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

John Roughan: We're led by a chief executive

The public have not been reconciled to asset sales but they continue to like and trust John Key

Polls show that despite opposition to asset sales, the popularity of John Key's Government is still relatively high at 47 per cent. Picture / David White.
Polls show that despite opposition to asset sales, the popularity of John Key's Government is still relatively high at 47 per cent. Picture / David White.

John Key's achievement this week deserves more recognition than it might ever receive. In a year or two, when the power companies are all on the sharemarket and it seems entirely normal that they would be, it will be hard to credit how much opposition there has been.

Key was heavily criticised, by me as much as anyone, for excessive caution in his first term. When eventually he committed himself to some partial asset sales and said he would go to the country with the programme first, it was brave.

But I didn't realise how brave.

One of the four power companies had been privatised long ago. A float of minority stakes in the other three, plus the coal mining operation and Air Zealand, didn't seem drastic.

It was incremental, logical. It hardly compared with the courage of the fourth Labour Government or National in the 1990s, though neither of them had dared to put privatisation to a public vote.

Key's courage last year was trumped in my book by Labour's decision to go to the election with a capital gains tax, though he chose not to make an issue of that.

Labour, however, staked its whole campaign on opposition to asset sales.

The Opposition did far more than Key to ensure the election was a referendum on them.

Mercifully, I wasn't here to see what happened but it seems to be agreed National was returned despite its programme, not because the nation was reconciled to it.

Labour and the Greens were sufficiently heartened by opinion polls then and since to oppose the sales all the way to the enactment of the necessary legislation this week.

Polls continue to find most people against the idea but the Government has not suffered very much.

Its polled support is down to around 47 per cent, which is high considering the state of the economy and the steps it is taking.

The election result and everything that has happened since can be explained, I think, by Key's business credibility.

The voters have responded like small shareholders in a large company when a good chief executive proposes to sell some lucrative assets and they know they will lose him if they vote against it.

Shareholders in this situation can quite comfortably accept decisions they don't much like or barely understand, because they like the chief executive, trust him, respect his judgment and want to keep him.

Key's relationship with the electorate is more like a corporate chief executive than any New Zealand Prime Minister I have seen. People like me sense that he looks at assets as a business person does, not as we do.

Most of us don't sell any personal possessions that still have value for us, unless it is to replace them with a new or better version of the same thing. Most people take the same attitude to public possessions.

But business managers dispense with valuable assets all the time. When they look at their property they see a chunk of capital that can be put to possibly better use. They often sell their buildings and lease them back. Like most people I can't understand that.

Companies lease cars and much else. They see holding costs that most of us don't notice.

When someone like Key looks at a profitable state-owned enterprise he doesn't simply see a stream of future dividends as most people do - and as the Greens did when they calculated the sale of power companies would be a net loss to the public.

Key looks at those properties and thinks of the cost of the capital he is having to borrow for other public purposes.

Because he is running a country, not a company, he thinks the best use of his capital is in public services that cannot operate profitably and attract private capital.

Labour and the Greens think so too - that is why they haven't undertaken to buy back the assets Key will sell. And not many of us would want them to. It is a curious thing that while there is heavy opposition to privatisation there is no public enthusiasm for nationalisation.

When the previous Government rescued Air New Zealand and bought back the railway it was more by accident than design.

It took over railway maintenance hoping to lease the tracks to the train operator, but Toll Holdings, like TranzRail, couldn't make the operation cover the full cost of maintenance.

That privatisation confirmed the infrastructure is not economic.

Yet when the Government announced this week that 'KiwiRail' would be carved into separate companies for the tracks and the trains, the Opposition saw another privatisation coming. If only.

The chief executive must despair sometimes at the fear that can seize the shareholders on asset sales, but with their trust he can do a great deal more.

- 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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