Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Mood of the Boardroom: English - star of the show

Finance Minister Bill English has won praise from CEOs for his 'exceptional' performance

Prime Minister John Key and his right-hand man, Bill English
Prime Minister John Key and his right-hand man, Bill English

Finance Minister Bill English has emerged as the hidden "star" of the Key Government pole-vaulting boss John Key for the second year in a row to emerge as the highest rated Cabinet Minister by leading chief executives.

"Bill English has really been an exceptional Minister of Finance," said BusinessNZ CEO Phil O'Reilly. "He has been sober, boring and sensible but the macro settings have been just right. He deserves more credit for that."

English's "Southland determination" to get the country's books back into order and "dour, no-nonsense personality" are cited by chief executives as making him the perfect foil for a populist prime minister. "He can just get on with the business," said a financial markets chief.

The Herald's 2013 Mood of the Boardroom CEOs Survey, in association with BusinessNZ, found widespread support for English's management of the economy.

Even the PM's own highest personal rating was for economic management rather than other attributes such as leadership. A factor which some chief executives said should really be ascribed to English.

The Finance Minister's ability to deliver on his aim to post a Budget surplus in 2014/2015 has been buoyed by growing taxation returns off the back of stronger corporate profits; the proceeds of the partial privatisation programme and a determination to keep government spending under control.

In his post-Budget speech to the Trans Tasman Business Circle John Key spelt out how he would like New Zealanders to remember his government. Key said if the Government can achieve a step change in New Zealand, "in years to come they will say 'I think that it held its nerve and fundamentally guided us through the global financial crisis and the Christchurch earthquakes and it set the country up to grow during a period of dramatic change in Asia' and that is going to be a far bigger gift.

"New Zealanders will have jobs and families will have independence."

Seventy-two per cent of chief executives responding to the CEOs survey agreed that the Key-led Government has achieved that positive legacy; 9 per cent said No and 19 per cent were unsure.

"I think it is well on the way to potentially achieving that legacy but I don't think it can declare victory just yet," said Deloitte chief executive Thomas Pippos. "John seems to have the bit between his teeth now," observed a capital markets player.

"He is now showing leadership as he is mandated to show. Convention centre, infrastructure investment in Auckland, explaining the importance of the China relationship, MoM.

"He is elected to lead and not get distracted by the irrelevant."

There was more praise on the economic front.

"Most New Zealanders will not realise until much later what a great job Messrs Key, English and others have done steering New Zealand through the challenges of the last few years," added First NZ Capital's Scott St John.

"The way they have protected NZ households by maintaining fiscal discipline and keeping interest rates low has been very important.

"Amazing that we have come through the Global Financial Crisis with a short recession, low unemployment, Government debt at under 30 per cent, credit ratings OK and earthquakes," added a wholesale trade CEO. "Overall it is impressive stuff.

"The only real shortfall is the rebalancing of the economy for long-term sustainability - the 10-15 year stuff has been avoided."

Others criticised the Key Government for not raising the age of eligibility for NZ Superannuation to 67 years to take the pressure off younger generations of taxpayers. One said there was no real "step-change"evident and "the Christchurch rebuild is not heading in a good direction and runs the risk of being a drag rather than a stimulus."

Many CEOs commented this was the Key Government's achilles heel with some predicting that this "sleeper issue" could cost National the next election.

High-profile distractions like the Kim Dotcom affair and United Future leader Peter Dunne's forced resignation as Revenue Minister undermined Key's leadership, according to several CEOs.

"Although John has had a challenging year, he still leads from the front and gives you confidence the country is going in the right direction," said Barfoot and Thompson director Peter Thompson.

"He is a strong, reliable leader who leads the way for his team to follow."

Hellaby Holdings John Williamson said he initially had doubts about the vigour of Key's economic management.

"New Zealand's performance relative to others suggests Key and English have both steered the economy very well through the global financial crisis."

Take a bow Bill.


Two Key views

Most New Zealanders will not realize until much later what a great job Messers Key, English and others have done steering New Zealand through the challenges of the last few years, - Scott St John

Although John has had a challenging year, he still leads from the front and gives you confidence the country is going in the right direction, - Peter Thompson


CEOs say Bill English's fifth budget:

79per cent struck a good balance between reducing the deficit and creating a growth environment

74per cent was correctly focused on achieving a surplus

76per cent believed the 2014/15 surplus target could be achieved

3.58/5 Overall rating

- NZ Herald

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