Espiner on Economy

Colin Espiner blogs:

Last night I was in Christchurch for a public meeting on the economy organised by The Press.

We had Prime Minister John Key along, plus Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce head Peter Townsend, Lincoln University chancellor Tom Lambie, Ngai Tahu kaiwhakahaere Mark Solomon, Canterbury University vice-chancellor Rod Carr, Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker, Press editor Andrew Holden and me.

We packed out the James Hay Theatre (well, we only charged $5 a ticket) and for two hours we debated the economy – how bad was it, and what could we do to make it better. You could have heard a pin drop.

Not because the audience was asleep (we had electric buzzers fitted to their seats) but because nearly 1000 people had turned up to hear what Key had to say about the recession, and how to fix it.

That is an amazingly high number of people to attend.

The night was interesting for several reasons. It was good to hear the Prime Minister explain what he planned to do about the recession in words that didn’t have to be fitted into a seven-second television soundbite. Or in a dry speech to a chamber of commerce. Or in the heat of battle in Parliament.

And it reminded me that the public is interested in weighty issues and able to absorb them in relatively big chunks. They don’t need stuff dumbed down, and they do care about more than just day-to-day issues that obviously still concern them.

Did they learn anything? Well, they learned Key doesn’t have all the answers, although he does have a sound grip on what the problems are. He took a sound telling-off from Rod Carr about the lack of expenditure on education with good grace.

Wish I could have attended.

Key apologised for canning the tax cuts, though he said they would be back: “I believe in the power of tax cuts,” Key said, almost evangelically. He spoke of the opportunities that existed in China and India, the need to develop a “China strategy” to make it easier to do business in that part of the world, and to focus on human capital.

Key talked about food quality, water storage, regulatory reform, and the difficulty of doing more on less money. There was no silver bullet, but then I suspect there isn’t one.

Overall it was a pretty commanding performance on what is easily Key’s best subject, when you get him away from the sideshows and the distractions.

Good to see the reaffirmation of the importance of tax cuts.

And Colin quotes Key’s final words in what he calls one of his best public performances:

“I think that you get elected to concentrate on what actually matters to people. And in the end my perception is when you go down to the polling booth, you vote on whether the economy is going to be managed properly, whether your communities are safe, whether your kids have got an opportunity, whether New Zealand has a health system that really works, whether you feel like you’re actually going in the right direction.

“And all of the other stuff is just sort of white noise that bubbles along. And the risk for politicians is they get attracted to the white noise. It’s a bit like a bar fight, you know? Everyone watches it, hopefully you’re not involved in it, but actually not much changes.

“And when you go and have a look at political parties that have spent their life on those kind of salacious, scandal-based issues, their support never rises. Because you the voters want answers to real problems.

“What I say to the Cabinet on a very regular basis and to the caucus on a very regular basis is look, for as long as we stay focused on the issues that matter to New Zealanders, that we come up with solutions, that we’re honest with them, we’ll enjoy their support.

“And when we start thinking it’s about us as politicians, when we start losing track of what matters to you then actually I reckon you will boot us out.

“I can’t tell you whether that will be two and half years, or in five and a half years’ time, or eight and a half years’ time, or more, but what I can tell you is the simple, fastest way to get thrown out is forget why you were put there.

“And we were put there to make New Zealand a lot better. And that’s going to be my intention. And that’s what I’m going to deliver.”

An excellent initiative from The Press to have such a forum.

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