Seeking the Brash National party

Would a Don Brash government soothe business’s fevered brow? Answer: we can’t say for sure, yet.

Surely that’s preposterous. Brash is nearer mainstream ACT than mainstream National, so definitely business-friendly. He has personal authority. Surely, all will be well.

First, note National will not govern alone when next it wins office. It is also very unlikely to be governing alone with ACT. Any other partner will pull National towards the centre, though United Future is more business-friendly than New Zealand First.

Second, National also has variations within its own ranks which complicate a clear Brash run.

This became evident in March when National dumped its bold tax-cutting policy of 2002. In place of a 32 per cent top personal rate and 27 per cent corporate rate at the end of the first term of government and a 10-year aim of 25 per cent for each, Brash emphasises cuts for low-middle-income-earners, very modest personal cuts otherwise and 30 per cent for business — with only vague indications of more in future.

For business the company tax cut is welcome, if timid. To be competitive at the end of the world, New Zealand has to be more attractive to investors than richer, centrally positioned nations — even than Australia.

To tax you might add government charges, for example, on freight and passenger clearances imposed because of terrorism. National has implied it will take over those charges.

Next: workplace relations. Expect National to promise wholesale repeal of the Workplace Relations Law Reform Bill, especially the provisions for forced bargaining, multi-employer agreements, non-pass-on of union-negotiated rates and protection of vulnerable workers. By and large, however, the parent act of 2000 will stay.

Brash has dammed the Holidays Act and declared unequivocally National will repeal the fourth week’s holiday and time and a-half on public holidays. But other details await a detailed examination of the act.

Workplace spokesman Roger Sowry says Labour’s workplace safety law will stay except that stress will not be a safety issue and Occupational Safety and Heatlh officials will have to be more respectful and careful.

On ACC levies, National is leaning towards reintroducing competition but in a less draconian way than in 1999. Detail is yet to come.

Workplace relations and tax were two of five competitiveness issues Business New Zealand chief executive Simon Carlaw singled out to a National party conference in May as business’s key concerns.

The others were:

Spiralling local government activities and so rates, most of which are paid by businesses and which climbed by more than twice the rate of inflation in the past 10 years, with more feared as councils get their teeth into the “power of general competence” legislated in 2002. National’s local government policy is work in progress: it is gathering submissions.

The same goes for the Resource Management Act: a “major discussion paper” is due from Nick Smith in July-August. High priorities are fast-tracking large projects, time limits on objections, blocks on vexatious claims, limits to Maori consultation and direct access to the Environment Court.

Kyoto and climate change: National will commit to removing Labour’s carbon tax (in the first period New Zealand has more emission credits than debits) and may withdraw before the second period starts unless most trading partners are in.

Carlaw did not include compliance costs in his five issues but it infuses at least four of them.

Besides competitiveness, Carlaw identified infrastructure as critical. Top priority was skills and learning. Businesses can’t get staff and have to train people to handle simple notices and calculations. Brash is long on rhetoric on this but short on detail. Most attention so far is on zoning and testing, which won’t fix skills, while Bill English develops policy.

Transport was Carlaw’s second infrastructure issue. The RMA looms large. Deputy finance spokesman John Key talks of better law to encourage private-public partnerships and selling a generating company or two to fund roads. Brash is promising to thin the thicket of consultation over transport plans and actual projects.

Carlaw’s other infrastructure issue was energy. Spokesman Sowry’s focus is on getting more gas, more electricity generation and more competition. Lines companies will be allowed into generation and possibly retail, though that is still being weighed up; regulation will stay on lines companies.

Summing all that up: National policy is still very much in gestation. Should business be bothered? Not yet. The Brash National party is still emerging from the chrysalis. The acid test will be how specific it is getting by late 2004.