Liam Dann 's Opinion

Business editor of the NZ Herald

Liam Dann: Hoping for a wizard rather than a dark lord

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Steven Joyce speaks the language of business in a way that few other MPs do. Photo / Greg Bowker
Steven Joyce speaks the language of business in a way that few other MPs do. Photo / Greg Bowker

And so, if the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien will pardon the allusion, we shall have one business ministry to rule them all and one minister to bind them.

Unions and politicians on the left have already moved to paint a "dark lord" type scenario around the appointment of Steven Joyce to lead the new Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

The left's distrust of the move appears to be inversely proportionate to the enthusiasm voiced by business groups which welcomed it on Thursday.

That indicates, at least, that the Government has done a good job of communicating the goal of the new ministry. That goal is presumably to streamline the bureaucracy, allowing the Government to formulate and implement business-friendly policy more quickly.

The shuffling of the public service deckchairs isn't in itself going to inject any fresh momentum into the economy.

Prime Minister John Key's speech to announce the plan had just a hint of the tired economically transformational bluster we've been hearing from successive governments for decades. "It will help drive the Government's priority of building a more productive and competitive economy," he said.

But Joyce was quick to emphasise the lack of power that any government initiative has to transform an economy - thus further endearing himself to the business community he will be working with.

The new ministry "won't on its own create jobs", he said on Thursday. "The point of the exercise is that government departments have a role in setting the agenda for business ... obviously a better-organised set of government agencies will actually help achieve that."

You can make a good case for merging business divisions or ministries - taking out cost, avoiding double-ups, centralising the authority, and so forth. But equally, you can go the other way and argue for splitting up large organisations into smaller, more nimble units with high transparency and accountability.

This kind of stuff goes in and out of fashion in the business world like the width of an investment banker's tie.

In the end, both approaches succeed or fail on the leadership skills of those in charge and the skills and motivation of those they lead. That's the real reason business has been so keen to back the Government's move. They like and trust Joyce.

Left-field academic qualifications aside (he has a degree in zoology), Joyce has proved himself in the business world.

He started his first radio station - Energy FM in New Plymouth - at the age of 21 and built up a network of stations, selling his RadioWorks Group to TV3 owner CanWest in 2001. Despite the sale leaving him independently wealthy at the age of 38, he carried on in business management. He was CEO of Jason's Travel Media from 2006 until entering Parliament in 2008.

So it's as much a case of super minister as super ministry.

Joyce's public persona is gruff but he speaks the language of business in a way that few other MPs do.

He knows what business wants - less regulation, more flexibility in employment law, and so forth - and has been given a great deal of scope to deliver. On that basis, left-wing groups have good cause for their nervousness.

But looking out longer term - maybe three years or maybe six - you'd have to say that the streamlined ability of a super minister to effect dramatic change on the business landscape can cut both ways.

Business enthusiasm for a super ministry might wane quickly if that same amount of control was in the hands of a minister appointed by a Labour-Green coalition.

Meanwhile, the next three years will be an interesting experiment, perhaps reminiscent of the British sitcom Yes, Minister.

We shall watch closely to see whether Joyce can retain that hard-talking, results-focused attitude or whether the quagmire of Wellington bureaucracy will leave us with another ministry of fluff and platitudes.

twitter.com/liamdann

- NZ Herald

Liam Dann

Business editor of the NZ Herald

Liam Dann is the Business editor of the New Zealand Herald, overseeing all our business content in print and online. He has been a journalist for 20 years, covering business for the last 14 of them. He has also worked in the banking sector in London and travelled extensively. His passion is for Markets and Economics, because they are the engine of the New Zealand economy.

Read more by Liam Dann

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