Fran O'Sullivan: Oz needs the English influence

Finance Minister Bill English. Picture / Supplied
Finance Minister Bill English. Picture / Supplied

New Zealand needs Australia to come off its losing streak.

Revolving door prime ministerships and a deflated business community have caused the 'lucky country' to lose confidence.

This is one of the reasons why our leading politicians are held in high esteem in Australia.

But the more apposite reason; the one which underpins the wave of adulation that Bill English gets when he talks to business audiences in Australia comes down to governmental competence.

English's prowess as Finance Minister is acclaimed internationally; if not at home. There's not many countries in the OECD that sport strong economic growth.

And in Australia, the Key Government's philosophy of "incremental radicalism" is being talked up as a model that the Turnbull Government should adopt.

New Zealand's annual growth rate of 3.6 per cent is more than double the OECD rate of 1.6 per cent and compares with 3.3 per cent in Australia, 2.2 per cent in the United Kingdom, 1.2 per cent in the United States and 0.8 per cent in Japan; it is in fact third highest growth rate in the OECD. And something to skite about when it comes to transtasman rivalry. Except English is unlikely to do that.

He will once again be feted by Australian business when he goes to Sydney next week for the annual Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum. English and his counterpart Scott Morrison will speak at a private dinner during the forum.

They will also unveil a transtasman infrastructure pipeline as outlined by the Herald today.

When these forums first got underway, Peter Costello was the Australian Treasurer and Sir Michael Cullen was NZ's Finance Minister.

Costello initially tended to lord it over Cullen (though Cullen's occasional humour provided a sly counterpoint to Costello's bombast).

This was a time when Australia knew best about its provincial cousin.

Costello and Cullen launched an initiative to form an Australasian single economic market.

Australian politicians, officials and businesspeople initially interpreted that as an invitation for New Zealand to accept Australia's frameworks when it came to competition platforms, stock exchanges, monetary policy, banking regulation and the dollar (theirs).

But much has changed.

Australia is now lagging.

Since Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister he has been open in his praise for the Key Government's political management and steady economic progress.

The social investment model that English has pioneered - aided by leadership from Dame Paula Rebstock's working groups - is being seriously studied across the Tasman.

English's $1.8 billion Budget surplus is seen as a plus. Morrison has warned Australia faces four more years of deficits.

And the reflexive clamour for tax cuts which erupts from the commentariat every time a finance minister is in danger of posting a Budget surplus will not easily persuade him to change course.

In a recent interview with The Australian columnist Paul Kelly, English said the essence of the Key Government lay in four sequential steps: explain the reason for changes far in advance; bring the public with you; adjust the expectations of the electorate; and implement reform with competence.

Kelly wrote: "The transformation in public finance and public policy that Australia so desperately needs is on impressive display these days in the eighth year of John Key's New Zealand government with its philosophy of incremental radicalism.

"For an Australian visitor, New Zealand is a project that equates to shock therapy. Where Australia is locked into futile ideological conflicts, New Zealand is succeeding with a different framework. For Malcolm Turnbull, the transtasman example is a model Australia should emulate ..."

English had a good relationship with Morrison's predecessor Joe Hockey and he was surprised that Hockey and former Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott came to government without a political management plan.

But Morrison - who he has met several times now - is of a more similar ilk to English. This could go to his head if the finance minister was of a less grounded disposition.

But frankly, New Zealand needs Australia to succeed. It is our major trading partner.

If the English recipe works please adopt it.

- 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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