In mid-February Helen Clark will make the opening speech at a “leadership” conference, the Knowledge Wave’s second shindig. This will be around the same time as her annual Prime Minister’s statement to Parliament. Will they mesh?
The watchword of this government is “incrementalism”. If “leadership” implies boldness, this so far is not the government for that.
Incrementalism is for calm times — or times when fears need calming. At the end of the turbulent 1990s it was just what the voters ordered. But now the fears have been calmed. Now incrementalism means in effect leading from behind or only just in front.
The parallel is the Holyoake years. “Steady does it” kept National in power 12 years. Sir Keith would do nothing for which he did not already have a majority in the community.
And, like Clark, he had a compliant economy: rising incomes, low unemployment, money to spend — modestly — on social services. The parallel is eerie.
The message for business, now as then, is no big surprises. Put out of your mind tax cuts, privatisations, leaps of imagination in education, daring plays for foreign investment and major reprioritisations of state programmes to free up funds for focal issues.
But this is not a standstill government, just as Holyoake’s wasn’t. Remember Nafta, the first step towards free trade with Australia? ACC was dreamed up by one royal commission of the Holyoake years and the radical notion that the benefit system should ensure all can fully participate in society by another.
So here are 12 things business can expect from the government next year.
1. Legislation to enable public-private partnerships for road-building, complete with tolls on those privately run roads, as part of the Land Transport Management Bill to be passed by July. The roads will take a while longer because of the Resource Management Act. While you are waiting, watch out for a walking and cycling strategy and prepare to be the proud owner of the rail track. Transport may well be the government’s biggest focus next year.
2. Speaking of the RMA, some movement to reduce compliance costs and time delays. Something may also be done about the growing practices of buying off objectors and paying for consultations with iwi, which have attracted the attention of the world corruption watchdog, Transparency International.
3. Speaking of compliance costs, modest tinkering with red tape for small and medium business, starting with the tax system.
4. More workplace legislation: after the safety bill now before the House are set to come more holiday pay, contracting out protections, review of redundancy laws, extension of parental leave, examination of pay equity, maybe legalisation of general strikes and “fine tuning” of the Employment Relations Act. Take your pick which will turn up next year.
5. Much, much more on the environmental front, including more Kyoto detail, more pressure to cut waste and energy use and a big extension legislated for marine reserves.
6. The end of the moratorium on commercialisation of genetic modified organisms — but so tightly controlled that you are not likely to notice the difference.
7. Maybe execution of the modest proposal signed this year to deal with tax triangulation on trans-Tasman dividends. But otherwise precious little new momentum to mark CER’s twentieth anniversary — the Australians will be too busy with the United States. As a consolation, expect the three-way hookup with Chile and Singapore to get through the hoops (or nearly).
8. The first tentative steps to reform tertiary education as one ingredient in the government’s star “growth and innovation strategy”, its gesture toward the long term. The strategy will otherwise rest mainly on Jim Anderton’s task forces and array of industry assistance programmes and Pete Hodgson’s promotion of startups and clusters and refinement of research funding.
9. Some modest action to get more foreign investment and better connections with well-placed expatriate Kiwis.
10. More tranches of intellectual property law reform and maybe another attempt to deal with computer crime.
11. Probably, details of a health tax which will initially sequester part of existing income tax but over time will likely rise.
12. In the state sector, steps to restart the stalled rationalisation of the myriad hotchpotch of Crown entities with which business must deal.
Incremental yes. But also busy. This is an active government which will work its United Future and Green allies hard. That leaves ACT and New Zealand First marooned in near-irrelevance — along with the still eminently forgettable National party. Clark’s in charge.