Trying to prod the economy

Here are two examples of leadership from late last week.

First example: The Prime Minister, “eyes on stalks”, lashed public service bonuses. Sure, she also said pay scales, frozen for a decade, were antiquated but that was reported pianissimo and the lashing was reported fortissimo.

The bonus issue is very complex, which is why Helen Clark says it will take five years to regularise. But telling the Rogernomics generation it should emulate the (much better paid, on average) politicians’ sense of “vocation” (implying sacrifice) is not likely to motivate excellence and application if, when the more munificent private sector and Australia beckon, ministers leave the targets of their lofty exhortations feeling bruised and undervalued.

Second example: The Deputy Prime Minister convened an informal meeting of wood industry interests and government officials last Thursday to facilitate investment, development and jobs. And, judging by comments since, he seems to have generated some (albeit cautious) hope and goodwill among the private sector participants.

Don’t make too much of last week’s contrasting styles. On any given day you might as readily find the roles reversed: Ms Clark the out-in-front inspirer and Mr Anderton the bully. Many have attested to me over the years he, too, has not spared the lash.

Mr Anderton at his best is an energiser and motivator. Something of his boyish hyperactivity in pursuit of his objectives — “24 major regional visits” since late 1999, he boasted last week — rubs off, even on sceptics.

He was the central figure in securing the Whangarei yacht building project last year. This coming weekend he is due to announce a second yacht project, at Hobsonville.

Both owe something — arguably a great deal — to Mr Anderton’s determination to push central government agencies and local governments into concerted responses to business proposals in place of the usual years of tedious sequential turf-defending processes.

This “whole of government” approach emerged last year during development of Mr Anderton’s cherished Tai Rawhiti project to try to reverse the East Coast’s economic decline. He aims to transplant it into whole sectors, of which wood is first, partly because it is critical to East Coast development but also because it has severe constraints requiring urgent solutions.

Last Thursday’s meeting pulled together industry representatives and officials from seven government agencies.

Top of the list of roadblocks identified were a predictable trio: missing infrastructure (roads, rail, ports), lack of skilled labour and the tangled Resource Management Act (RMA). The industry participants said commercial opportunities had already been lost and more would be with each few months of inaction.

Whether Mr Anderton, short of money and constrained to observe the niceties of local democracy over the RMA, can make a real difference remains to be seen. But he seems to have pummelled officials — and their ministers behind them — to leave the comfort of their “silos” and cooperate at pace. And he seems to have won some industry respect. Over the next two months the government will pull together an action timeline and the industry is to refine in detail its list of needs.

Now let’s return to Ms Clark — this time to the constructive Ms Clark, the one who wants to use Waitangi Day to build a united multicultural nation. She took a keen and active part in the yacht enterprises. She thinks highly of Mr Anderton’s sectoral initiatives.

And she adds her own dimension: the “knowledge society”. In July-August last year, at unpublicised meetings with IT chief executives pulled together by her helpmeet, Ross Armstrong, she oversaw the setting up of four working groups to bridge the “digital divide”.

They will report on 8 February, with detailed proposals for trials, beginning end-April, hooking up some low-decile schools and community centres to the internet.

Eight days later she will join Auckland University vice-chancellor John Hood to announce a major conference in August.

Ms Clark is feeling her way — sometimes gingerly, sometimes assertively — through unfamiliar and uncharted territory. It might or might not yield real results. But it is positive leadership.