Sir William Birch

February 25th, 2009 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

Normally I’d just comment on the post, but as doesn’t allow comments, I have to respond here.

In a tribute to Jeanette Fitzsimons, says:

But I also like her because she’s an unashamed wonk who seriously knows her stuff. It’s a rare quality in a politician – reportedly didn’t even know how to read a graph

Now I have no idea where the hell that comes from, let alone why I/S would repeat something so stupid, but I can’t let it go unchallenged that Bill Birch was some sort of lightweight politician who had no grasp of policy or detail.

Quite the opposite in fact. It is well known that when he was the (junior) Finance Minister to Winston’s senior role as Treasurer, Birch took care of all the detailed stuff, and Winston read the executive summaries.

But his eye for detail went far beyond that. I used to flat with Treasury staff, and I remember one story of the first time they had to sit in on a Birch bi-lateral.

The general rule of thumb at Treasury was that a vote analyst should only worry about stuff greater than $2 million.

Anyway in the first bilateral, not only does Birch go into every line in detail, demanding it be justified, he recalled the previous year they had stuck away $500,000 in some contingency account, and asked if that was still needed, and if not, he wants it back.

Now imagine how stunned the vote analysts were, that the Minister of Finance knew their votes to an even greater detail than they did!

So the suggestion by I/S that Sir William did not know his stuff, is ludicrous and preposterous. One could well criticise him for his policies, but to suggest what I/S did, is more a reflection on him that he spoils a nice tribute to Jeanette with an un-necessary and inaccurate swipe at someone who hasn’t even been in politics for a decade.

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38 Responses to “Sir William Birch”

  1. KiwiGreg (3,278 comments) says:

    /agree

    Birch always knew his stuff. Didn’t always get to the right answer but he knew his facts.

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  2. jacob van hartog (300 comments) says:

    Birchs grasp of detail probably came from his training as a surveyor. Sadly these days surveyors errors are far too common

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  3. Murray (8,803 comments) says:

    “let alone why I/S would repeat something so stupid”

    I would venture that stupidity played a part.

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  4. Nigel (493 comments) says:

    This post reminds me of wandering around Churchill’s bunker in London & being impressed by the usage of charts back then ( tonnage lost, planes lost etc ), back to the topic at hand, the I/S comment makes no rational sense.

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  5. Redbaiter (11,880 comments) says:

    “Bill Birch reportedly didn’t even know how to read a graph”

    Those sort of unsubstantiated smears are why Idiot is too yellow to allow comments.

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  6. OECD rank 22 kiwi (2,760 comments) says:

    What a plonker Idiot/Savant.

    The left do think wrong mind, if they think at all.

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  7. Buggerlugs (1,241 comments) says:

    Birch (was a bastard to work for, but) had an astonishing grasp of detail – quite often better than the Treasury people advising him – which scared the shit out of them on a regular basis. I/S is just a fuckwit and yet another who ignores that Genetix was just a nice old granny face hiding a Stalinist mind…

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  8. JC (948 comments) says:

    He’d be a useful bloke to have around now..

    In 1991 Bill Birch inherited about $56 billion in national debt.. the same as is predicted by Treasury’s worst case scenario in Dec 08.. yet by 1999 Birch had halved that off a 1995 GDP of $92 billion compared to a GDP of $185 billion now, created three times more growth than for 1982-92, cut inflation to 2%, reduced income tax for the middle incomes by 25%..

    ..and all despite the 1990/91 recession, the Asian economic collapse of the late 1990s and two very bad droughts.

    JC

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  9. tvb (4,553 comments) says:

    I was in Treasury in the change-over between Sir William and Ruth Richardson. What I found with Sir William is that while Treasury officials were more in tune with Ruth, with Bill Birch you knew something he agreed to was going to happen. He might have been harder to persuade, asked more questions but when he gave the OK it happened. Conversely with Ruth while she was easier to convince one was never quite sure whether the PM or whoever would change or block what was agreed to. Needless to say Birch in terms of getting business done was more effective for officials because you knew your case was being argued out with someone who knew how to get things done. He had legendary work habits. He read his papers,and was able to manage the delicate relationship with Winston Peters effectively through sheer dint of hard work, partly because Winston did NOT read his papers.

