COMMENT:

Whether or not it works as outreach to a grumpy business community, the Prime Minister's speech on Tuesday deserves to be read.

She makes some fair points.

The first is that the despondent state of business sentiment is really not warranted by the economic indicators.

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Jacinda Ardern did not labour the point in a get-a-grip sort of way. So let me.

The cycle is getting long in the tooth and the best of it is behind us but the economy is hardly falling off a cliff.

Skill shortages and other capacity constraints are biting in some sectors. Profit margins are under pressure, the labour market is tightening and the migration cycle peaked a year ago.

But the population and workforce gain from that source is still very high by historical standards and the Government is working on plans for regional skill shortage lists, recognising the shortcomings of national ones.

For consumer-facing businesses, the unhealthy combination of a wealth effect from runaway house price inflation and a negative household saving rate is being replaced, at least partly, by some actual cash income growth.

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And not just from the families package which kicked in two months ago. The number of people employed grew 3.7 per cent in the year ended June and their collective weekly gross earnings were up 5.5 per cent.

Some export commodity prices may be wobbling, but the overall terms of trade — the ratio of export to import prices — is at the most favourable level on record, boosting national income. And the exchange rate has moved in an exporter-friendly direction.

The official cash rate remains at an all-time low and the Reserve Bank indicates that it is in no hurry to change it, and that the next move is as likely to be down as up. Bank lending to businesses grew 5.7 per cent in the year ended July, a seven-month high.

It has never been cheaper for the Government to borrow, with 10-year bonds trading at a yield of just 2.6 per cent, prompting calls for it to relax its self-imposed budget responsibility rules on spending and borrowing.

"We won't," Ardern said.

So if it is not the state of the economy that explains the gloomy and potentially self-fulfilling level of business sentiment, what else might it be?

Policy uncertainty.

"I understand the desire for certainty in order to make decisions big and small," Ardern said.

"But certainty shouldn't be confused with stasis and complacency, which are the enemy of progress and for that matter the enemy of innovation."

So her second main point is that the Government has changed. It has an agenda, to tackle pervasive structural challenges which she lists as: skill shortages; lack of investment in the productive sector; a shallow national pool of capital; an infrastructure deficit; low productivity; environmental degradation; "and challenges which can broadly be defined as the future of work".

These are gnarly issues and the process of deciding how to address them is complicated by the fact that there are three parties in this Government, each with its own constituency and perspective. Policy changes have to be negotiated among them. Ardern admits it is hardly a model for fast and unexpected change, but the breadth of input, she contends, leads to better decisions.

We fundamentally believe we need to progressively keep lifting the wages of New Zealanders and make sure we are not a low-wage economy. That might be something that some businesses just disagree with.

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The Government gets criticised for the number of reviews and working groups it has set up and which have yet to deliver their advice.

That is the price for consultative processes intended to mitigate the risk of unintended consequences.

Would heedless haste be better? Would business prefer not to be at the table?

"Sometimes we might just disagree," Ardern told Radio NZ's Kathryn Ryan later in the morning. For example, on raising the minimum wage.

"We fundamentally believe we need to progressively keep lifting the wages of New Zealanders and make sure we are not a low-wage economy. That might be something that some businesses just disagree with."

One policy employers regard with some foreboding is the plan for fair pay agreements. The working group charged with developing a framework for them — chaired by Jim Bolger, who is no-one's idea of a Bolshevik — is due to report in November.

Systems of bargaining to set minimum terms and conditions of employment across industries or occupation are commonplace in other countries, including Australia.

The idea is to create a level playing field in industries most at risk of a race to the bottom.

But they are not intended to fundamentally disrupt the employment relations landscape, Ardern said. They will not be accompanied by the right to take strike action.

And there will be no more than two concluded in this parliamentary term, she said. They will be in industries which have low pay and in which workers are vulnerable and regularly exploited.

Pressed by Ryan to identify the industries in the gun, Ardern declined to do so, but said the employers involved knew who they were.

A notable omission from the speech was tax. The first fruits of that working group are expected next month.

The economy suffers from a tax system which for nigh on 30 years now has told us that if you want to provide for your old age, don't save money — instead, borrow money, as much as you can, and use it to bid up the price of housing.

It entrenches inequality and starves the productive economy of capital.

The Government has pledged that any changes flowing from the Cullen tax review will be put to the electorate in 2020 before becoming law.

It is typical of a cautious, consultative approach to policy making which is frustrating for people impatient for change or at least for a decision.

But it is preferable to the bull-at-a-gate, we-know-best approach of the Rogernomics era. The social scar tissue of that period disfigures the country to this day.

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