COMMENT:

It might traditionally be the "workers party", but at the moment Labour is making a serious play of inviting business into the tent, in order to stop their traditional foe lobbing bombs from the outside. That's the upshot of this week's major charm offensive from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to the business community.

Her speech to business leaders in Auckland on Tuesday came with the announcement of a new Business Advisory Council, which is supposed to allow business interests more influence at the highest levels of Government.

Ardern fronted the business community and announced a new advisory council to be chaired by Christopher Luxon. Photo / via video
Ardern fronted the business community and announced a new advisory council to be chaired by Christopher Luxon. Photo / via video

Obviously, the Labour-led Government is attempting to mollify business with this announcement, along with other concessions spelt out in Ardern's speech. The objective is to turn around the so-called plummeting business confidence surveys that Labour is embarrassed by.

But isn't this going too far? Does it mean Labour has capitulated to vested interests? Certainly, some are worried that the Government is placing the demands of business interests too high in the policy-making process.

Herald business journalist Fran O'Sullivan points out just how influential the new business group will be: "Ardern says the council's role will be to build closer relationships between Government and business, provide high-level free and frank advice to the Prime Minister on key economic issues, and to create a vehicle to harness expertise from the private sector to inform the development of the Government's economic policies" – see: Anointing Christopher Luxon a smart move by Jacinda Ardern.

Ardern herself has said "I want to work closely with, and be advised by, senior business leaders who take a helicopter view of our economy", and she has invited business leaders to "join us in taking the lead on some of the important areas of reform the Government is undertaking".

Writing in the NBR, Brent Edwards reports how the head of Business New Zealand, Kirk Hope, is impressed with the new initiative, saying "the new body is important because it gives business a direct line to the prime minister" – see: Prime Minister urged to slow the pace of employment law changes. Hope is quoted saying, "As another conduit to government and as a formal mechanism for engagement with the prime minister over policy I think … it's probably a smart idea and a really critical channel for business."

But Edwards notes that "Business New Zealand is already represented on five government-initiated working groups, including reviewing the tax system, the future of work and pay equity."

Business journalist Rob Stock points out that, in general, business interests are already incredibly dominant in the policy making process, and it is therefore absurd to give them even more power: "I can think of many interest groups who lack a political voice. Business is not one of them. Business has money. It is well organised. Its opinion on anything is easily gauged. It has a powerful voice. It has its business membership groups – a bewildering number of them" – see: The Business Advisory Council is a waste of time; or is it a belated masterstroke?.

After listing a large number of powerful business interest groups, Stock then explains their current political power: "Each has a staff of experts, policy officers, lobbyists, and communications people. On literally no topic is it possible for the government not to know what business thinks and wants."

And, says Stock, these groups have a big impact on legislation: "I hear the voice of business echoing in all government discussion papers. It works like this. A minister announces a review. A few policy options are flagged. Business lobbyists go about their work. When the discussion paper comes out, much of the watering down has already happened… And then comes the whole consultation, and law-making process."

The same article also includes the analysis of Stuff's new national business editor Rebecca Stevenson, who is much more enthusiastic about integrating business more into government's decision-making. She says: "This announcement is a smart one in my view. It makes business feel included, which has been sorely lacking".

Stevenson lists various ways in which the current Government has apparently sidelined business interests, including when "the prime minister failed to turn up for the Deloitte Top 200 awards in November" and when "business failed to gain even one single mention" in the Budget ("That had to sting"). Therefore, for her, the new advisory council is "the least the Government could do for business. Literally."

Like Stock, The Spinoff's Toby Manhire also sees the absurdity of the Government attempting to give business even more power: "There is of course something fairly hilarious about the creation of an advisory group for big business. If you're searching for underrepresented voices who go unheard in the corridors of power, who lack the resource and networks to put their case in policy making, big business is probably not going top of the list. But that just underscores the symbolism in all of this" – see: Jacinda Ardern takes on the elephants and albatrosses in the business zoo.

Nonetheless, Manhire believes Ardern's charm offensive has probably worked. He says that her main message to business is "We promise you we are listening", and he thinks "she's probably done enough to shake something of that albatross" of low business confidence from around Labour's neck.

Business journalist Jason Walls has also reacted with surprise, saying there are already ample opportunities for business interests to have input into the workings of this government. He questions whether another is needed: "what about the Treasury? What about the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE)? The Reserve Bank? BusinessNZ? Surely they should be doing this type of work already. On top of that, we have a Minister of Finance who has not one, not two but three Associate Ministers as well as a Minister of Revenue and Small Business. And already this year, the Government has already established two other business-led groups to help advise the Government – the Tripartite Future Work Forum and the Small Business Council" – see: Jacinda Ardern's latest pitch to woo business won't work – here's why.

Does business even deserve to have more influence? That's the question asked by University of Auckland professor of economics Tim Hazledine, who hopes "that the talking at the Council's meetings is not all in one direction" – see: Business Advisory Council could prick 'lack of confidence' bubble. He thinks that the Prime Minister should be using the new council to tell business to get its act together.

Hazledine agrees that New Zealand has a business confidence problem, but of a different sort: "there is indeed a substantive 'business confidence' issue in New Zealand: it is about our, the people's, lack of confidence in them – specifically, in the big business corporate sector. Overall, the corporate sector in New Zealand has been a conspicuous poor performer over the past thirty years."

Possibly the most interesting and challenging criticism of the Government's new business working group comes from former Reserve Bank economist Michael Reddell, who has two big problems with the new approach – see his blog post, A country is not a company.

First, "such councils can be a path towards cronyism. On the one hand, attracting sycophants who like to be able to tell their mates they have the ear of the Prime Minister. And on the other, more concerningly, enabling selected business heads to bend the ear of ministers and put pressure on them to make decisions favourable to the specific economic interests of those involved and their employers."

Second, he challenges the very notion that businesspeople have expertise in running economies: "what do chief executives of businesses know about overall economic management, and the challenges of New Zealand's longstanding productivity underperformance?". Reddell argues that "Expertise on economic management, and the particular confounding challenges the New Zealand economy faces, just aren't the sort of thing that tends to be fostered in the course of a corporate career."

There were other aspects of the Prime Minister's speech to business that the audience should have been appreciative of, according to the New Zealand Herald – see its editorial: Two small words from PM should lift business confidence. In particular, they should be thankful to the PM for saying "We won't" on the issue of relaxing the conservative fiscal policies contained in their Budget Responsibility Rules. And the editorial points out that Ardern reiterated that planned industrial relations reform will not "fundamentally disrupt the employment relations landscape" established by the National Government.

According to Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins, such statements about industrial relations reform show that this government is now shifting away from a more radical and transformative approach, and towards a moderate and incrementalist approach – in the same way that Helen Clark and John Key pragmatically ran their governments – see: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's plan to bring the boardroom into the Beehive.

Could it be that this Government has rolled over too easily in the face of business grumpiness? Pattrick Smellie writes today that "The degree of political attention paid to the decline in business confidence… is overblown", and the "Government has let itself be spooked, which may say something about its internal confidence about the cohesion of the economic plan it says it's pursuing" – see: Magnifying the elephant in the boardroom.

Finally, the capitulation of the Government to business might actually be the opposite of how it looks. Mike Hosking argues that Labour is simply co-opting business leaders in order to blunt their opposition, because "what you are achieving is getting buy-in from them. They are signing up for the plan. They are on board with the government because they are in the pay if not debt of the government… once you're on a government board you work for the government" – see: Jacinda Ardern's Business Advisory Council is political genius.