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  10. ben (2,279 comments) says:

    Of all people to level that claim about, Birch is the only NZ politician I am aware of that was noted for his incisiveness and eye for detail. I can’t recall that sort of praise for a single other politician (no doubt its been done plenty of times – but Birch is the only one I know about). I/S sure knows how to pick a fight.

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  11. Hoolian (164 comments) says:

    Hmmm, I think he pulled that one out of his bum.

    But why doesn’t No Right Turn open his blog up for comments? It’s the equivlent of standing on a soap box speaking with a megaphone, while wearing earmuffs.

    What is he afraid of?

    So much for free and frank debate.

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  12. Razork (375 comments) says:

    More Idiot and less Savant me thinks.

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  13. beautox (409 comments) says:

    What is preposterous is thinking that Fitzsimons does know her stuff. So maybe she can read a graph. Big fucking deal. I could do that when I was 10.

    But she is a staunch believer in the global warming BS, which history will show to be a load of bollocks.

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  14. CraigM (541 comments) says:

    She is retiring, not dying. Why are so many fawning over a very average politician?

    I never met the lady and I’ll happily conceded that she was a nice person as some above who know her have stated.

    As a politician, she exposed her true character by using her position and influence to increase her own personal wealth.

    Something to do with wind farms wasn’t it?

    Maybe polly’s and lots of other people do similar, but why ignore or excuse that kind of behaviour just because she is retiring after living off the public trough for a decade and a half.

    Like the rest of us (except maybe Richie McCaw) she is dispensible. Bye Bye. Move on.

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  15. Rex Widerstrom (5,013 comments) says:

    As others who’ve worked with him closely have testified above, Birch had a mind like a steel trap for detail. And not just financial… I hosted a radio show which took in his electorate (can’t recall the name of it, but centred on Pukekohe). I was impressed enough when, having met me only once in the studio during a candidates’ debate, he walked up to me at a Field Day months later and not only knew who I was (a canny politician tends to have a good memory for names and faces) but recalled the questions I’d put to him and expanded on the answers he’d given!

    I/S might do well to reflect on this, too: When I first started working in Australia round 2000, I hawked myself round a stack of pollies. I was amazed at the number of right-leaners who’d ask “Do you know… *breathless pause*… Bill Birch?”

    I’d been expecting to be asked about Douglas, or maybe Richardson. They never came up. Birch, however, seems universally admired for (as tvb points out above) getting things done, and done in exactly the way he wanted, with the details all nailed down.

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  16. Jim (358 comments) says:

    “admired for (as tvb points out above) getting things done, and done in exactly the way he wanted, with the details all nailed down.”. Thanks for that. Nice to hear something positive about a politician once in a while.

    Some people think you aren’t doing anything unless you construct a theatre of drama, angst, and guilt-inducing, headline grabbing rhetoric.

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  17. PaulL (5,446 comments) says:

    Two points.

    Many nice comments about Bill Birch. Yes, he got things done, exactly the way he wanted them. He was also the architect of think big. Sometimes getting exactly what you want with insufficient oversight is not enough – what you want also has to be a good idea. Bill was a great politician, but what he sometimes wanted was larger government.

    CraigM: a more charitable interpretation of Jeanette is that she had a strong conviction relating to renewable energy. She lobbied to get it in place, she also put her money where her mouth was when she said that it would be profitable. If she hadn’t invested, some would say she had no conviction. I agree that there is a conflict of interest, but I’m not sure her motivations were corrupt.

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  18. peterwn (3,332 comments) says:

    I have three comments on Bill:

    1. He won a two horse race to get National’s nomination for his seat – one of National’s safest seats. He was a does, the other a talker – Bill’s mob produced by far the most membership receipt stubs – hence was well supported at the selection meeting. He was deputy mayor of his town when he went into Parliament (the usual progression then – nowadays it seems to be the other way round).

