English, the new conservative

For a Minister of Finance Bill English is offbeat. Last week he was an honoured officiator at the launch of South Seas Healthcare, a clinic run by Pacific Islander GPs. When he speaks to business groups he belabours them with social policy. What gives with this man?

Mr English is new National, that’s what, refashioning the old party before our eyes. After its long post-1945 period of liberal-conservatism epitomised by Sir John Marshall, its dodge into rank populism under Sir Robert Muldoon and its radical diversion with Ruth Richardson, Mr English’s National is redefining conservatism.

Conservative? Isn’t this the party that is privatising ACC, deregulating producer boards, reshaping roads management in the teeth of local territorialism? What’s conservative about that?

For Mr English “conservative” doesn’t mean standing still. In that sense “if you look at the scene now Labour is much more conservative.,” he acknowledged in an interview.

What does he mean? First, new National is not morally — or, as Mr English puts it, “socially” — conservative.

Mr English happens to be a moral conservative, against abortion and lowering the drinking age. He is Catholic, with five kids to prove it (though not straightlaced: he is a party animal). But that puts him in a minority in what has become a very liberal party on moral issues, a tilt against which a faction calling itself the Christian Voice is leaning. He acknowledges there is a “wide spread of views there”.

Mr English’s conservatism is of a different stripe. It is “about maintaining those things that work well, a sense of social order around values like commitment and respect, personal and community responsibility”, he said in an interview.

“Social order” — now we’re getting closer. Simon Upton, the party’s resident philosopher (with a certificate from Oxford to prove it), calls himself a conservative these days and his starting point is the ordered society.

But not a static or frozen society. Mr English’s version of conservatism requires that “governments are willing to move things around if we are going to achieve the kinds of aspirations that New Zealanders want because they are fairly ambivalent about what they’ve achieved so far.”

Hence the continued economic reform. Without it, economic aspirations will be disappointed.

But, Mr English insists, this is not radical reform. “National by nature isn’t a radical reforming party”. The radical period was in response to a crisis, to which both major parties responded by “building markets that had been submerged by political meddling”.

“Now it is business as usual. You’re not saying, ‘There is a crisis, we’ve got to change the economic rules’. You are saying, ‘We’ve achieved this much. Is it enough?’ ”

But how does this square with conservatism?

First, by being in contrast with the radical party of the early 1990s when the talk was about “sweeping deregulation and a strong anti-welfare line”. New Nationalists didn’t fight in that “war” and so, unlike its veterans, the Sir William Birches, the John Luxtons, even some youngish ministers like Maurice Williamson and Mr Upton, new Nationalists do not have a war mentality.

Second, because only by “doing” can social order be achieved and maintained in the face of the many complicated pressures on modern society. These he listed in a recent speech as “the interaction between the global economy and our national identity, the challenge of turning a society built on commodity production into a society thriving on the economic value of ideas, the vital task of reconnecting those outside the mainstream to the possibility of prosperity”.

And, third, because new National is in one sense demonstrably conservative. Mr English, about to be Treasurer, intends to maintain the welfare state, all $25 billion a year of it.

Why? “Because the accumulated lessons of history are that we haven’t yet found a better way to do it,” he says. “We’ve looked pretty hard, particularly in the early 1990s, and the lessons out of that were that people are not going to buy a deal that says, ‘I’m going to try and downgrade this service to force you to pay for more of it yourself’.” That sets new National miles apart from ACT.

But again Mr English talks of change. “I think we can deliver social policy quite a bit more effectively in the context of people feeling secure that they are going to get a good-quality service and wanting more ways of working out how they get the good-quality service — more choice. Can it be delivered better by someone else?” he said in the interview.

“We have set social services off in on a path of local control, better integration, more sensitivity to local needs,” he said in the Budget debate. “This process will grow greatly in sophistication in the next century,”

Now you see why he was at the South Seas clinic launch. As Health Minister he took a personal interest in iwi, ethnic and other alternative delivery systems and got them money. His wife Mary is involved, too.

But, still, is this conservatism? A sentence in a speech to a post-Budget breakfast explains: “An economic policy which leaves too many people too far behind does not reflect the kind of society I believe New Zealanders want.”

We’re back to social order, the heart of conservatism.

And what sort of society? In a recent speech he said: “On the one hand our economic framework encourages us to achieve. On the other hand we share an enduring set of egalitarian values. On the one hand we want greater wealth; on the other hand we value our unique lifestyle.”

Was that “egalitarian” he said? You didn’t hear that often from old Nationalists.

But it is special sort of egalitarianism. When you ask Mr English whom new National represents, he answers: “People for whom achievement is important, personally and nationally: whether it’s someone getting a job after two years on the dole; or someone who, with a lower tax burden is able to upgrade to a home with enough bedrooms for the kids; through to the innovator/entrepreneur.”

“It is much broader group of people than a social class.” Today’s conservatism, it seems, is more a state of mind than the socioeconomic determinism of yesterday’s conservatism.

New National is not Sir Robert Muldoon’s ordinary bloke, a notion which left out the upwardly mobile “innovator/entrepreneur”. Jim Bolger groped for the “decent society” and, when that eluded him, tried “social capital” but couldn’t turn it into saleable politics. Mrs Shipley has at times seemed to be reaching for that ordered, cohesive society but she has never articulated it with Mr English’s sophisticated simplicity.

The difficulty for a Nationalist going down this track is to avoid being thought soft or wet or closet Labour. There were a few of those in the National caucus in the early 1990s but Mr English is not one. Nor is the new breed around him.

For one thing, he wants lower taxes. Anyone hearing one of his speeches cannot mistake that, though they also contain the proviso that social services are not thereby undermined.

That’s traditional Nationalism. So is new National’s new attention to its power base in business. Years of market purity has created antagonism from business, Mr English said in the interview: “We’ve have been telling them for eight years, ‘There is the framework and the government doesn’t get involved’ and that’s worn the relationship,” he said in the interview.

“The next step is to rebuild a sense of cohesion without falling back into the traps [of excessive meddling]. We had to do what we did but are now looking for a bit of a New Zealand Inc approach.”

But there is a recognisably conservative limit. “National is sceptical about political solutions, about the capacity of government to solve all problems and about the desirability of that.”

Note that conservative phrase: “sceptical about”, not “against”. New National is not reluctant to be in government; in fact, though new National is young it is experienced in cabinet already and fancies itself as a capable, innovative, forward-looking governor. But new National, as old National was long ago, is reluctant to say government can solve everything.

In any case, as new National sees it, society is now more complex and political positions — and answers — less clearcut. Mr English talks of a “pluralistic society” where it is “less a matter of warring [political] poles than of having a product in the market and winning the argument by persuasion. It’s a matter of minorities and majorities and less a confrontation of organised armies.”

This party of debate and persuasion is very different from the party of unity and homogeneity that was old National before the muldoonist deluge. It suggests a confidence — and brashness — of youth.

But it also suggests a vitality that, whatever the election outcome, is not likely to fade quickly. Mr English likes to talk about the “engine of ideas” needed to drive a modern economy. For the moment he is National’s engine of ideas.