Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

90s Cabinet Gets Key Coat of Varnish

November 19th, 2008


Prime Minister in waiting John Key announces his Cabinet

*****

The new Cabinet has been greeted with such hosannas from the mainstream media we can only assume some of those articles were really job applications, disguised as commentary. Get a grip. Has there ever been an incoming administration that hasn’t promised high work rates, quality outcomes, accountability and a mix of fresh talent and canny experience among its slate of Ministers?

Hate to be a curmudgeon, but I can’t get too excited about a fresher/more inclusive team when the entire National front bench is unchanged – save for Chris Finlayson, who is only there because Katherine Rich isn’t. Bill English, Gerry Brownlee, Tony Ryall, Nick Smith…stop me if you need an introduction to any of these people. Should we be feeling re-assured that as we head down the slope of a recession/global meltdown, the welfare safety net has been entrusted to a one term MP whose main credential and emblem of compassion is that she used to be a solo parent? So was Christine Rankin, I seem to recall.

It is only slightly less alarming that the IT sector has been entrusted to someone – Steven Joyce – who confesses he knows very little about it. Great. This sector is just emerging from a complex regulatory phase that has finally brought Telecom to heel, and created something like a genuine free market at last, in telecommunications. Telecom must be rubbing their hands at the prospect of a newbie Minister and a $1.5 billion broadband rollout that could so easily re-entrench their old position of dominance. Joyce’s task will be to prove that he isn’t a Telecom patsy like Maurice Williamson was, throughout the 1990s.

As for work rate and performance, my answer is two words …Jonathan Coleman. Minister of Immigration, Minister of Broadcasting, associate Health Minister. How hard can this be ? The major rewrite of the Immigration Bill has been done and gone through select committee, and we can expect bi-partisan support for it from Labour. A reasonably alert Springer Spaniel could take it from here.

And Broadcasting? National has scrapped the social charter, and told TVNZ to focus only on making money, just as it did in the 1990s. Wake me when its time to count the dividend. Oh, and National’s policy is to pare the Ministry for Culture and Heritage back to its “core functions’ – which sound like code to that broadcasting may effectively end up back under its old umbrella at the Ministry of Economic Development. Which would make Gerry Brownlee the real Minister of Broadcasting, not Coleman. If there are any easier ways of picking up $250k, its hard to imagine what they could be.

Will Coleman be willing for instance, to resist the lobbying of Sky, who have formerly found National to be so highly sympathetic and compliant to whatever has been on their wish-list? This time round, Sky will certainly be wanting Coleman to dump the idea of a single regulatory body – along the lines of Ofcom in Britain – to regulate the convergence of broadcasting and telecommunications. Count that as a done deal.

What this should be telling us is that in this new Cabinet there are real Ministers – a tight group making the big calls and policy settings – and a wider crew of Ministers whose job is mainly to come in early, switch on the lights and punch in the policy co-ordinates they’ve been given. Paula Bennett is not going to be devising welfare policy. One of Paula Bennett’s main jobs will be to appear sensitive and caring on television, and put the ‘compassion” into the compassionate conservative. Zing ! Another $250k. Memo : must crack down on wasteful government spending.

Among the Ministers, the tight group would be Key, English, Steven Joyce and Simon Power, with Brownlee, Tony Ryall and Nick Smith in there by necessity. Murray McCully will become the new Winston Peters, a potentially disruptive force dispatched for long periods of time overseas as Foreign Minister. Take your time, Murray. Like many a complex work of art, McCully can often be best appreciated from a distance.

The real test for John Key will be how he manages the ministers outside his Cabinet, not the ones within it. Rodney Hide is the new Minister of Local Government – will he be enacting National Party policy on local government, or Act Party policy on local government – and if the latter, what responsibility does Key take for the outcomes ? Because, as The Standard web site has just reminded us, Act’s local government policy is an extremist libertarian document, that requires councils to turn over their commercial activities to the private sector. It also says : “roads and piped water will be supplied on a fully commercial basis….Act will promote contracting out of many council services.”

Correct me if I’m wrong. But did John Key tell the country in the television debates that his government would privatize roads and the water supply and advocate the wholesale contracting out of the work of local and regional councils ?

If Key isn’t going to let Hide do this, shouldn’t he be re-assuring the country that Hide is not going to be allowed to head off down a path of hijacking local democracy for commercial and ideological ends? The NZ Herald, to its credit, has done an excellent reminder piece here about Act’s radical programme for local government. Only four voters in a hundred voted for this agenda. Yet the entire country may soon have to wear its impact on their communities, unless John Key shows some leadership.

