Roger Partridge and I took on Key's legacy in last week's Initiative newsletter. He highlighted the highlights; I hit on the disappointments. Had either of us written a single piece, we'd likely have incorporated a fair bit of what the other said.
Against this background, the Key years have been remarkable. Stable government itself has been an achievement. A simple comparison with Australia will suffice: during Key’s time as prime minster he has witnessed four leadership changes across the Tasman. Steady-as-she-goes may have been bad for our media, but it undoubtedly contributed to New Zealand’s rising business confidence, and to long term investment and growth.
The government’s fiscal discipline has also been impressive: not just by resisting the spending affliction that gripped others, but by quickly returning the government’s accounts to surplus – and healthy ones too. Again, the contrast with Australia is stark. While Bill English can take much of the credit for this achievement, it is Key who granted him the licence to be prudent.
Key’s was also a reforming government. After the Fourth Labour government, it was perhaps New Zealand’s most radical in the post-war era. The GST for income tax swap, welfare reforms (the likes of which might have brought down another government), the investment approach to social services; labour market reform, partial-privatisation, reforms in education, including national standards and charter schools: these may have occurred incrementally, but together they comprise a prodigious package of reform.
Blaming coalition partners let National have its cake and eat it too. Home-owning voters got rich off the back of National’s failure to fix the planning apparatus, and National got to jawbone about reform without ever doing anything about it. The renting victims are poorer, less likely to vote, and are more likely to vote Labour anyway.
Auckland’s housing crisis was a sin of omission. Post-quake Christchurch was a sin of commission.
The government allowed Gerry Brownlee to play SimCity with CERA and the CCDU, ignoring the property rights of downtown owners, causing destructive regime uncertainty in which owners simply could not tell what they were allowed to do, and failing to deal with substantial emerging problems in EQC assessments that kept costs to government down but ignored the terms of homeowners’ insurance agreements. We are lucky that Christchurch, Waimakiriri and Selwyn were not forced into a supercity before the earthquakes.
Think back to National’s campaign of 2008. They railed against Clark’s nanny-state. But can we see the massive increase in health and safety compliance costs as anything but a continuation of that regime? And what of the anti-money laundering regulations that had no reasonable cost-benefit assessment? Because of those rules, I could not even bet on iPredict that English would succeed Key.
Meanwhile, productivity continues to stagnate and superannuation’s long-term costs loom.
Failing to follow the rest of the world’s descent into madness is good. The bar should be set higher for a country that has bigger aspirations than that.