Editorial: Cautious Key offers little to lighten mood

Prime Minister John Key. File photo / Dean Purcell
Prime Minister John Key. File photo / Dean Purcell

Those expecting to be inspired by the Prime Minister's state-of-the-nation speech yesterday would have been disappointed.

Even optimism was in short supply. Yet that, in large measure, was excusable enough. This was an address laced with realism and awareness, and informed by events in a first term of government which, John Key said, had shown that "adversity gives little warning".

The speech's hallmark was, therefore, caution. While the Government was still on track to meet its election pledge of getting back into surplus in 2014-15, the Prime Minister warned it would have to push out that date if the global economy went into meltdown.

Already, a deteriorating international outlook, allied to the ongoing eurozone crisis, has had a substantial impact. Before the election, the Government forecast a $1.57 billion surplus for 2014-15. Yesterday, Mr Key said next month's Budget Policy Statement would reduce that to between $300 million and $500 million.

The Prime Minister expects the European countries will manage their way through the current crisis, with the euro emerging intact. But, at the very least, the flow-on through China and Australia will lower demand for this country's exports, and lead to a slower growth rate than was being predicted at the end of last year.

"But it won't knock the economy for six and certainly won't stop the Government pushing ahead with its priorities," Mr Key said.

The four key priorities identified for the second term confirmed an instinct for incremental improvement, rather than big ideas and giant steps. They merely restated the Government's ambition to responsibly manage its finances, build a more competitive and productive economy, deliver better public services, and rebuild Christchurch.

Mr Key said he would outline reforms in the state sector soon. Greater efficiency would not be the only part of this. "We are also focused on the quality and responsiveness of services, on strong and effective leadership, and on orienting the state sector around achieving results that really matter to New Zealanders," he said.

Much of the Government's attention in this area has been focused on education. Clearly, and commendably, it remains intent on following up the introduction of National Standards with other measures that make teachers and schools more accountable to parents and the funding of tertiary institutions more dependent on performance measures.

The implication in Mr Key's comments is that other areas of the state sector can expect a similar approach based on recommendations already in his hands from the Better Public Service Advisory Group.

Most of the rest of Mr Key's speech dwelt on familiar plans. Controversy would not deter the Government from encouraging oil and gas exploration through a competitive new system for processing permits, he said. Likewise, the part-sale of four state-owned energy companies would proceed.

But following Ernst & Young's finding that these state-owned enterprises had performed well in terms of profitability, the motivation for this has been refined. It is now said to be to make better use of the Government's balance sheet and provide new investment opportunities for New Zealand savers.

There was one upbeat note from the Prime Minister. New Zealand was, he said, in relatively good shape. This year and next, its growth rate was forecast to be higher than that of the eurozone nations, Britain, Canada, the United States and Japan.

If that has also been a persistent theme of Mr Key and the Finance Minister, it is certainly one worth reinforcing to those who find themselves overwhelmed by grim tidings from overseas.

- NZ Herald

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