Establishing a prime-ministerial business council is a standard ploy out of the most introductory political playbook. Still, they can be worthwhile.

Jim Bolger called his The Enterprise Council. "Enterprise" was to the early 1990s what "social cohesion" was to the late 1990s, "sustainability" and "knowledge" to the 2000s, and "innovation" and "transformation" to the 2010s.

A catch-all, feel-good term, largely devoid of meaning, that politicians, bureaucrats and businesspeople could apply to routine initiatives to create some gravitas.


The Enterprise Council was chaired by Bolger's mate John Anderson, then chief executive of the National Bank, but the Prime Minister largely ran it himself. It was partly designed to counter the advice of Ruth Richardson's Treasury.

Meetings were informal and relaxed, taking most of a day in the downstairs function room at Premier House. They involved around 20 businesspeople, union boss Ken Douglas, a handful of top mandarins and a couple of senior ministers.

Mid-level officials would take notes, brows furrowed in worry that anything unorthodox might emerge.

Sometimes junior ministers were asked to outline their programmes and it was an honour to be invited by the Prime Minister to attend.

For one meeting, the then Minister of Education, Lockwood Smith, was summoned to present a draft of his Education for the 21st Century vision document, which I was ghost-writing.

"Vision documents" were to the early 1990s what "working groups" and "conversations" are to the present — a useful way to dispose of political problems, albeit with ministers outlining what they wanted to achieve and how, rather than outsourcing policy to outside "experts".

Much work went into Smith's presentation, including on the importance of "education for enterprise", preparing young New Zealanders for technological change and switching careers through their working lives, and succeeding against tough competition from the Japanese.

The business leaders and lone unionist thought this was all good stuff but were concerned the presentation lacked reference to values to bind society together at a time of change.


This surprised some of the politicians and bureaucrats who perceived businesspeople as having a monomaniacal interest in economic growth.

Hastily, a new section of the vision document was written, declaring a new aim for the education system called "A Community of Shared Values".

These were honesty, reliability, respect for others, respect for the law, tolerance (rangimārie), fairness, caring or compassion (aroha), non-sexism and non-racism.

Ironically, for including these values at the behest of business leaders, Smith was attacked by Lindsay Perigo and the whacko-right for being under the control of left-wing theorists in the Ministry of Education.

A quarter century later, a similar but modernised set of values remains in The New Zealand Curriculum. Theoretically children in today's schools are still being influenced by the business community's deliberations that day.

The current Government is New Zealand's least qualified and most commercially naive. Of the senior ministers, only David Parker has any business experience but he is perhaps the most fixated on the idea that inequality is the ultimate social evil even in a society where everyone is getting richer.

Unlike John Key, Bill English, Helen Clark, Michael Cullen, Bolger and Birch, Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson have no private sector or even ministerial experience.

Ardern's positioning of herself, when announcing her Business Advisory Council as a fellow "employer" was risible.

Her ministerial and parliamentary staff are, in practice, on fire-at-will contracts. Any employer who suggested anything so draconian for their industry would be publicly shamed by her Government.

A case can be made that Air New Zealand boss Christopher Luxon is the wrong person to head Ardern's council, leading a $4 billion, 53 per cent Government-owned company in mainly monopoly or duopoly markets, with just a handful of exceptions.

As the premium brand, Air New Zealand has a strong incentive to use Government policies like "fair pay agreements" to increase costs across its industry to drive out price-competitors like JetStar.

Still, like Bolger with Anderson, what matters is Luxon has Ardern's confidence. She may accept from him advice she would reject if it came from anyone else.

Perhaps Luxon can convince her of the folly of policies like fees-free tertiary education and that it makes no difference if net core Crown debt in 2011/22 is 20 per cent of GDP rather than a point or two higher or lower.

However Luxon runs his council, better that business now has a way of reaching Ardern through him, rather than she and her ministers continuing to be influenced by their twitter feeds after nine wasted years in opposition.

- Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.
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