John Roughan

John Roughan is a Weekend Herald columnist

John Roughan: One year on, the new guy is the star

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As the Government comes up to its first anniversary, one of its ministers stands out for me.

It is not John Key, though he has made three decisions that were politically risky and right. The first was to rule Winston Peters out of coalition contention before the election. The second was to embrace the Maori Party. The third was to ignore the result of the smacking referendum.

But on big economic calls he has yet to show any steel. He is offering no leadership on the need to raise the superannuation age and tax residential property investment, ruling those out before they put any heat on him.

The Finance Minister is slightly more open to discouraging property investment - the key to taking pressure off the dollar and re-orienting the economy to exports - but I am not holding my breath. Bill English is a Treasury-trained career politician whose ability to analyse the economy's problems has yet to be matched by the courage to do much about them.

His next Budget will be telling. This year's was a promissory note to the credit rating agencies, convincing them government spending would be reined back from 2010. We'll see.

The most impressive member of the Cabinet is a complete newcomer, Steven Joyce.

He is not a career politician, which helps. In the best tradition of the National Party he has established a business, sold it and has the personal security to devote himself to the national interest for as long as he feels the work worthwhile.

Joyce is already the minister who gets things done. Every Government needs one.

He is doing the infrastructure projects, notably the duplicate broadband network, as well as those in his primary portfolio, transport.

He's done the little things, like the car cellphone ban on which the previous government dithered for years, and the big things like the Waterview connection, which I thought was wrong but he put me right.

Not the least of Joyce's attributes is a relaxed approach to reporters. He makes it his business to keep them informed and does the rounds of newsrooms more regularly than any minister in my experience.

Auckland's western ring road had to come into Waterview rather that take the more obvious route along the Rosebank Peninsula, he explained, because it had to be the city-to-airport route.

He'd been advised there was no doubt travellers from the city would take the northwestern motorway as far as Waterview before turning towards the airport but they would not go as far as Rosebank. Figures, when you think about it.

He could be doing even bigger things. He should be privatising sea ports to permit the mergers and closures the economy needs, particularly now that the largest, Auckland, is losing money in the hands of the Regional Council and requiring capital from ratepayers.

A change of government is refreshing not just for new faces and projects but for the change it makes in prevailing public values.

I was in awe of Education Minister Ann Tolley on television the other night when she was polite to a representative of the Principals' Association who did not approve of her tests for reading, writing and counting because, "children go to school to have fun".

Joyce is frustrating for ideologues of public transport who serve and sit on the Regional Council. They say he is holding up their plans. He says their work has left a lot of hard detail to be decided.

He deals in dollars and concrete, they deal in drawings and vapour.

Last week the Herald published a piece from him questioning the old saw that roads are not fully financed by users. Joyce's "back-of-the-envelope" calculations found road users will pay about $3 billion more in selective taxes on trucks and petrol over the next three years than will be needed to maintain roads.

In addition they paid their licensing costs, ACC to cover their accidents and will pay a carbon charge for their contribution to climate change.

This was heresy up at Regional House. A letter was hastily written and published on Tuesday. It said the minister had not taken into account litter, air pollution, wildlife roadkill, noise, damage to communities and heritage, and obesity.

Obesity. There is an overblown word from the previous era that Health Minister Tony Ryall has quietly deflated. Auckland will be rid of the Regional Council this time next year.

Rodney Hide is another minister who is getting a big job done.

Act is proving peripherally effective but this is looking like a conventional National Government, conservative rather than reformist. Unpopular decisions will generally be ducked. The economy will drift, deficits will continue, debt will accumulate, and the Government will survive until we're tired of the Prime Minister's smile.

Right now, a year on and released from recession, the change still feels refreshing.

- NZ Herald

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