There is another, related line of inquiry worth pursuing at the national level, as well. The Key government has made it clear that public –private partnerships (PPPs) will be a major part of the country’s planning over the next decade. These projects entail a major commitment of taxpayer funds and public liabilities.

Before we begin down that track, what kind of commitments will the new government provide that ‘commercial sensitivity” will NOT be invoked to conceal from the public the details of these contracts ? Upfront, there needs to be a commitment to utter transparency in the structure and ongoing outcomes of PPP contracts – and the firms bidding for the work need to be told beforehand that their acceptance of such transparency will be a condition of them getting the work. In Canada and in Australia, it has proved extremely difficult for the public to find out just how PPP contracts involving hundreds of millions of dollars of their money are structured, and how the patterns of risk and profit will actually play out, over time.

Why, without a commitment to forego commercial sensitivity on PPPs, we may never know how well or badly the Key government is performing in one of its pet areas. Key has promised “outcomes, results and accountability” from the new Cabinet that is being sworn in today. The media is currently celebrating that kind of talk – without bothering its pretty little head unduly about how, and whether, they will be able to measure the walk.

ENDS

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    1. 12 Responses to “90s Cabinet Gets Key Coat of Varnish”

    2. By lyndon on Nov 19, 2008 | Reply

      In a comment on Poneke (an apparent)Owen McShane expects Williamson and Hide to hare off on their own outside-cabinet deregulation kick without it falling back on Key.

    3. By Tigger on Nov 19, 2008 | Reply

      Thanks for asking questions that we need answers to Gordon. I suspect that ACT in particular will be just like a pitbull trained to kill – yes, you can make it heel if you tug the leash hard enough and yes, you can keep it in line and try to make it behave, but at some point, when you are distracted or vulnerable, it will rip out your throat.

    4. By stuart munro on Nov 19, 2008 | Reply

      So what the growth focus amounts to is substantially rhetoric and the failed ideological blather of the 90s. Again.
      I’m in Korea at the moment, if anyone wants to know how to really build a thriving economy I can send them a few books.
      An old gentleman I know designed the economic reforms that turned this country around. He is a little more self-critical than ACT, but then he wanted his policies to succeed, and ACT only want tax cuts.

    5. By matt on Nov 19, 2008 | Reply

      Pansy Wong, a Chinese woman, is minister for ethnic affairs and women’s affairs. Hilarious!

      Covered all your bases there John, nice work

    6. By Neil on Nov 19, 2008 | Reply

      What sort of journalist quotes “The Standard”??

    7. By lyndon on Nov 19, 2008 | Reply

      He quoted ACT.

    8. By Jane on Nov 19, 2008 | Reply

      This is a sad day for NZ. Thank you, Gordon for the truth behind the headlines. I’m wondering if Steven Joyce’s meteoric rise is due to some behind-the- scenes influence at talk radio which has waged a relentless campaign on National’s behalf?
      NZer’s have been dazzled by the occupant of a faux Beverly Hills (as if BH itself isn’t faux enough ) Parnell mega mansion. Kiwis, get ready to be fleeced. I wonder how long it will take for Key to deliver a speech (a la Richard Nixon, 1971) extolling the efficiency of a private user-pays health care system?

    9. By Truth Seeker on Nov 19, 2008 | Reply

      It will be interesting to see how far from the centre John Key allows his rightward-listing crew to go.

      There is nothing like majority support for much of this. Key can’t let these genies out of the box until after National has got rid of MMP….at which point they will be much less accountable to voters than they currently are.

      So I’m left wondering how this will go. Is Key the boss? Or the front man?

      To soon to say.

    10. By Paul Robeson on Nov 19, 2008 | Reply

      What sort of journalist quotes “The Standard”??

      Well from memory- Colin Espiner for one….

      Still I’m sure Neil was completely aware of ACT’s policies and their less than 4% of the vote before the Herald and the Standard pointed them out.

      PPPs and commercial sensitivity- it is almost worth starting the petition, information and protest movement now- before we get tied into a long term contract and have to buy it out at a premium later…

      The question always is how is the private sector going to make money from these things. They wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. And if it is profitable and worth the investment, why do we share it with them?

    11. By Amelda on Nov 20, 2008 | Reply

      Im wondering how much parlimentary business they will schedule when the cameras are not rolling.

    12. By Matthew Middleton on Nov 22, 2008 | Reply

      I’m scared.

    13. By Dave on Nov 24, 2008 | Reply

      One of the more common catch-cries of this last election was ‘it’s time for a change’
      Not ONCE did i hear ‘change for the BETTER’
      It appears that many voters didn’t know what they wanted at all.

      New zealanders will now (as they always do) get the government they wholeheartedly deserve.

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