Monday, January 04, 2010

2010: New Zealand

To start things off I thought I'd observe, what I think will be the key things of note in various countries. Given my absence for some months, I thought New Zealand would be a good place to start.

It's been just over a year since the National - Maori/ACT/Peter Dunne government was elected, and what's been of note is that things are pretty much business as usual. After all, having defeated Helen Clark, fully supporting her candidacy to lead the UNDP (of which she is doing a less than sterling job) and granting her the Order of New Zealand, speaks volumes. Labour lite indeed.

There has been hysteria from the union and environmental movements about John Key's government being another "New Right" revolution. It shows little sign of this at all. Nothwithstanding tentative steps to open part of ACC's business to competition (deliberately mislabelled "privatisation" by Marxists), National's solution to most areas of state activity has been to spend more money. Education and health have been tinkered with, and there is more interest in using private contractors to carry out activities paid for by taxpayers. There is a tougher stance on welfare, yet the most recent expansion of the welfare state - Working for Families - remains intact. In transport, the Nats are less willing to throw good money after bad on rail (but still willing to do so), and more willing to throw bad money on roads.

There have been modest tax cuts, but little other sign of wanting to shrink the size of the state. At best, it has been slowing the growth. Auckland is to get a mega-council, without its powers constrained, only avoiding race based political representation by the skin of its teeth. The rest of New Zealand local government will still exist within the Labour/Alliance model of virtually unlimited general competence, with only some barriers to privatisation removed.

On the core activities of state, the main response has been to increase powers of surveillance and to remove presumptions of innocence around possession of property suspected to have been acquired through crime, including drug offences. There have been no apparent moves to reduce regulation or increase individual liberty, at all.

In fact, besides some minor steps, about all that's noticeable is rhetoric that is more pro-business, without the unionist tint, and a change in personnel. National is being pretty much what it said it would be, and what I expected it to be. A conservative party that changes little, that slows down the growth of the state, and is not overtly socialist, but unwilling to reverse policies that are essentially socialist in nature. Why be surprised? It was how National always has tended to be. Only from 1990-1993 did it show some promise on economic freedom, and only partly.

With the Nat's overwhelming dominance, what can be said of its political partners?

ACT can say what? It has helped create the Auckland megacity? It fought to keep it from being contrary to ACT and National party by being partly race based? It got a Brash led inquiry commissioned that the government has largely ignored? It has little to show for, which can be seen in why perhaps its greatest achievement might be Roger Douglas finishing off eliminating compulsory tertiary student union membership. Good, but little else. Will ACT supporters feel a bit cheated after three years or are they satisfied in simply being the Nat's alternative to the Maori Party?

The Maori Party of course can say it has accomplished getting more booty from taxpayers. Money for Maori homes (!) to get insulation, and support for the beleagured World Cup Rugby broadcast bid. Beyond that, perhaps the Maori Party is most satisfied at getting portfolios outside Cabinet, and not being booted out for Hone Harawira's vile bigoted comments. The Maori Party can say it is in government, and no doubt the Labour Party is likely to need it if it ever wishes to be in power again. So in essence, it can say to Maori it is better to be in power, getting something than not being there. Its core constituency is unlikely to have been burnt yet, as National doesn't NEED the Maori Party, but chose it.

Peter Dunne of course continues his career as a one man band as Minister, showing himself willing to switch sides to keep in power and now able to show off his totem of the Transmission Gully motorway as his personal achievement, at your expense.

Meanwhile, Phil Goff has sought to distance Labour from the "nanny state" past under Helen Clark. However, as long as National doesn't rock the boat, and Labour is partly blamed for the recession (or lack of growth), it faces an uphill struggle in campaigning for 2011. The Greens meanwhile face life without Jeanette Fitzsimons or Sue Bradford, and trying to cope with what is increasing scepticism about the climate change agenda. It is a brand that remains strong and full of dedicated vehement supporters, and is probably the more effective opposition. However, it is difficult to see it breaking too far out of its base. Meanwhile, expect Jim Anderton to announce his retirement, and Winston Peters to attempt to kick start his political career yet again, and fail.

The bigger event of the year politically is the local body elections, which will see most attention fall on Auckland. Some ACT supporters have suggested the mega-city will inherently be conservative and centre-right, though quite what that means other than being less fiscally loose is unclear. Leadership of greater Auckland will be coveted, because it will for the first time be the largest political entity controlled outside central government. It will potentially be a formidable ally or challenge to the Government. I for one will only be interested in whether it reduces the rates and regulatory burden on Aucklanders.

Beyond it all is the economy, which will be driven by export demand, which is likely to pick up in Australia and parts of Asia. However, the outlook for tourism remains bleak. Inbound tourism from Europe, especially the UK is unlikely to recover in the next year, likewise from North America. As the two main sources of premium value tourists, this will especially hit tourist centres, only partly offset by Australians and higher volumes of budget value Chinese tourists. Japan's long running recession will continue to hurt. New Zealand will remain vulnerable to trends towards protectionism or at least not changing the status quo in both the US and Europe, as Obama is uninterested in the WTO round, and Europe remains unmotivated.

Meanwhile, little will be done to address competitiveness. Spending more will be seen as as the solution to health and education, along with nanny state type regulations and campaigns. The RMA largely unchanged, will continue to be a barrier to the exercise of property rights and economic growth, as well as genuine environmental protection. The Nats will still seek to bind New Zealand to treaties to reduce CO2 emissions, notwithstanding that it will harm the economy and do nothing at all to the environment (and positively allow many countries to grow unhindered).

I would dearly love to be wrong, but all I can see are not enough reasons to come back. There are reasons enough to live away from NZ in terms of opportunity, pay and excitement, but nothing has been done to change my point of view. This is even though I have a standing job offer I can take if I wish, it isn't really enough to make it worthwhile.

So 2010 wont be a revolution, it wont be much of a change at all, in fact it's probably exactly what many of you wanted - change in personnel and rhetoric, but not so much change in policies.


ZenTiger said...

I cringed when I read your description of National as a "Conservative" government, because to my mind, a true Conservative Government would be unwinding much of the bureaucracy and socialist policies of the last 9 years.

I for one am in the other camp - this is not what I wanted (perhaps what I expected, but that's a different issue).

I did get one thing out of National winning the 2008 election though - Labour out. Can you imagine the mandate Clark and Cullen would assume if they had won in 2008? It would be scary, I'm sure.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why you are expressing such surprise and disappointment with National. Even a cursory study of NZ politics will show it is the "do nothing" party of NZ. This policy has served National well ever since it formed its first government in 1949. And why do you expect more from ACT? A disparate collection of hasbeens and wannabees that has little broad appeal and which even in a swing away from the left managed to gather less than 4% of the vote. The public is not exactly falling over itself to see far right policies implemented even if the far right blogging community is. Hide (and Act) may not survive the next election purely because of his selfish behaviour though I think the people of Epsom are probably stupid enough to vote him in again providing National is prepared to undermine its own candidate as per usual. Ian