Apparently John Key is a policy entrepreneur and engineer, while Bill English is an ideological passenger – and which of these two controls the direction of economic policy as the country grapples with the economic crisis will strongly decide the fate of New Zealand. In this week’s Independent Financial Review column, Chris Trotter characterises the future of the New Zealand economy as being determined by the natural ideological schism between John Key as prime minister and Bill English as finance minister, and whose vision wins out. English is painted as being conventional and Key as risk-taking and bold. Trotter clearly hopes that Key wins out, but suggests that this is unlikely. [Read more below]
In his column entitled ‘Come on, engineer a bolder government’ Trotter says that ‘the age of dogma has come to an end’ and that this is represented by political figures such as Barack Obama and John Key whose unconventional approaches mean that we are entering a bold ‘new era of responsibility’ ‘characterised by ideological scepticism, policy experimentation and political pragmatism’. According to Trotter, Key unlike his predecessor Helen Clark is not ‘in thrall to the economic models of the 1980s and 1990s’. Instead, coming from a new generation of politicians, and being inclined towards ‘taking the initiative, thinking creatively, acting decisively and being willing to accept the attendant risks of failure’ means that he’s much more likely to ‘put the dogma of the 1980s and 1990s behind them and to embrace bold measures’.
Such a picture of Key as an innovator and visionary leader doesn’t quite ring true. But Trotter’s argument is that although National has been transformed into a moderate middle-of-road Labour-lite party, which essentially won the election by letting ‘Labour-weary voters project whatever they felt most comfortable supporting on to the Opposition's blank canvas’, the fact that its election has ‘coincided with the full onset of the global economic crisis’ means that National can’t actually continue to ‘operate without a coherent political agenda’ – it has to get off the ideological fence, instead of reverting back to its historic (and desired) role as managing the status quo.
Because Key is keenly aware of carrying out whatever is necessary to retain power in 2011, he is therefore pushed towards boldness. Trotter claims that ‘those closest to Key strongly adhere to the view that without bold initiatives the National Government will be unable to retain sufficient electoral support to secure a second term’.
Bill English is of course no radical rightwing neoliberal determined to protect the economic framework of the past 25 years. Instead Trotter acknowledges that English is ‘well to the Left of his more conservative colleagues’, but credibly argues that he, like all previous ministers of finance, ‘he will come under enormous pressure from his officials to carry the "Treasury line" into every discussion of Government policy’. Furthermore, in his role he has an ‘obligation to play the grim defender of the state's revenue base, coupled with his sensitivity to the judgments of the international credit rating agencies’. What’s more, English is not naturally a risk-taker, and this is currently transforming him into ‘the arch-promoter of conventional economic wisdom’.
Thus, English and Key are inevitably on a collusion course. Trotter believes that English is likely to prevail, because Key will be well aware that a ‘serious and protracted conflict between prime minister and finance minister is a sure-fire recipe for political, economic and electoral disaster’ and will therefore ‘be extremely anxious to prevent the slightest hint of conflict between himself and English’. The result, Trotter says, will be that ‘the Government's response to the crisis will end up being much less than it should be’.