Hard News by Russell Brown



Our last November election took place on November 27, 1999. The day before, I delivered a Hard News commentary looking back at the election campaign and forward to tomorrow. It's instructive to observe what hasn't changed: John Campbell did most of the talking in the TV3 leaders' debate, for example. And the polls suggest a change of government. It is not a done deal, and the change could happen in a number of ways, but the odds are certainly with change.

If that does prove the case, I doubt that history will assess the Clark-Cullen Labour governments as dismissively as their critics do now. Labour's real achievements -- net government debt reduced from 20 billion to two billion before the current crisis; unemployment down to levels many people didn't think possible; a huge drop in the number of welfare beneficiaries, especially per capita; real wage growth; GDP growth that outstripped the OECD for years; a historic turnaround of trends in poverty; the repair of a public sector that was in dire straits by the end of the 90s; a serious attempt to address our savings problem via KiwiSaver and the Superannuation Fund; and a degree of stability that we now all take for granted -- outweigh any counterfactual.

In 20 years' time, those achievements will be regarded as prodigious and defining of an era. The fact that Helen Clark signed a painting for charity, or that her car once went really fast with a police escort on an open road; or the absurd mythology constructed around the departure of an under-performing police commissioner; none of these will be thought of as anything important.

It's a measure of success that a string of key initiatives are now part of the landscape: National has had no choice but to accept and embrace Working for Families and the Super Fund if it wants to be in government. It has been obliged to promise that it will not sell Kiwibank or anything else.

And yet it would be rational to be concerned about some of National's policies, insofar as they can be determined. Let's take ACC. The PriceWaterhouseCoopers report this year found that on virtually every measure it applied, ACC "adds considerable value to New Zealand society and economy and performs very well in comparison to alternative schemes in operation internationally." It costs us less and delivers more. Depending on how you parse it, "opening ACC up to competition" as National proposes, is either a poor idea or a really rancid one. Seriously -- there is simply no rational public interest case for privatising ACC.

I'm also in the curious position of finding some of National's policies too left-wing for my tastes. I'm disturbed in particular by the intention to introduce political direction of the Superannuation Fund investments. That would critically undermine the fund's real purpose -- to provide for a generational liability in 20 years' time -- and do conceptual damage to practices of governance and transparency of which post-economic-reform New Zealand can be proud. National's willingness to politically direct the decisions of Pharmac speaks of much the same thing.

Its broadband policy is also remarkably statist: it implies quite some degree of command in getting a bunch of unwilling telcos to tear up their business plans, ignore market signals and hand over ownership of their networks to a new entity half-owned by the government. The stated time-frame and costings are also unrealistic, and the "download a movie in seven seconds" sales pitch is bullshit.

Labour, on the other hand, deserves the benefit of the doubt in opting for a contestable funding model. It has already seen through historic telecommunications reforms that are beginning to truly bear fruit. Given the daunting complexity of such regulation, and the powerful interests at play, I would say that telecommunications reform has been this government's most impressive legislative achievement.

It would also be fair to say that Labour's legislative virtuosity has frequently gone missing in the past three years. Perhaps that's the curse of tired governments: reading the 1999 Hard News reminded me of the debacle that was Max Bradford's attempt to write legislation to reform the electricity sector.

Bradford (who, in saltier days, I referred to as "a platinum-plated prick") is gone, but I can't see why I should feel glad at the prospect of Murray McCully, Tony Ryall and Gerry Brownlee returning to the Treasury benches. Indeed, I find the prospect of McCully as foreign minister quite alarming. (Roger Douglas, if he re-enters Parliament, will largely be irrelevant; an old man chosen because he is the leader of a cult.)

On the other hand, my respect for Bill English, his intellect and work-rate, remains much as it was in 1999. I like Chris Finlayson too, because I like intellectuals in politics.

John Key? I still can't get a handle on him, or shake the feeling that he sees becoming Prime Minister as a mere career goal, but I think he has performed quite well through the campaign.

But if he is to be Prime Minister, he will not enter the role with the political capital or momentum that Clark possessed in 1999, and National does not have the policy depth or philosophical cohesion that Labour developed while it waited for power through the nineties. Perhaps it will be a straitened government for straitened times. I expect it to be competent.

The polls portend some interesting things: 10 Green MPs and a Maori Party that could yet choose the government, and bright new Labour MPs, like Phil Twyford and Grant Robertson. I would prefer that, if National can form a government, it needs support from other parties, and I actually expect the race to be tighter than the polls suggest. I will, as ever, vote for the party whose policies I prefer.

But in a week when our election has seemed dull in comparison to what happened in America, I'd like to do what I did in 1999, and pay tribute to the people who play an active part in our democratic process: who join parties, attend meetings and conferences, raise money, deliver leaflets and stand for office. Those of us who do not should feel grateful to them. Because it's too easy to be cynical.

PS: There's a Media7 election special screening from 7.10pm tomorrow night on TVNZ 7. It's shaping up really well. Simon Pound has produced a fascinating report on Hone Harawira's northern domain, we recorded a lunch interview with Richard Griffin, Richard Long and Mike Munro yesterday that produced far more great stuff than we can use, and it'll be stitched together with a panel comprised of Linda Clark, Laila Harre and Deborah Coddington. (If you'd like to come down to The Classic tomorrow morning for the panel recording -- and a sneak preview of the video -- just let me know. We'd need you there by about 9.15.)

Meanwhile, Wednesday night's Media7, with two New Zealanders who work as foreign correspondents for the Financial Times, and Indian political and security issues specialist Sudha Ramachandran -- kindly made available to use by the Asia: New Zealand Foundation (see Graham's write up on the seminar)-- is here on TVNZ ondemand. There are links to the other versions of the video on our TVNZ microsite.

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