John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Let the clean campaign be heard

New Zealand has enjoyed a healthy economic consensus for 30 years

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Martin Hunter
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Martin Hunter

Watching the dirty politics of character assassination it would be easy to forget that this country is exceptionally well governed. Very few developed economies have emerged from the global recession as quickly as New Zealand did.

National will claim most of the credit for that but Labour deserves just as much for its previous nine years of fiscal conservatism. Michael Cullen ran big budget surpluses during the boom, resisting National's constant calls for tax cuts, and handed Bill English a debt so low that he and John Key were able to run up debt through the recession and the Canterbury earthquakes without a drop in our international credit. Now they have the books nearly in balance again.

That's the truth of it. We have a healthy economic consensus between the two main parties that has endured now for 30 years. It is not confined to the fundamentals. New Zealand's public policy is frequently cited in journals such as the Economist for everything from central bank independence to fishing quotas.

Last week it was praising us for putting civil service "mandarins" on fixed-term contracts with specific service targets. It quoted State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie saying we have reduced criminal recidivism by 12 per cent by finding houses and jobs for ex-offenders.

Labour moved "right" on economics 30 years ago and in recent years National has moved "left" on early intervention social policy. For both parties the reasons are entirely pragmatic. As English told me for the book on Key: "If we stop a prisoner re-offending we save $90,000. If we have a group of 7 to 9-year-olds who are going to cost $750 million by the time they are 30 we need more health checks, healthy homes, social workers in schools. John Key has created permission for a centre-right government to talk about public services positively."

We are very well governed and every three years we hold a gruelling performance review in which the government must reapply for the job against the rival. It's a chance to assess where we are and whether we can do better.

This election is unusual in that the rival is not one party but two. The Herald-DigiPoll survey figures yesterday showed Labour is still heading south and the Greens are coming up. As the polls stand, they would have more seats in a government than any coalition partner in New Zealand has previously enjoyed.

National's advertising is putting the Dotcom candidates into Labour's boat too but they would probably play no greater part in a government than National's partners do. Dotcom wants only one thing and Mana's old protesters are happier on the sidelines anyway. The Greens are the serious prospect.

David Cunliffe has kept them at a greater distance than David Shearer did but, undeterred, Russel Norman has issued an economic manifesto that is not too far from Labour's on most points. Both parties want to increase welfare spending, some of it wasted on the well-off, and put up the top tax rates to cover the cost. Both want to run budget surpluses. The Greens in fact believe they could produce better surpluses than National is projecting.

Cunliffe and Norman are probably more fiscally conservative than Key. National is not trying very hard to get government debt down to the levels Cullen did until about 2021. It hopes the world does not deliver another recession in the meantime. Labour is not only more cautious in the medium term, it is better on long-term saving.

With a surplus it would resume contributions to the Cullen fund, which National is in no hurry to do. Labour would also turn KiwiSaver into a compulsory private superannuation scheme and raise the age of entitlement for national super. The Greens seem less keen on that.

Key, of course, is committed to no change in superannuation and English, contrary to all advice, does not think the ageing population will be a fiscal problem. Well, it won't be a problem for them.

Labour's courage on the superannuation age has been compromised somewhat by its promise of free doctors and medicine for all over 65, which many pensioners tell us they don't need.

Younger taxpayers will have to bear the cost of the baby boom's healthcare in old age as well as its pensions. Considering the tertiary education costs they have paid and the house prices they face as a result of the boomers' appetite for property investment, the younger generation should be raising hell. Maybe the Greens will give them a voice.

Maybe the Greens will do so in a National Government. It is noticeable that National has softened its environmental line of late, and so far the polls are giving the Greens nowhere else to go. Stranger things have happened. Let the clean campaign begin.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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