Fran O'Sullivan: Super Thursday scorecard: both can do a lot better

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Getty Images
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Getty Images

Here's the question: Do David Shearer's colleagues really want him to position himself as New Zealand's first "kamikaze prime minister"?

On "Super Thursday", Shearer spruiked the one-term Finnish premier Nesko Aho as his role model.

The story goes that Aho (like himself) was also "untested" when he came to power; he made bold decisions to shift Finland towards a more innovative economy, but was voted out at the next election.

"He thought it was more important to make a difference than to get re-elected," Shearer enthused.

The Labour leader has promoted this imagery before.

It fits well with the hyped-up backstory of how he fearlessly delivered aid across borders into foreign war zones.

The memorable line - "John Key made $50 million, David Shearer saved 50 million lives" - has already sunk into public consciousness.

It is a demonstrably untrue comparison that was coined by the brilliant young political operative Conor Roberts who is currently working as "Len Brown's brain".

But mere facts never troubled a politician on his way to the top.

Shearer will find it a tall task to persuade his comfortable colleagues that "doing the right thing for New Zealand" is worth sacrificing the amount of time their butts will be attached to the backseats of swish ministerial BMWs.

Let's face it, the bevy of powerful Labour politicians that orchestrated Shearer's leadership grab - the "anyone but Cunliffe" clique - have long held an attachment to power.

MPs such as Trevor Mallard, Phil Goff, and Annette King were also within the core group at the centre of the second-term Helen Clark Government that shamelessly dished out voter bribes to get back into power at the 2005 election.

Those bribes - expanding Working for Families and making student loans interest free - were always going to be fiscally unsustainable. Then-Finance Minister Michael Cullen knew this. But they got Clark her third term.

A leader who was prepared to go over the top in New Zealand's best interests would also take an axe to this huge expansion of state munificence. But neither Shearer - nor John Key - will do this. Each man believes that stripping these bribes out would cost them the next election.

Real leadership involves telling New Zealanders that the situation is fiscally unsustainable and leaves the country too exposed to future financial shocks.

So, Shearer's colleagues have no reason to fear (yet) that he is going to tie them to the kind of genuinely unpopular but necessary policies that may cost them their own jobs.

New Zealand will just continue to lurch along buried beneath the dead weight of handouts it cannot really afford to service.

Much of this hard-earned taxpayer cash would be better spent on funding a jobs machine for young unemployed New Zealanders who are the real losers in this society, rather than topping up the incomes of the salaried middle-class.

This is where the current Prime Minister disappoints.

On Thursday, Key unveiled the 10 action points or key results he wants his ministers and top officials to achieve during the next three to five years.

But he would have won plaudits had he put addressing youth unemployment at the top of his list of measurable goals. It is an immediate problem that has to be tackled. The sheer wastage of young human lives is heart-breaking.

Real leadership also entails asking whether New Zealand should be borrowing to fund personal tax cuts.

Key won't axe Labour's big spending bribes because he fears a voter backlash.

But he is presiding over a gaping structural hole in the government finances because of an obvious lack of tax revenue. Bill English's 'billion dollar' Budget bet has proved to be demonstrably unsustainable.

But Key does not want to risk alienating National's voting base by ramping up personal taxes again to close the Budget deficit faster.

Instead, his Government is relying on the proceeds of partial privatisations to smooth its finances until sustained economic growth returns.

Shearer's continued backing for a capital gains tax demonstrates realism.

This is a gap in the tax system that does need to be addressed. He has also indicated that he is prepared to make a stronger case for welfare reform.

But I find it difficult to swallow the notion that making a switch to a more high-value and brainy economy would cost a prime minister his job.

This is vainglorious behaviour that Shearer needs to rein in.

It may suit Len Brown to behave in a self-indulgent manner (Conor Roberts, take note) but we should expect more from a potential premier.

Key scored points by insisting on measurable goals. But it's notable that they are set safely beyond the next election. Both politicians can do a lot better.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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