in economic crime. But the AMI deal is tough and should be a model for future bailouts. The insurance company has had to put nothing less than ownership on the table to win a government guarantee, and cash up front, as well.

As Bill English said on Q+A this morning, taxpayers are willing to pay out in "unique circumstances". Such a bailout is the "least worst option".

The political problem is that this isn't "unique"; ie a one off. It keeps happening. And as Hone Harawira pointed out on Friday, it's the rest of us that save the big companies when they fail to meet their obligations. But when you, me or the beneficiary down the road fails, we're on our own. For good measure we might get a good kicking as a "bludger" and have our rights or state support removed.

It's not fair, and it is starting to grate with voters. Again, let me say the government was right. But somethings can be unfair and still right, as in this case.

As for the tupperwaka, well, if we can spend millions on an inflatable rugby ball, then why not a blow-up waka doing the same job for Maori business and culture?

Like the RWC 2011 ball, the waka can go round the world, host functions, take a little bit of the tangata whenua to other whenua, and hopefully grow the immense potential we have in more cultural tourism. It's an investment, and a small one at that. While it's at odds with National's austerity message, it's actually consistent with its talk of investment in growth.

So Bill English can feel good about his difficult week; until his speech at the New Zealand-Australia Leadership Forum, that is. It's worthy of a separate post, but talking about our low wages as a "good thing" that can help growth really is a no-win argument.

Again, old pragmatist Bill says he's just fronting with the economic realities. Our wages suck, so let's turn them to our advantage.

But politically he might as well stab himself in the heart. This is a government that ran election ads about the stadium full of New Zealanders heading offshore for better pay; which introduced (and then ignored) a 2025 Taskforce to offer solutions; and which, more than else, won the confidence of voters by promising to be "Ambitious for New Zealand".

Two years on and the Finance Minister is left trying to tell us that one great way for us to to grow our wages is to have really low wages. It doesn't make sense. It's reactionary. And at some stage, even if you're doing the right thing in response to all the urgent crises, voters' patience will begin to wear thin.