So…. we’re 72 hours into this journey into deep space after dropping the rocket that took us out of earth orbit (adieu, John Key) and we’re taking stock of who’s on the flight deck, and whether any warps in the space/time continuum (like Jonathan Coleman’s ghost of a candidacy) might possibly knock the mission off course. Probably not. All systems appear fully functional, and the crew of the SS Expedient is quietly preparing for the re-emergence of Captain Bill English on December 12, 2016, after more than ten years of cryonic sleep. May his leadership skills still be in full working order!
Mayday, mayday. Some systems appear to be indicating that Judith, the infallible cyborg onboard, is intent on seizing control of the flight deck and aborting the entire mission! This can’t be allowed to happen. This time, we may have to permanently dismantle her wiring. Hand a wrench to Lieutenant Joyce. But enough of the strained metaphor… What is it about this race for the leadership of the National Party – and thus, the entire country – that makes it seem so unreal? As John Campbell discovered last night on RNZ’s Checkpoint, the contest appears to be occurring within a total policy void. (None of the leadership contenders would answer Campbell’s list of questions on current policy options.)
As indicated in this column on Monday afternoon, Key’s endorsement of English has turned this “contest” into a race for second place. This succession was well planned. Lets not forget that English was told by Key in September of his intention to resign, and English was the only member of Cabinet entrusted with that information before it was sprung on everyone else on Monday morning. Which means that everything Key has said about tax cuts in the past few months was stated in his sure knowledge that he would not be the one executing them. In hindsight, this makes the tax cuts look even more like an election bribe ie, they’re a reserve option to help a less marketable leader across the line.
By confiding in English and publicly anointing him on Monday, Key blindsided his other colleagues and presented them with an impossible dilemma: if they choose to repudiate English as leader, they will in effect be jeopardizing the continuity/stability arguments that National aims to cite as its strongest selling point next year, during the electoral campaign.
In sum then, National is merely going through the motions. Just as patsy questions get asked in Parliament, Jonathan Coleman is the patsy candidate; he’s the profile-raising guy who makes it NOT look like just a pillow fight between English and Judith Collins, and who perpetuates the illusion that election year tax cuts aren’t a done deal. Predictably, the only Cabinet member who hasn’t seen the writing on the wall has been Collins.
Unlike Paula Bennett, Simon Bridges and Amy Adams, Collins is standing for the top job, while supposedly offering English the humiliating option of continuing to serve as deputy. That would be an interesting combo to watch in action. English for instance, once famously described the building of more prisons as “a moral and fiscal failure,” while Collins seems more than happy to lock ‘em up and throw away the key. They’re oil and water.
John Campbell has not been the only journalist trying in vain to detect the glimmerings of a policy debate in this contest. In other countries, a leadership spill usually results in the contenders lining up along a recognisable ideological spectrum, with differing policy outcomes to match. Not in this case. This time, “fresh leadership” seems to mean just putting a new face on the same old policy brochure. Given that the Key government hasn’t exactly been teeming with viable policy solutions to social problems like the housing crisis or child poverty… it means we’re talking (almost) about putting lipstick on a policy void.
Almost a void, but not quite. What do we know about Bill English, above and beyond his role in Finance? One thing we know is that English shares with (a) his associate finance minister Paula Bennett and (b) Justice Minister Amy Adams, a fascination with how Big Data may provide a way of targeting the spending on social needs. On Tuesday, Adams put out this press release on the use of Big Data in crime fighting. A typical link to the English & Bennett joint approach to using Big Data for targeted social spending can be found here. So…both Adams and Bennett have a track record of compatibility in a policy area that’s plainly of keen interest to English. The risks of the Big Data approach to social spending were set out 15 months ago in Werewolf.
Footnote : For now, the differences in style and personality foibles among the contenders are being treated as if they have an ideological base eg. Collins is presenting herself as the hard right toughie on social issues, while Bennett is claiming a contrary niche as the winsome Westie girl and compassionate conservative softie. (That’ll be news to anyone on the receiving end of Bennett’s reforms of social welfare.)
On the politics involved… Given her harsh public image, it is hard to see Collins being a net vote winner for National. Her leadership style went out with Rob Muldoon. Even among her core fan base – yes, it exists – its hard to see scads of grumpy old men and women voting for her (or for any woman) when they could vote for Winston Peters instead. Her already declared readiness to work in coalition with Peters (if necessary) doesn’t alter the likelihood that with Collins as leader, National would almost certainly end up delivering a bigger share of the vote to New Zealand First.
Footnote two: Steven Joyce has been very quiet, huh? Joyce is tipped to become Finance Minister if and when English succeeds. More to the point, such a change would free up the roughly 23 other portfolios currently held by Mr Fixit, for dishing out to the ambitious juniors in the caucus ranks. Simon Bridges, stand by to become the new boss of MBIE and the new czar of job creation! Ultimately, there will be quite a few spoils to be shared out among the team if they vote for English as captain on Monday.
Footnote Three. If Andrew Little felt buoyed by Labour’s recent by-election win in Mt Roskill, the shock resignation of David Shearer ( who is taking up a UN leadership post in South Sudan that quite understandably, no-one else in the world seems to want) will leave Labour facing another a by-election in a relatively safe Auckland seat. (Shearer’s exit is hardly a vote of confidence in Labour’s ability to win the 2017 election.) National can choose to let Labour further drain its limited general election resources in another by-election, or it could use the occasion (ie averting a Mt Albert by-election) as a partial excuse for calling an early election, in order to secure a mandate for its new leader. Shearer’s exit makes an early election a little bit more likely.
Hmmm. So the taxpayer – via the State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes – has paid compensation to former diplomats Derek Leask and Nigel Fyfe, for the financial costs they incurred and the harm done to their reputations.
This damage was caused by an unfairly-conducted inquiry (led by Paula Rebstock) into information leaks to the then-Labour leader Phil Goff, concerning the bungled restructuring process at MFAT. Besides paying out an unspecified amount of cash, the SSC has also issued an unreserved apology to Leask and Fyfe.
It is tempting to blame Hurricane Paula for the damage wrought, and the expensive task of reconstruction. Rebstock should certainly shoulder her share of the blame for the immediate harm done. Yet, to pursue the analogy, the severity of hurricanes these days tends to be a symptom of climate change. Similarly, it was the wider climate change within MFAT that drove the formation of this particular hurricane. The restructuring was manifestly idiotic, yet any internal opposition to it within MFAT was not to be tolerated. Therefore, a good deal of the blame for this fiasco should be sheeted home to the Foreign Affairs Minister, Murray McCully – who dreamed up the changes, and conveyed his expectations about the pace and manner of their execution.
So… if we want to ensure these kind of damaging witch-hunts do not occur again in future, we need to confront the climate of fear and retribution that pervades the current culture of the public service. That should be the SSC’s mission, under Hughes.
Song for the new leader
There could still be time for a bit of karaoke in the National caucus before the big vote on Monday. If so, I think this old Joe Jackson song would be the perfect way for Bill English to serenade his line-up of prospective deputies: