Fran O'Sullivan: Key comes out of corner swinging

54 comments
John Key is sending a welcome signal that despite the anxiety of many New Zealanders he is prepared to take a leadership role on asset sales. Photo / Greg Bowker
John Key is sending a welcome signal that despite the anxiety of many New Zealanders he is prepared to take a leadership role on asset sales. Photo / Greg Bowker

Four days after the election and it looks as if Prime Minister John Key is ready to spend some more political capital and deliver a second-term agenda which will keep business onside.

Key wasted no time in claiming a mandate for the partial privatisation programme.

Already he is plugging the mixed ownership model which will result in the state selling down its stakes in three power companies, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand to 51 per cent. Genesis Energy and Mighty River Power will be the first state-owned enterprises to issue shares in late 2012.

The National-led Government's economic programme was affected by the global financial crisis, domestic recession, the Canterbury earthquakes, the $1.75 billion bailout of South Canterbury Finance and the downgrading of New Zealand's credit rating.

But it still managed to orchestrate a "tax switch" and retain broad business confidence for most of that period.

By front-footing National's plan - even while confidence and supply negotiations continue with the Maori Party co-leaders who say they are against "asset sales" - Key is sending a welcome signal that despite many New Zealanders' anxiety he is prepared to take a leadership role on this score.

This is an encouraging sign for the style and tempo of National's second term. And it is exactly what business has been urging him to do.

In the Herald's Mood of the Boardroom election survey, the chief executives sent a strong message to Key to "harden up" - take tough decisions and back himself to win support for the consequences.

It is early days yet, but already his determination to press ahead with the programme is being noticed by the Financial Times and other internationally focused business newspapers who have framed the partial privatisation programme as one of the mechanisms which will help Key's Government tackle its record $18.4 billion budget deficit.

If he reinforces National's second-term agenda by quickly getting the welfare reform programme in place and moving on industrial issues, it will underscore local business confidence and send a signal to New Zealand's international bankers that the Government is determined to get its books back into shape.

There are always alternative options. But let's face it, the National-led Government effectively "booked" the proceeds of the share sales in last Budget's forecasts.

If Key was to bow to whipped-up pressure later on (and there will be plenty of that, stoked by NZ First and possibly also Labour, unless it decides to move on to fresh political pasture once it has finalised its election post-mortem), the Government would have to find the expected $5 billion to $7 billion in additional revenue from elsewhere.

This will not be an easy feat unless the Government chops some of the gold-plated welfare programmes it inherited from Labour, hikes taxes or borrows more.

It is critical that Key does deploy all his political salesmanship skills this term.

In the Government's first term, his failure to openly back and stand by then Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee's plans to mine on the conservation estate led to the programme being abandoned.

Key was the weak link. Not Brownlee, although the overall communication plan for the proposal was somewhat flaky.

Despite the challenges for National in its first term, Finance Minister Bill English did manage to orchestrate the tax switch with minimal fuss.

English will be once again confirmed as Finance Minister.

Moving Steven Joyce into the Economic Development portfolio - which has also been signalled - would be a sensible move.

The Ministry of Economic Development has been working on a raft of policies to boost New Zealand's international competitiveness and leverage the country's natural resources.

But it needs strong business-focused leadership.

Where Joyce - and for that matter Key - will have to tread carefully is on setting transparent boundaries where the Government is acting as a commercial player.

There is a perception among senior businesspeople that the National-led Government is too quick to cut commercial deals (even if on the taxpayers' behalf).

The Hobbit deal which Key cut with Warner Bros to ensure the film was made in New Zealand was okay as a one-off.

But when the Government trades its legislative powers to do deals with favoured parties in contestable bids the situation gets a bit too murky.

SkyCity's convention centre "bid" is a case in point. Telecom's successful tender for ultra-fast broadband where Joyce played a highly involved role has also been cited.

The Government does need to be careful to avoid the perception that it is mounting "contestable" processes simply to put pressure on a favoured party.

But Joyce's ability to get things done will be a plus.

The Government's action plan has been noted. However, the real challenge is to pull the strands together into a comprehensive plan to lift New Zealand's international competitiveness, excite investment, and deliver economic growth and jobs.

If Key is able to unveil just such a plan at February's opening of Parliament, it will certainly get business' attention.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

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.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a4 at 21 Oct 2014 19:12:09 Processing Time: 660ms