When a party's first response to a global pandemic is to demand looser health regulations, we must ask if it is a serious player.
National's announcement on Monday of a "bonfire of regulations" was inane. Like the party's overarching "economic plan" released a month ago, this week's effort was entirely devoid of substantial content, consisting mainly of social-media slogans.
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While the party's finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith continues to make considered contributions, Simon Bridges and his brains trust of Paula Bennett and Todd McClay seem to have decided the election can be won by empty sloganeering and praying the Ardern regime implodes.
National's bonfire is necessary to pretend the obvious contradictions in its "economic plan" can be reconciled. Along with higher wages, more jobs and lower cost of living, National is promising to cut tax, spend more and lower debt. It gives no information on how any of these goals would be achieved. Instead, radical productivity gains are promised to stick the fairy tale together.
National's claims that it has the wherewithal or courage to genuinely address New Zealand's poor productivity record should be treated with deep scepticism given its performance under John Key.
Early in his term, National rejected entirely the recommendations of its own 2025 Taskforce working group aimed at closing the gap with Australia. Instead, it grouped together a bunch of Wellington bureaucrats, called them a Productivity Commission, and asked them to write more reports.
Unsurprisingly, actual productivity improvements were derisory, as under Helen Clark.
Most infamously, National failed to substantially reform either the Resource Management Act or the outdated Building Code. Bridges, as Labour Minister, also signed off stricter health and safety rules put in front of him by bureaucrats after Pike River and put them into law.
This is as he should have done. Centralised regulations may be annoying but are ultimately more transparent and less burdensome than the rules that would be imposed on business were claims for negligence allowed.
National's announcement was rushed out on Monday after it perceived the Government was floundering in its coronavirus response. When Jacinda Ardern began shutting the border over a month ago, it seems no one in her inner circle had the commercial nous or economic intuition to realise it would have at least as devastating an impact on NZ business as a financial crisis, oil shock or mid-level war.
Alas for National, after two and a half years in Opposition, on Monday it was able to identify just 29 regulations for its initial "bonfire" out of the tens of thousands that exist.
None of the 29 will particularly excite the productive sector. There is nothing about the RMA or Building Code — nor even a promise to fix the rules on single-level scaffolding.
The best of the 29 are already well known, such as allowing all employers to use 90-day trials and scrapping the Auckland Regional Fuel Tax.
Others read like a landlords' charter, such as removing heating requirements in rental properties. The Hairdressers Regulations and Music Teachers Act will go.
Such a hodgepodge presents more as an NZ First policy document than one from a major party. Under even the most charitable interpretation, it is impossible to see how any will help with the commercial and wider economic consequences of coronavirus.
Even if Bridges kept his promise to add a further 71 regulations to his bonfire in his first six months as Prime Minister, it is implausible that would drive the leap in productivity required to deliver higher wages, more jobs and lower cost of living, let alone the billions required for tax cuts, increased spending and accelerated debt repayment.
Bonfires of unnamed regulations and other cheap slogans are not evidence of an economic plan but rather the opposite — that, like Labour from 2008-17, National has done no serious thinking about what it would want to achieve in Government, and how.
Still, National's bet that the Government will remain incompetent on coronavirus, out of its depth in a recession and corrupt in its relationships with donors and lobbyists is not completely unreasonable. When hugging is banned for public health reasons, Ardern will have to show she offers something more.
The problem for National is that Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson now appear on top of the issue. On Tuesday, Robertson will finally unveil the emergency package for those businesses most badly affected by border closures.
It will include a targeted wage subsidy scheme for workers in the most adversely affected sectors, training and redeployment options for employees, and working with banks on future working capital support for those facing credit constraints.
There is no word on whether the Music Teachers Act will be amended, but the Beehive insists the emergency package will be of greater magnitude than the Key Government's immediate response to the global financial crisis or the Canterbury earthquakes.
Goldsmith is likely to give National's blessing to the package. Robertson will seek forgiveness for the month-long delay by explaining that setting rules for which businesses truly require help because of coronavirus is trickier than for a geographically based event such as an earthquake, drought or flood.
Looking ahead, Robertson is also preparing for a general macroeconomic stimulus, perhaps before the Budget on May 14, as he moves beyond the belated emergency response. It will create a new dilemma for National. Will it back the stimulus in general terms or attack the Government for tardiness in reducing net public debt?
Of course, it remains possible the Coalition will botch all this, so that Bridges will yet be Prime Minister in just over six months.
But if the "economic plan" and "bonfire of regulations" claptrap is anything to go by, his Government will turn out to be as unprepared and shallow as Ardern's.
After three three-term Governments since 1990 under Bolger, Clark and Key, we may be heading for two one-term regimes under prime ministers who offered themselves for the top job despite having no reason why.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland based public relations consultant and lobbyist.