The one ray of light in an increasingly dark political world, for me at least, has been living again under a socially progressive government.

My fear though, is that the Labour led coalition may split, fracture or even be crushed within the great mincer of personality politics before its progressive reforms bear fruit. In its defence therefore, I share the following thoughts.

Lawrence Yule recently reminded us that responsible economic management matters.

In his Talking Point on August 31, 2018, he shared the view that National had delivered a solidly growing economy which had lifted wages and created jobs. I have the greatest respect for Lawrence, and his electorate is lucky to have him serve it. But I do feel I must challenge his message.


It is true that the previous National-led government navigated its way through some turbulent seas towards an anchorage of reasonably calm and deep fiscal waters.

After several years of considerable public sector borrowing, then Minister of Finance Bill English reached a surplus on the government books in October 2015.

As other contributors to this paper have pointed out however, the broader reality of what the previous administration left in its wake was a troubling array of serious social deficits.

We have recently seen the results of a deficit in our education sector marching through our streets, right across the country.

The same deficit is revealed within the health sector. Not enough nurses, all working too hard and too many hours.

We clearly have a deficit in our criminal justice system, whereby our Police and our prisons have become New Zealand's primary mental health institutions.

Within my profession I am more directly aware of the deficit created by the previous government's reforms to legal aid, leaving access to justice in a perilous state.

Over many successive governments there has been a deficit in tackling environmental problems, now reaching truly epic scale. It is time to stop pretending we can reverse the environmental impacts of human economic activity with whatever crumbs fall off an unrelenting conveyor belt set towards permanent GDP growth.

We clearly also have a deficit in terms of the ability of the ordinary New Zealander to access a safe, secure and warm house within which to live and raise a family.

Rather than the lift in wages to which Lawrence Yule refers, I have perceived over my lifetime an ever-increasing deficit in relative incomes, with the gap between the best and worst paid in our country reaching shameful proportions.

As a lawyer who is married to a teacher, I often wonder how my wife and I would fare in terms of relative pay levels if judged on our respective contributions to society.

If that is the legacy of so-called responsible economic management, "I'll take the bag".

The model has simply failed. As a student in the mid-1980s, I watched with horrified fascination while the fourth Labour government embarked on a neo-liberal experiment that literally wreaked havoc across New Zealand's social, economic and political landscape. It really was like watching the proverbial train wreck in slow motion.

In fairness, the fifth Labour government, under the wise financial stewardship of Michael Cullen, managed to restore some of the lost ground. It might also be said that the previous National government was able to steer us through the global financial crisis and the Canterbury earthquakes, from a reasonably strong starting position.

I do not deny that sound economic management is necessary. The point is that it is not sufficient.

Investment in social infrastructure is equally important and can yield as many dividends over the long term, both financial and social, as any road of national significance.

The 'two cents on the dollar' compensation to Maori being progressed through the Treaty settlement process is testament to that.

Since Doug Graham's days in the 1990s, National has as much led as followed in this area, and so would be aware of the broader return potential from this type of active intervention in the economy.

And it is not like the Coalition does not have an economic plan. A conscious transition to a value added, high wage, innovative economy and zero net carbon emissions, with a deliberate focus on broader wellbeing indicators than GDP alone can provide, is an exciting plan to my mind.

It reveals a government designing the economy we want, not simply putting up with what the free market will let us have.

Perhaps the greatest and saddest legacy of the 30-year experiment of putting 'economic management first', witnessed not just in New Zealand but across much of the first world since the mid-1980s, has been the corrosive deficit in trust which people around the world feel for institutions of both government and commerce.

It is this terrible legacy that has delivered us Brexit, President Trump, and bolstered the so-called "alt right" movement among the burgeoning disaffected.

Anyone with the slightest understanding of history would appreciate that this road is no pathway to prosperity, let alone peace.

Returning to where I started, it is as Lawrence also said, indeed all about priorities.

I am not suggesting it is time for National to 'Think Big' again, but that it does need to re-think, get on board and stop knocking the socially progressive approach.

The train towards a destination where governments govern, has finally left the station.

* Martin Williams is a barrister specialising in local government and resource management law, based in Napier.