Fran O'Sullivan on business

Business analysis and comment from Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan

Fran O'Sullivan: Opportunity presents for exciting future

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From within Parliament Don Brash could challenge Government spending. Photo / Mark Mitchell
From within Parliament Don Brash could challenge Government spending. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Rodney Hide has made it clear he will not willingly step aside and allow Don Brash to lead the Act Party.

So, unless Brash can persuade Act MP John Boscawen to join Act founder Sir Roger Douglas and fellow MP Heather Roy to abandon their leader, the putative right-of-centre putsch looks dead.

Those who desperately want John Key's Government to have its feet held to the fire by a resurgent right-of-centre political party will have to look to other measures.

Key has branded the recommendations of the Brash-led 2025 Taskforce as "extreme". But the former National leader retains considerable credibility (particularly among a business community that is growing increasingly concerned over the Government's debt trajectory) when it comes to addressing front-on some very worrying aspects about the New Zealand economy.

So, it is hardly surprising that there is a groundswell of support within the harder edged sections of the business community in Brash's favour.

There's also been plenty of backchat suggesting Act's financial backers are aware they may need to financially underwrite a new job for Hide if there is to be any chance at all of persuading him it's time to make way for new leadership.

One option might be to see if Hide is interested in a post-politics career at the Business Roundtable.

Just two weeks ago, Roundtable executive director Roger Kerr - who is undergoing treatment for metastatic melanoma - indicated he may have to "fold his tent". Kerr, who is maintaining a very optimistic approach, has been the prime "face" of the Roundtable since it was set up in the mid-1980s. It will not surprise any of Kerr's friends and colleagues - or observers - that he continues to fight the good fight by pumping out reports on current issues.

But the Roundtable board is strongly aware it does need to groom a worthy successor to Kerr. I haven't discussed this with either Kerr or Hide, but each regards the other with respect and could easily work alongside each other.

It's true that Hide has trashed his own political brand. He built his political persona as a "perk-buster" by working with Sunday newspaper journalists on a series of "scoops" which undermined others' reputations. But he was branded as a hypocrite when he was later exposed taking his girlfriend (now wife) with him on an overseas trip. Something he was entitled to do under the parliamentary rules, but which looked out of sync in the recessionary era.

And even before Hide became a minister outside Cabinet in the Key Government, Act's founder Sir Roger Douglas had issued veiled criticism that his recourse to political stunts was detracting from the party's fundamental economic messages. Hide's counter-claim: "The problem is that the so-called stunts are particularly well-reported and my work explaining free-market ideas disappears without trace" - was also well-founded.

The "Hollow Man" affair also damaged Brash's brand. It is quite possible that - irrespective of Labour's voting bribes - National (under his leadership) may have won the 2005 election if the Exclusive Brethren funding scandal had not emerged just before the election.

Brash has since restored much of his own damaged brand since he left politics. And so can Hide.

Before Hide launched his political career he was an entertaining but always challenging economic columnist for the National Business Review. He had a daytime job as a university lecturer at Lincoln College in Christchurch. But he was a clear attention-getter when he rolled up to presentations and challenged audiences on where the New Zealand economy was going after the 1980s bust.

Businessman Alan Gibbs plucked Hide from relative obscurity to work for him in 1993, including at the BBC World Service affiliate station. Hide later became Act's first chairman and president.

So, Hide will retain considerable emotional attachment to the party in which his own political career was forged.

If the Act Party, its financial backers (many of whom have been long-time supporters of Roundtable), Hide, Brash and Kerr put their collective heads together, a very exciting future could be launched.

Brash is not tarred by being "in Government" with Key. So when he says New Zealand's relative economic decline "will never be reversed if our political leaders allow themselves to be driven entirely by political polls" the business community knows where he is coming from.

Likewise, when he says political leaders have to communicate a vision for change there is no doubting his own intentions.

There is also no doubting the need for a credible voice on the right of New Zealand politics to challenge the Government's record on spending and borrowing. And to ensure from within Parliament that the 2025 taskforce's recommendations are openly debated rather than being consigned to a doorstop.

If Brash does manage to get back to Parliament either as leader of Act or an alternative right of centre party, the business sector can look forward to more focus on why New Zealand - which has considerable natural resources - is not properly utilising them to grow the economy. This includes natural gas, ironsands, coal, minerals and water. Something the Government said it would do in its own growth strategy but which appears to have foundered on private political polling.

In Hide's case, after being in Parliament since 1996 he must surely be up for new challenges.

A job at the Business Roundtable - even if only for a while - might also provide him with a springboard to launch a new political career by making a run for mayor of Auckland. Something which he has privately suggested he would like to do, but would be difficult from within Parliament.

- NZ Herald

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