Their conservative PM isn’t doing much to reverse New Zealand’s economic decline. Still, he seems nice
I lived in New Zealand for 11 years until late 2004 and have been back a number of times, most recently just a fortnight ago. I was on the South Island, down south of earthquake-hit Christchurch in Dunedin.
As always the Kiwi people are wonderfully friendly, and resilient, and upbeat. But after nearly six years living across the Tasman in Brisbane, you can’t help noticing that New Zealand seems poor. And the economy looks to be stuffed. Worst of all, the Kiwi Prime Minister comes across as an ‘all things to all men’ sort of guy who isn’t in politics so much to get things done and improve the prospects of most New Zealanders as to be liked and not rock the boat.
He’s a slowly-slowly pragmatist through and through. When the earlier left-wing Labour government of Helen Clark won office, the party’s number two man Michael Cullen summed up what the Labour approach would be with this pithy little maxim: ‘We won, you lost, eat it.’
Whatever you think of that approach, you could never pin it on Key and his National party government. Having come into office they have done remarkably little that you might expect from a right-of-centre party. They left in place the law criminalising parents who smack their children, merely claiming that the police would enforce it sensibly — meaning, one assumes, that the law would not be applied equally to everyone.
And what of the massive government spending as a percentage of gross domestic product they inherited? Ah, well, they didn’t do anything about that. In fact, they increased it ever so slightly, though truth be told in the past few days they have made noises about reducing it. Possibly.
Then there’s the idiotic interest-free loans for all university students, possibly the most inefficient way to spend money on tertiary institutions ever devised by man. The Key government left that in place too.
Same goes for Working for Families, a form of middle-class welfare so awful even Key once described it as a sort of communism. That, too, is still in place. So, in most important respects, is the Labour government’s Employment Relations Act. Oh, and the Key government even legislated an Emissions Trading Scheme, as though this would do anything other than further impoverish New Zealand.
Let me put it this way. Key is perhaps the only politician on the planet from a right-of-centre party who can make British Prime Minister David Cameron look like a small government, low-spending man of action. Key seems simply to float above it all as a genuinely likeable man whose greatest asset is, well, that he’s not former Labor PM Helen Clark. He may govern not too differently from the way she did. But he’s nicer and gives off the aura of moderation.
So the fiscal deficit in New Zealand is forecast soon to hit 9 per cent. That’s not Greece, or California, but it’s not far off either. And the goal Key and his government made an explicit priority on first taking office, to catch up with Australian living standards, well, that’s now a lost cause. In fact the 2025 taskforce set up by Key to recommend how to achieve that goal in a couple of decades has had its recommendations almost wholly ignored. They’ve mostly been rubbished by the people who asked for them.
Meanwhile, the government itself offers up basically nothing. It clearly has no idea about how to catch up with Australian living standards, not least because being seen to be nice overrides all other concerns. It’s not even clear that it has any intention of wanting to do so any more. You see, that would require having to implement things that some people wouldn’t like.
And through it all Key remains immensely popular. He is miles ahead of Labour leader Phil Goff. If elections were simply about choosing the most affable guy going who won’t ever frighten the horses, then it’s hard to see Key losing to anyone, ever.
For those, though, who think winning office is just a prelude to implementing an overarching and philosophically-based program that improves things for most people, Key is an awful prime minister. It’s hard to see what his legacy will be, other than winning a few elections and leaving things pretty much as he found them before handing back to Labour at some point.
It’s not why everyone goes into politics, let me put it that way.
Which brings us to the big referendum on the voting system that will be held later this year at the same time as the election. Nearly 20 years on, Kiwis will get another say on the 1993 decision they made (53 per cent to 47 per cent) to move to the German-style MMP voting system. This is a highly proportional system, and in my view one of the reasons for New Zealand’s poor economic performance since that time.
You see, some people get into parliament under MMP without actually winning a seat and just because their party leader puts them at the top of a list. And smaller parties have a highly disproportionate say, as anyone watching the Foreshore and Seabed saga from afar would observe. It’s a system that forces compromise no matter the dire economic straits. It’s one that favours those who aim to be nice and not cause trouble.
That may be why Key is taking no steps to campaign against MMP in this upcoming referendum. His core National party voters are the most anti-MMP voters in New Zealand. But the system suits Key just fine.
Meanwhile, MMP advocates talk vaguely of fixing up unspecified aspects of MMP in unspecified ways at an unspecified time should they win on this referendum.
Personally, if MMP does win later this year, I think pessimism for the long-term economic future of New Zealand will be very hard to avoid.
James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland.