The most dismal thing about the generally hostile reaction to the report of the Don Brash-chaired 2025 Taskforce is that so many New Zealanders seem happy for the country to sink to the level of a peasant economy, if not slide quietly under the waves altogether.
Okay, so Brash and his fellow taskforce members could be accused of leading with their chins. By promoting what looked like a full-blown ACT manifesto they not only gave National an excuse to back away, as John Armstrong points out in the New Zealand Herald, but they also re-ignited the residual rage and resentment still lingering over the economic restructuring of the 1980s. Just as predictably, that anger immediately threatened to choke off what should have been a vital debate about what New Zealand needs to do to restore economic parity with Australia (if it’s not already too late).
Without the reforms of the 1980s and 90s, New Zealand would be even more of an economic cot case than it is. Even Helen Clark, while never missing an opportunity to disparage them as “failed reforms”, was smart enough to leave them in place. But they left such a political legacy – or perhaps curse is a better word – that any discussion of economic policy quickly gets buried under apocalyptic warnings about the heartless agenda of Rogernomics. One wonders whether the country will ever wriggle free of this crippling inability to confront the need for change. There doesn’t seem much prospect under the present government.
Part of the problem is that Rogernomics has never had a good salesman. Whatever else Roger Douglas may have been (and many regard him as a visionary), he was never a politician the public felt it could trust, still less warm to. Something to do with those eyes, perhaps. Rodney Hide, despite heroic efforts to make himself seem an ordinary, decent bloke, has a similar problem. Oddly enough, the austere and seemingly ingenuous Don Brash seems to empathise more successfully with Mr and Mrs Average Kiwi. (Political commentators, in their eagerness to belittle him, consistently and conveniently forget that Brash got National to within a gnat’s cock of winning the election in 2005.) But Brash only has to mention privatisation, tax reform or government spending cuts, and the forces of reaction – by which I mean all those entrenched interest groups that have most to lose – are portraying him as a man who dismembers babies and eats their livers raw.
These reactionary forces have taken the high ground in the PR war, and in the process have rendered politicians so gun-shy that John Key and Bill English were backing away from the taskforce’s report even before it had been released.
With the help of a generally (though not entirely) complicit media, the reactionaries moved to shut down the debate about economic parity with Australia before any of the ideas in the taskforce’s report could gain traction. They have privileged positions to protect, and nowhere more so than in the public sector which Labour assiduously expanded during its nine years in power, and from which it draws much of its core support.
National dismisses the solutions proposed by the Brash task force as “too radical”. The only possible meaning to be taken from this is that National, while prepared to tinker around the edges, is too timid to risk a backlash by confronting the challenge of promoting economic growth in a forceful way. Perhaps it doesn’t grasp that the longer change is postponed, the more "radical" the solution will have to be – unless, of course, we’re content to become a peasant economy.
Admittedly, the Key government was handed a poisoned chalice. It’s a universal strategy of centre-left governments to cling to power by making as many people as possible dependent on them – hence Labour’s Working for Families package and interest-free student loans. Trouble is, once such ruinously misguided policies are in place and their beneficiaries are securely fastened onto the state teat, it becomes politically very difficult to dismantle them. And a National Party desperate to win power in 2008 made it even harder for itself by guaranteeing not to meddle with them, even knowing the economic damage they were doing. Now it says its hands are tied; it cannot go back on a promise. Which some might see as a convenient excuse for inaction from a party that, in truth, doesn’t have the political courage to show economic leadership when it’s desperately needed.