Hard News by Russell Brown

Anything Could Happen

New Zealand has been a good place these past six years. There are the hard numbers: the lowest unemployment in the OECD and, for part of that time, the highest economic growth. The New Zealand stock market has boomed while others have gone south. The rich got richer - and so, remarkably, did the poor. While unacceptable need remains, a long trend in poverty rates has been reversed. That is a remarkable achievement in itself. We have even managed to take a step that has eluded most OECD countries and begun to save for the baby-boomer retirement bulge.

This is not the performance of a becalmed socialist state. Indeed, three days ago, the New York Times ran a story on the results of this year's World Bank "doing business" survey. It was headed: New Zealand Named Best Nation for Business. That is, "the most business-friendly nation in the world". A couple of days before that, New Zealand was placed third equal on the Cato Institute's Economic Freedom of the World report. Ahead of us, only the city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore.

In general, this is a good thing. Markets are usually the best way of allocating resources. But they don't buy you social cohesion and a sense of identity. And we've had that: a kind of national confidence, a good sense of ourselves, that I don't recall being apparent at many, if any, other times in my life.

Where we remain off the pace is in wages and salaries. The proportion of our GDP composed of wages and salaries remains lower than that in comparable countries (most of them with a good deal less "economic freedom" than us). If I agree with Winston Peters on anything, it's that our problem is not high taxes, it's low wages. And not unrelated to that is a developing sense in sections of the public that they are not being well-served and have not had their just deserts. Hence, our interesting election.

So here's where I'm at …


Labour bollocksed up its tax policy - Cullen should have strengthened Working for Families at the low and middle end and made a meaningful adjustment to income thresholds for everyone else. (This is not to say that most families won't be at least as well off, if not better, under the expanded Working for families, just that it has proven so difficult to sell that fact that Labour has apparently just given up.) It also bollocksed up the presentation of its student loans sweetie, to potentially damaging effect.

National bollocksed up nearly everything else.

Honestly, anyone who thinks National's policy in good order simply hasn't been reading National's policy. An alarming amount of it is vague (I've lost count of how many "reviews" have been promised), some of it is derisory (that pathetic 82-word Communications policy) and some of it simply doesn't make sense in the face of evidence (work for the dole, abolishing parole, energy).

Georgina Te Heuheu, who is responsible for Arts & Culture and Broadcasting, has no apparent affinity for either. I assume she'd be rolled pretty easily come Budget time, and that worries me. I am, as I have noted before, a cultural nationalist, and I think a good part of our sense of ourselves springs from diverse cultural expression. Although I had my doubts about it at the time, I think the voluntary music targets scheme agreed with the commercial radio industry has been an extraordinarily successful accord. One in five songs on commercial radio are ours. Ten years ago, the figure was one in 50. In 1999, the National Library of New Zealand was selling books to cover costs. Now, it is entrusted with guidance of the National Content Strategy, a visionary project aimed at creating a common repository of information. I find it immensely heartening that the words "Creative Commons" currently appear in New Zealand government policy.

The way that a number of National's policies have needed a touch-up before the paint was even dry on them is bizarre. John Key's improbable (as in, I don't believe it for a minute) promise that National would come up with some special new benefit - costing hundreds of millions of dollars! - to make sure that existing state house tenants were no worse off under market rents is probably the most notable example.

If there is one policy among them all that truly deserves to be called evil, it's that of market rents for state houses. There is a mountain of evidence to say that that policy created poverty and great public health problems in the 1990s, and reasonable evidence that it caused rental inflation across the market, hurting the private renters National claims to be helping. Brash told Linda Clark that he simply hadn't read the evidence. It's not clear whether anybody did. If Centrebet starts offering odds on the poverty rate rising if National gets in, get yourself a piece of that. It's a racing certainty.

The wider issue with National's policy promises is that, as I've explained in some detail over the past couple of weeks, I seriously don't believe they have all been funded in its budgeting. I'm more relaxed about the proposal to raise debt for infrastructure spending - that's quite conventional (it is Cullen's hard-nosed attitude to public debt that has been unconventional, although, with an eye on future demographic pressures, I've been comfortable enough with it). But National's tax and spending promises do not hold water and the lack of transparency on them makes me uneasy.

I've been pondering the possibility that National simply wouldn't implement its ropier, or less practical, policies. We've perhaps seen something of the kind with the covert rollout of work for the dole, under the guise of environment policy. (A National spokesman later said that all that that had been budgeted for with respect to work for the dole was two pilot schemes.) This wouldn't impress me. You elect governments on the basis of what they say they will do, not what they decide they can get away with.


I don't rate Don Brash, primarily because I really don't think he's his own man. I find his lack of knowledge of his own party's policies bewildering (can you imagine Helen Clark not knowing even the basics of major policy areas like Housing, on the day they're released?), and it seems unlikely that his idiot-savant behaviour would end with his election. Even The Press, which has been fanatically pro-National in this campaign called him "ignorant" and "bumbling" and described the "unpleasant undertones" of his views on race relations in its editorial backing National.

Frogblog today has a look at the vastly better public assessment of Clark's character over that of Brash in two polls in the last 24 hours. If National wins, Brash will suffer the dubious distinction of becoming Prime Minister without being the preferred Prime Minister in any recent poll. (By way of comparison, even Jenny Shipley's APEC-factor boost in the polls had been completely erased by the time we went to the 1999 election.) That would not be a very promising basis on which to start.

Helen Clark? She has her obvious flaws, most notably that the first person she convinces when she's bullshitting is herself (Brash, on the other hand, frequently gives the impression of not having convinced himself). She showed a strange lack of political nous in her handling of the motorcade business, and it is clear that a chunk of the voting population loathes her with a passion. Sometimes she seems too consumed with management to stand up and express a vision.

But she is, demonstrably, a genuine leader. If the shit was to hit the fan, she's the one any sensible person would want at the helm.


The Greens absolutely deserve a shot at government. They have been organised and consistent and on one or two key issues, they are ahead of the pack on policy. National's high-stakes strategy of grabbing all the vote by killing off minor parties may or may not bear fruit. But even if Winston makes it back, his offer of support on confidence and supply does not bode well for manageable government, especially for National, which has no other options.

The Mainstream and the Maoris

I'm not mainstream. Don Brash said so in the TV3 leaders' debate last night. Indeed, according to Dr Brash, no one who subscribes to Labour's ideas, or is Maori, is a mainstream New Zealander. This isn't a vision, it's an insult. Indeed, the problem with National's appeal to the "mainstream" is that it is simply a campaign pitch aimed at unearthing residual resentment.

I'm familiar with the resentment: it came up frequently in research for Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas about ourselves. For much of last century, New Zealanders were smug, suspicious of difference and the perceived privilege of others. We denied ourselves economic dynamism through denying cultural dynamism. At the same time, of course, we were a practical and caring people.

Chris Trotter wrote a great column this week on the "Janus-faced" nature of the national character, called Whaddarya? The title is a reference to Bill Pearson's 'Fretful Sleepers'. ("Is Pearson's twisted version of our national character the aspect of ourselves that we should never wake?" writes Trotter. "All those 'fretful sleepers' twitching and groaning in their suburban fastnesses, dreaming of the day when every hurt and slight, real or imagined, can be paid back with interest.") I've been thinking of 'Fretful Sleepers' too.

One of the more depressing moments of this campaign was the deliberate demonisation of the poor old man in in Taranaki who had applied for one of the handful of publicly-funded sex-change operations conducted each year. Applied, that is, not been granted. He had every right to do so, and he had every right not to be roped into a callous political appeal to resentment and bigotry. The pursuit of a moral backlash has been stage-managed, even unto Brash voting against his own liberal philosophy on the Civil Union Bill.

But if there is one element of National's platform that really makes me fear for the future, it is its stance on "race". National promises to abolish Te Puni Kokiri, Te Mangai Paho, the Maori Land Court, the Waitangi Tribunal, and the Office of Treaty Settlements; to wipe out the Maori seats; to remove references to the Treaty from legislation; to cut off any acknowledgement of Maori interest in the seabed and foreshore. To, in sum, dispose of 20 years' of solution-finding with nothing to put in its place.

It never ventures on the extent to which this might cause damaging social unrest, but does anybody think Maori are going to just lie down while their constitutional distinctiveness is erased? While they are compulsorily assimilated? I'm not willing to see that happen. I have to live here too.

The terrifying ease with which this platform can be advanced on the hoof has been demonstrated on the campaign trail. Gerry Brownlee, in a live interview, venturing that perhaps the "race based" Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs could be folded into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Brash, under questioning from Alastair Thompson, saying that "of course" the Treaty curriculum in schools would be changed to bring it into line with his government's policy. Whether, presumably, the teachers, the historians and the parents liked it or not.

If Labour loses the election, it will be on tax policy. If National loses, it will be because a grouo of otherwise sympathetic voters decided that they could not stomach its appeal to resentment and bigotry. Were National presenting itself as a modern, pluralist party with essentially the same economic vision, I would be far more relaxed about a change of government. Perhaps we'd find that it wasn't so bad after all. But as things stand, I'm pretty sure that this year's model - with the grubby little fixers in the engine room - would be bad for the country I live in.

At any rate, we'll have to wait and see, because the polls are telling us nothing on which we can rely. The remarkable thing is that, in the words of The Clean, 'Anything Could Happen'. And (although it is about something else altogether) the chorus of that song is as a good a way to conclude as any:

Anything could happen
And it could be right now
The choice is yours
So make it worthwhile …