It’s time John Key delivered his main policy planks
The Independent Financial Review, 2 October 2008
By Jenni McManus
Just as the United States House of Representatives this week rightly refused give a US$700 billion (NZ$1.04 trillion) blank cheque to Treasury Secretary Henry “Hank” Paulson, Kiwi voters should think twice about handing power to John Key.
Congress reacted with what commentators have termed “visceral discomfort” at the thought of giving Paulson, himself a product of Wall Street, carte blanche to save the butts of his mates, all on the taxpayers’ bill.
There was an information vacuum bordering on arrogance about the bailout itself, said the scheme’s critics. There had been insufficient grovelling from Paulson and Fed chairman Ben Bernanke. Taxpayers should get more than “just the avoidance of the apocalypse” for their dollars.
Such was the level of anger in some quarters that one Washington research economist, noting the Bush administration had allowed the crisis to happen in the first place, said: “It’s almost amazing that they can do this with a straight face. Paulson has been totally wrong about almost everything.”
Some viewed it as the banks effectively recapitalising at the expense of the taxpayer; others described it as a reward for failure. Best comment of the week came from The New York Times’ veteran columnist Maureen Dowd: “Who would have dreamed that when socialism came to the USA it would be brought not by Bolsheviks in blue jeans but by Wall Street bankers in Gucci loafers?”
How does all this relate to John Key?
A lack of leadership at the top echelons of government and an arrogant refusal to be accountable to voters.
Like George W Bush, who took 10 days to front up to the American people with some guidance on the proposed bailout, Key — five weeks from our election — has yet to tell voters what he believes about anything and what he might do if handed the Treasury benches on November 8.
Like Paulson, he wants to be handed a blank cheque. Clearly, he expects voters to elect him with no real notion of his plans. He wants to skid into government with as few policy commitments as possible. And voters might be stupid enough — or so despairing of what the business community views as nine years of weak economic management and “crackpot social issues” (Independent, August 14, 2008) — to let him get away with it.
Much has been written about Key’s failure to release policy detail — or even policy frameworks — in critical areas and his lack of a coherent economic vision to lead the country through the next three years.
Five weeks out from the election is simply too late for voters to absorb complex policy platforms. Is this actually what National wants?
Where, for example, are the detailed and decisive policies to combat the recession? Where was National’s strategy midway through last year when the US sub-prime market began to unravel? Where were Key and Bill English when the Kiwi property market tanked in March? How would they have handled the economy as increasingly desperate householders struggled with sudden increases in petrol, food and mortgage interest rates?
The simple answer is we don’t know. And the electorate needs to know these things before people can cast an informed vote.
Like the Senate Banking Committee, which heard the initial arguments on the US bailout plan, New Zealanders are being offered a pig in a poke.
For the past year, Key and English have been dodging anything that smells like policy commitment, telling private business dinners in Auckland and in Wellington that many of these matters will be decided when they get elected — or words to that effect.
Not only do we have no detailed policy in key areas such as the economy, health, education and the environment, but National has failed so far to spell out its plans for the Resource Management Act (a contentious issue for business), the Employment Relations Act (another key bone of contention), infrastructure development (becoming urgent as two power companies increase their prices this week), a new regulatory regime, dealing with crime and the long- promised referendum on MMP.
Nor will the party disclose what it will do about relatively straightforward matters such as the future of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and, more contentiously, whether it will repeal the SFO Act, thus allowing fraud suspects the right to silence when interrogated by the SFO.
Unemployment will be another big issue. Alasdair Thompson, chief executive of the Auckland Employers and Manufacturers Association, says 25% of the work being done by his organisation is helping employers who want to downsize.
These are not big companies; the layoffs are coming from small-to- medium sized businesses. So far the redundancies have been done quietly but the total is expected to be evident in the next quarter’s employment figures.
As a Washington commentator noted this week when discussing the proposed US bailout: “One might thank God that the cavalry is coming but what exactly is the cavalry going to do?” Ditto New Zealand. Five weeks from the election only one thing is certain. As always, we will get the government we deserve