Fran O'Sullivan: Global crisis set to test National

Prime Minister John Key celebrates with supporters on election night. Photo / Greg Bowker
Prime Minister John Key celebrates with supporters on election night. Photo / Greg Bowker

John Key has won a clear mandate to partially privatise state assets to help eliminate the Budget deficit. But storm clouds gathering on the international horizon will test National's economic management during its second term in Government.

In his victory speech, Key provided the right strokes when he spelt out the National-led Government would be focused on "building a more competitive economy with less debt, with more jobs and with higher incomes". These are comforting noises as far as business is concerned. They also indicate that the Prime Minister is intent on delivering on a higher level of ambition during the next three years.

Achieving this result against the prevailing conditions will require our poll-driven PM to make some tough calls. Business believes Key's slogans must be matched with action. National's action plan did achieve some cut-through amid the political clutter. The plan indicates which policies that the National-led Government will prioritise.

But in truth, it does not represent the comprehensive and visionary economic plan that business wants. Business lobbies - and top-flight chief executives - will be looking to Key to provide that through the "speech from the throne" when Parliament reopens in February for the 2012 parliamentary year.

The returning Key Government faces many variables. Key should find it relatively easy to strike a business-friendly confidence and support arrangement with United Future's Peter Dunne and Act's John Banks. Dunne has been Revenue Minister under successive governments. Banks - if he chooses to take up a ministerial role rather than concentrating on rebuilding Act - should be a shoo-in for something like the police or corrections portfolio.

Maori Party grumbles over "asset sales" will be easily assuaged by cutting iwi into the action (something which the Iwi Leadership Group wants and is on the cards in any event).

The real test will come if the slowing international economy impacts on jobs and tax revenues. There is the potential for international asset prices to decline across the board. If this happens, the partial privatisation programme will have to be carefully staged to deliver the best price for the taxpayers who own 100 per cent of the three state-owner power companies, 100 per cent of Solid Energy and 74 per cent of Air New Zealand. That's the downside. But the upside - if the programme is appropriately staged and politically sold - should result in New Zealand moving further down the track towards the ownership society.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Key drew on some positive results from the Herald's Mood of the Boardroom survey. Who could blame him for feeling chuffed when 98 per cent of CEOs surveyed said they wanted him back as Prime Minister for another three-year term and 88 per cent said National had the best policies for business.

But Key should drill down further and take a look at the direct messages top CEOs sent him in their responses to an open-ended question asking what they wanted to see from a second-term Key Government. There is a real sense of urgency among business leaders that a returning Key Government is not prepared for difficult times.

Assuring them that the Government is working on a Plan - and a Plan B - has to be a priority to maintain business confidence.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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