Ministers who hit it off with business

Is this an unholy alliance? Commerce Minister Paul Swain is co-hosting an address by former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar next week – with, of all people, the Business Roundtable.

Just two days earlier Mr Swain will pack down at the Prime Minister’s cabinet-meets-business conference, from which some prominent Roundtablers have been explicitly excluded.

Mr Swain’s contribution at that meeting will be important. That is not – or not just – because he is minister for competition matters and telecommunications and e-commerce (on which he is running his own sound and light show on 1-2 November). Mr Swain’s importance is his enthusiasm, which includes an interest in business.

This is an uncommon feature in a cabinet of people whose lifetime preoccupation has been with social justice and social development. In attempting to bridge the gulf in fellow-feeling with those whose life is anchored to the bottom line, the government badly needs Mr Swain’s enthusiasm.

Two other ministers are similarly important. One is Energy, Fisheries, Forestry and Science Minister Pete Hodgson. The other is Education, State Services, Sport and Associate Finance Minister Trevor Mallard.

Both have huge workloads – just reciting Mr Hodgson’s full list of 10 official portfolios can make an ordinary mortal feel tired – and are also called on to plug holes. Mr Mallard carried Mr Swain’s heavy workload in addition to his own during Mr Swain’s six-month illness earlier this year. Mr Hodgson heads the Kyoto climate change ministerial taskforce, a large task on its own. They also get round a ton of speaking engagements

Their secret is that of the chief executive: they are adept at prioritising, absorbing and sifting complex material and confident in making decisions.

And through all that both keep a lively sense of humour.

A couple of weeks ago Mr Hodgson did not just discharge his two speaking commitments at the forest industries conference but turned up hours early to mingle at lunch, then run a series of bilateral meetings with industry notables and media interviews. All the while – and I have seen this on other similar occasions – he bubbled interest and energy. He projects a genuine liking of the company of, and conversation with, people in business.

That doesn’t mean Mr Hodgson says what he thinks they want to hear. There is much about West Coast logging and the Kyoto climate change programme the forest folks think seriously wrong-headed. Mr Hodgson has time-hardened principles and can be severely unbending in pursuit of them.

Mr Mallard is, if anything, to the left of Mr Hodgson (though he seasons his leftism with a dash of pragmatism) and his well-earned sobriquet as Parliament’s bovver boy is the antithesis of ministerial gravity.

Actually he is a cabinet heavyweight. And, with business, he, like Mr Hodgson, listens to real questions and gives real answers. They connect.

This does not mean they convince business generally that their policies are better for the country than National’s.

Sure, bosses will be in for a slice of this government’s largesse – who wouldn’t? Some will benefit If the government succeeds in buying in more foreign direct investment. And some see opportunities as part of Jim Anderton’s jobs machine and have been telling him so.

But most of those at next Tuesday’s meeting will be wary of their would-be partners. Not least, a hug-in would require much more clarity as to what “partnership” is.

Their response which has its own value to the government is likely to be of a distinctly lesser order: the recognition that this regime is here for at least another two years and is not going to recant and recite market mantras – so, if only to stop gloomy prophecies fulfilling themselves on company balance sheets, it makes sense to make the best of the policy settings and engage with the government to nudge those settings here and there.

Mr Swain will tomorrow announce an initiative on compliance costs. Mr Hodgson will likely offer R&D tax-deductibility and export credits. To these sweeteners stir in their and Mr Mallard’s accessible styles.

And, who knows, Tuesday might in hindsight turn out to be this government’s turning point. But hindsight is not available to us yet.