    2. ‘Terrible to work for’? He boomeranged Ministerial submissions – the ones our group were involved in (for new substations and lines) came back very quickly almost always ‘thumbs up’. In that regard I thought that he was a great Minister.

    3. My big criticism – in the 1990’s I felt that he forgot what the job was all about – he became too much aligned to the likes of Sir Humphry (‘Yes Minister’). That IMO helped sow the seeds for National’s disasterous result at the 2002 election (yes, I know he retired in 1999). Perhaps as he knew he was going in 1999, hence helping to win that election, or at least setting the foundations for a 2002 victory was probably not really on his mind. The biggest miscalculation IMO was to allow IRD to get away with a draconian penalties scheme, so draconian that Mike Cullen had to partially undo it. He ignored submissions from accountants etc on this. In doing so he struck a blow right at those who would be core National Party supporters.

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  19. johnbt (90 comments) says:

    It’s nice to hear that Bill was more clued up than Treasury staff. Were those the guys who, on a regular basis, have screwed up their projections to the tune of around $1,500,000,000 ? In recent years they have made a weather forecaster look good.

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  20. pkiwi (78 comments) says:

    Agree that he could get things done. ‘Think Big’ was an example! He used to have a picture of one of the projects on his wall and be quite proud of it. In meeting in his office there could be a bit of cognitive dissonance as he railed on fiscal constraint with that picture just above his head. And politically ruthless. One budget round, I saw him skewer a fired up (‘ll defend my budget’) John Banks completely as Bill had all the detail on the portfolio. John came out dazed and confused. Well more confused than normal anyway.

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  21. Gooner (919 comments) says:

    “…couldn’t read a graph?

    Yeah well I/S should know all about that considering him and his ilk can’t get read the Hockey Stick graph.

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  22. bharmer (687 comments) says:

    Rex Widerstrom (1798) Vote: Add rating 6 Subtract rating 0 Says:
    February 25th, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    “I hosted a radio show which took in his electorate (can’t recall the name of it, but centred on Pukekohe). ”

    Franklin

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  23. Trevor Mallard (248 comments) says:

    I worked on Select Committees with Bill in the 1980’s and read a lot of the papers he had responsibility for in the 1990’s. He certainly had a really good mind for detail and never hesitated to dig when he thought he wasn’t getting the full story. My criticism would be more the opposite – whether he got the big picture all the time. But I/S not fair this time

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  24. Sonny Blount (1,806 comments) says:

    PaulL: a more charitable interpretation of George is that he had a strong conviction relating to oil. He lobbied to get it in place, he also put his money where his mouth was when he said that it would be profitable. If he hadn’t invested, some would say he had no conviction. I agree that there is a conflict of interest, but I’m not sure his motivations were corrupt.

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  25. PhilBest (4,757 comments) says:

    Gooner, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Bill Birch would have done enough background digging to have rejected the hockey stick graph……..in sad contrast to everyone in parliament today, with a handful of honorable exceptions.

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  26. insider (845 comments) says:

    Well well well, Trevor Mallard commenting. Is this part of some new charm offensive with Phil G not figuring in the polls? :-P

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  27. What would Hayek say (51 comments) says:

    Hi Trevor – good comment and probably a fair assessment.

    From experience with a number of Labour and National MPs and Ministers, there is often a large gulf between public (MSM projected) perception and their personal and political abilities. Some of the criticism leveled at certain individuals is not deserved and is due to them shoulder things for their weaker colleagues. Whilst there is some lightweights on the occassion in parliament, the senior ministers from both parties have generally had strong analytical and strategic thinking skills and are aware of which colleagues they are carrying. It is a mental trap to think otherwise and if your an opponent, likely to bite you when you least expect or want it.

    Often some of the most impressive ministers/mps have been those that have achieved despite their own party. The public generally does not see how much of the internal caucus/cabinet debating and trade offs. Some of very best even spend time with their officials working through Statements of Intent, setting medium/long term strategy and working through the trade offs to get there. Sometimes they then get knee capped by their colleagues along the way and in the delivery, but still find ways to generate meaningful change/outcomes for the public.

