Island Life by David Slack

A Don Never Wears Shorts

Cast your mind back a few seasons in the Sopranos. Did you see the episode where the New York boss remarks to Tony, "A Don never wears shorts." You may not be surprised to learn that this gem was slipped into the script on the advice of People Who Know. An earlier barbecue scene in the series had perturbed them.

So what about election ads on the TV? How should a Don comport himself? What are we to infer from the spectacle of Don as a television puppet?

I suspect the National party advertising machine has concluded that the unvarnished and ever-so-slightly goofy and unworldly Don Brash resonates well with the voters. Voters sense they're not being spun. True, and not true.

Given the opportunity, he happily holds forth on the platform which motivated him to come into politics - the economy. Give him the chance and he'll tell you that New Zealanders will deplore economic growth but at the same time they will badly want the things that economic growth delivers. But he can't drum up much interest in that tune.

On the other hand, his strategy team have found some songs that will get everyone up and dancing: Treaty "nonsense", bureaucratic waste, perceived outrages, and the politics of self-interest. If those songs can put him in office, well, maybe he can get them singing his favourite one as well.

So it's spinning and puppets for the foreseeable future, and if the tax cut package can overcome Labour's gazumping, then perhaps in a month's time New Zealand will have the first Prime Minister ever to have held the position so revered by the business community: Chief Executive.

Just how that might play out will be interesting indeed. How well does your experience as a CEO equip you for the task of leading a caucus and cabinet of vaulting egos and disparate agendas? Thus far the evidence suggests it inclines you to boot people out of their portfolio if they don't fall in with the boss. If the talk is accurate it also suggests that you're left with unresolved policy tensions.

But you can't tell that to the true believers. I got an interesting email last month in response to the tax calculator from someone who thought we should be doing more to encourage New Zealand-trained doctors back to the country:

I currently make over $NZ150K and will eventually make more than $15NZmillion per year as a plastic surgeon here in Boston, USA - that amounts to a minimum of $4.5NZmillion in taxes that would go to NZ if I was conservative - take the 45 people in my class who left and have expressed the desire to stay away, and it amounts to more than the money we could save even by doing the logical and reducing the number of politicians to 25 highly-skilled business entrepreneurs paid market wages and firing the unskilled people in power who represent a sector of the country who have no idea how to run it anyway

Nice notion, if you're prepared to overlook the representation of all the interested parties that democracy tends to require in order to function successfully. As it happens I admire highly skilled people, I'm a fan of business, and I can't imagine living in a world without an entrepreneurial ethos. But I'd give a government of that composition about a year before it collapsed under the strain of dealing with the competing tensions in the society it aspired to run.

There's something of the same blinkered thinking in a contribution Annette Presley made this week to the Herald's collection of political blogs. Where are the nation's Key Performance Indicators? She asks.

Everyone understands KPIs, the major goals of a company. In most great companies these are measurements like EBIT (profit), revenue, and churn (how many customers you maintain and lose). There are many others below these but these are usually the main ones for a company. So here is my confusion- does anyone know what the government of NZ's KPIs are? Shouldn't they be the same?

This captures rather neatly one of the problems we have about perception and reality. You talk to people in business who will bang on about governments being wasteful, directionless and purposeless. But press them on this and you'll often find they have not a blind idea how our system of government works, and the roles of the bodies involved, and the process of reporting that's required of them.

The Public Finance Act and the State Sector Act are a good place to start. Here you will find that the whole process revolves around goals and outcomes. You only need to dig out a news release or speech from Michael Cullen to see that in fact there are some very clear over-arching measurements being used in the formulation of economic policy: debt and growth, to cut it to the barest of "Key Performance Indicators". If you click over to the Treasury website at any old time to see how we're doing, you'll find it set out in clear and informative terms.

And of course, yesterday, the government produced, as it is required to do, a pre-election briefing on the state of the nation's finances. I can't say I noticed what Dr Cullen was wearing, but my word it was quite a performance.