Fran O'Sullivan on business

Business analysis and comment from Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan

Fran O'Sullivan: PM must think about what really matters, not just election

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John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell
John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

John Key has put a man who has not occupied the US presidency for 13 years on his dance card in New York next week.

There is a lot Bill Clinton could teach Key if he cares to listen. It's not just about how Clinton - dubbed "The Natural" by the late political writer Christopher Hitchens - connects. Key has already put plenty of study time into that.

He has used his time on overseas plane trips to watch tapes of presidential debates to see how Clinton handled himself. He is a dab hand himself at reaching out to people, though he is by no means Clinton's peer when it comes to sex appeal (something Key readily acclaims as a virtue, as with his comments on the Bachelor of the Year contest at Fieldays).

It's not about securing and holding on to power either.

The Prime Minister assiduously monitors opinion polls and is practised at deal-making with other political parties. He knows how to find the inflection point when an issue is running and how to turn that to his advantage.

He has strong horizontal management skills which are obvious at Cabinet level where he has succeeded in getting his Government's agenda implemented.

Key would be a shoo-in at the September 20 election as political leader if this country enjoyed a presidential system instead of the rag-tag MMP system we have here.

But there is one area where Key could take some lessons from the master.

That's about standing for what really matters.

Not simply being skilled at finding the centre of politics. Or managing the economy - where his Government does deserve credit.

But in taking some risks, addressing the great challenges of our time and cajoling and pushing the centre to where it needs to move - particularly on intergenerational equity.

There is a generation of New Zealanders who we have not ensured are well-fitted for the future needs of our workforce. They are not trained for the industries that are supposed to secure our future, like the agriculture sector or the ICT industry where farmers and businesspeople alike are having to bring in immigrants to fill jobs our young people should have.

A generation which already has been priced out of the housing market; a generation which will have to support through their taxes the retirement payments for many who could afford to pay for themselves; a generation which will face the clean-up costs of environmental degradation if some sense is not quickly injected. And so it goes on.

This "kicking the ball down the line" approach by the generation in power might be appropriate for rugby. But it's not right.

And this issue is far more important that the debates on income inequality which consume some of our politicians. It deserves a bipartisan approach.

More than a decade after surrendering the US presidency, Clinton is the most popular of all the living presidents (outranking George Bush snr). He has a two-thirds approval rating which is far more than sitting President Barack Obama, whose approval ratings have slipped drastically.

In the latest CNN/ORC International poll, 51 per cent of Americans said they viewed Obama unfavourably. That's the same percentage who also had a negative view of George Bush jnr, which is surprising given the public odour that stuck to Bush from the Iraq War incursion.

What is important about Clinton's ratings is not what he did during his eight years as president. It's what he is saying now. And that is that politicians must start speaking honestly about issues that concern everyone - even if that means they must risk not being elected or re-elected.

He has challenged his fellow Americans: "Do you say that you are really grateful to those people that they made history or do you say 'I want people to come here 50 years from now and celebrate the work that we continued and the efforts to extend the opportunity to embrace our common humanity, to give people access to a better life?'." Clinton has also decried the lack of bipartisanship in Washington.

"We have been drifting apart ... politically, philosophically and physically," says Clinton.

"We don't want to be around anyone who disagrees with us."

There are some lessons here also for Labour's David Cunliffe as he gears up for the election. Cunliffe is more on point when it comes to retirement savings. But his capital gains tax will not achieve what he expects because there are too many holes.

What Clinton is arguing for is a dose of civility. In America he has pointed to former president Lyndon Johnson with his War on Poverty and the great civil rights reforms which puts blacks on the same level as white Americans.

The millennial generation is another great cause worth fighting for.

The Prime Minister can rise to this challenge or fail the future.

Popularity is not a long-time given.

- NZ Herald

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