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  28. beautox (409 comments) says:

    bharmer : actually it was called Port Waikato

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  29. peterwn (3,332 comments) says:

    beautox – it was called Franklin when Bill first had the seat. It then became Port Waikato, and the nearest matching current electorate seems to be Hunua.

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  30. bharmer (687 comments) says:

    It seems to have been renamed more often than some change their underwear. Wikipedia says:
    “Birch first entered parliament in the 1972 elections, as the National Party’s candidate for the Franklin electorate (which included Pukekohe). National won the next election in 1975, and formed the third National Government. He held the seat to 1996; it was called Rangiriri from 1978 to 1984 and Maramarua from 1987 to 1993, but reverted to Franklin in 1993. In 1996 with MMP he won the new Port Waikato seat, and he retired in 1999″

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  31. berend (1,688 comments) says:

    But Jeanette is an expert in reading hockey stick graphs!

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  32. vibenna (305 comments) says:

    Think Big was conceived during an Oil crisis. Then it fell apart due to an oil glut. It might have looked a lot better but for that exogenous price reversal. this graph tells the story, showing oil prices dropping by two thirds from their peak.

    Yet despite this, there have been years of benefits to New Zealand from:
    – The electrification of the main trunk line (was Bill Birch the original greenie?)
    – The expansion of Tiwai point Aluminium smelter.
    – The expansion of the Marsden Oil Refinery (man, did those shares rocket in the last five years)
    – The expansion of the Glenbrook steel mill (see their annual result recently?)
    – The Clyde dam.

    Who would want to be without those now?

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  33. the deity formerly known as nigel6888 (717 comments) says:

    i worked for Mr Birch while at Tsy and am immensely grateful for what I learned.

    As said above, he had an amazing eye for detail, and would go down a rabbit burrow for $50k

    I and my (then) colleagues always thought that Mr B had acknowledged privately that think big was wrong, and was going to atone for it through excellent fiscal management.

    and his fiscal management was legendary.

    as was his manner. He was never impolite, he remembered details, he did his homework, and always left something on the table for the other side in a deal – that meant his deals always stuck.

    Maximum respect.

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  34. Corin (1 comment) says:

    I remember when Bill Birch as the local MP visited my primary school in 1990. He pulled a Dan Quayle and wrote the word “independant” on our blackboard. I tried to point this out to him but the teacher told me to put my hand down.

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  35. tvb (4,553 comments) says:

    One must not forget the compromise we have on our abortion laws – it was Bill Birch’s. It is still around today, nobody DARES to reopen it.

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  36. Paul Williams (880 comments) says:

    This is an odd comment by I/S though I can think of reasons why I/S would not be a fan of Birch’s (some of which I’d share). I’ve had very limited dealing with Birch but my wife had many and respected him as thorough, clear headed, hard headed and smart. I’ll not say in which portfolio she encountered him but I will say it was one that had an awkward fit from time to time. She also found him decent and pleasant. My experience is limited to the his involvement in industry training in which he was a consistent and strong advocate. Often one of the only ones (Lockwood was another).

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  37. libertyscott (344 comments) says:

    Sometimes I/S has some good analysis, sometimes he just shows bigotry against those who aren’t on the left. Birch was a sharp cookie, although one can’t forget how he was once the architect of Think Big. I do wonder what he thinks of that folly nowadays.

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  38. libertyscott (344 comments) says:

    Vibenna: Motunui gas to gasoline plant dismantled and sold for parts. Electrification of the main trunk line was bailed out to the tune of $350 million in 1988 values, in other words not far short of the real market value of the whole railway. Tiwai Point expansion should have been funded by Comalco since it profited from it, not taxpayers. Marsden Point expansion also was bailed out, and written off. Glenbrook steel mill expansion didn’t generate a return to make it worthwhile, and the Clyde Dam was many times over budget. So yes, if you think over $2 billion in spending that had to be written off was good, then fine – funnily enough, all those “assets” have net zero worth, since nobody wanted to pay for them at a price to recover what was spent on them. Think Big was a disaster, National’s last big attempt at socialism, and Birch thankfully did nothing like it in the 1990s. I suspect he learnt, sadly too many have not.

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