It is a sport to snort at Gerry Brownlee. He is a bit Billy Bunterish. He got well snorted at when he called for a constitutional debate a week or so back. Wrongly.
Brownlee went off-key with an injudicious comment that sounded as if National might back off from abolishing the Maori seats. The news media pounced, Don Brash demurred, the policy stayed, the Maori party got angry — and the deeper point got lost in the melee.
Brownlee had said the number of Maori seats will go up after the Maori option now under way and the Maori party is set to win most of them and hold the balance of power. He overestimated both calculations but his thrust was right.
Then he noted the Maori party’s demand for significant constitutional change, including some sort of entrenchment of the Maori seats. That, he said, should prompt a systematic debate on the constitution, lest the Maori party’s leverage and demands prod the nation unprepared into ad-hoc change.
There is no compelling reason why Parliament as whole will have to meet Maori party demands and there are more than two years to the next election. Moreover, ad-hoc is our time-honoured British muddle-through way of amending the constitution, for example in the Bill of Rights Act in 1990 and abolition of appeals to the Privy Council in 2003 and many smaller items over the past 25 years.
But the Maori challenge goes to the constitution’s core. So there is a case, as Brownlee urged, for the nation to debate and state its bedrock constitutional principles, especially the freedoms the nation wants the constitution to guarantee.
The Labour party, packed with jelly-republicans, doesn’t dare start the debate. Peter Dunne’s “stocktake” committee has died.
In fact, of the two major parties National is the better positioned to initiate and run a constitutional debate. Moreover, new MP Chris Finlayson, among others, is keen to get it going. Brownlee was not out of line.
But he miscued.
So did John Key, when he talked of Singapore the same day.
Singapore was Winston Peters’ model not so long ago, which explains why it is puggy ground for a rising National star. Singapore thrives on government direction and intervention.
But, like Brownlee, Key had a wider point that merited examination.
Key argued that comparing our policy settings with those in the “old economies” that make up the bulk of the OECD — ranging ourselves against OECD averages — skirts the real challenges to policymakers.
Key wanted us to start focusing on the rising smart economies in east Asia and maybe in Latin America. If we want to grow our GDP faster and climb back up the wealth ladder, he said, we need to at least examine those economies’ policies and maybe adapt and adopt some.
His problem with the voters is: which some? East Asian tax rates would raise a vote-losing spectre of big cuts in social services.
But Key is not off the planet, however much Labour might scoff. Others are echoing similar themes.
East Asia, including China, is producing increasingly sophisticated products and services, some of them from its own research and development, with much more to come. East Asia is not just cheap labour.
This was a recurrent theme last weekend at the third Australia-New Zealand leadership forum, which seems now to be finding its feet as both sides deepen their understanding of the other, though differences remain over how broad, ambitious and futuristic its agenda can usefully be.
The forum’s economic debate has matured from the earlier meetings’ sometimes sectional focus on the single Australasian economic market (SEM) for its own sake into a recognition that the only real value — and point — of a full SEM is to improve both economies’ competitiveness vis-a-vis the outside world.
A session on China focused minds on that fact by bringing home to the forum that the “outside world” increasingly is the “new economies” Key is on about.
There are two ways New Zealanders can approach this.
One is to do as we have with the constitution: a bit here and a bit there as the need or urge arises, without much thought as to what has gone before and what might come next — to be reactive, to wait until prodded.
The second is to be proactive, as Key wants and a fair number of those at the leadership forum (and not just tax-cutting business leaders) argued for.
But that is hard stuff on two counts. One is working out just which proactive policies will work — and, not least, making sure we don’t head in east Asia’s direction only to find it is heading in ours and we cost ourselves valuable social bindings for no good reason.
The second is that voters generally want generous social services, as National found at last year’s election. Bucking that carries high political risk. Voters’ gutted the parties of Sir Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, who chose valour over discretion.
So Key and Brownlee each have a point worth debating. But they have yet to work out how to make those points into good politics.