It's all about "values" but who has it right?

Modern mainstream politics is “values” politics. That leaves much room for manoeuvre. Choose your value and choose your policy to match. The focus is on outcomes.

“Values” enabled Tony Blair and his “new” Labour party to adjust, or just junk, many fixed “old” Labour ideas in Britain and occupy the centre.

“Values” often get tangled up with “interests”. John Key is finding this out in trying to reposition National to a less oppositionist stance on the supranational trans-Tasman therapeutic products agency, now almost certain to become law with or without National’s vote. Key has somehow to reconcile the interests of small New Zealand-bound complementary medicine makers with the wider national interest in the relationship with Australia.

And when he gets there he will find the argument is moving on. Australians think of themselves as a middle power in the “region”, by which they mean south-east Asia as well as the south Pacific. They have a bigger ambition for the therapeutics agency than just pooling scarce scientific expertise.

Australian public sector CEOs noted to their New Zealand counterparts at their 10-a-side meeting last Thursday that the agency will not only become the de facto regulator for Pacific island states but also, being a supranational body, could potentially gain credence in Asia.

If Asian countries to Australia’s north accepted rulings from the trans-Tasman agency that would smoothe Australia-based (and New Zealand-based) medicine-makers’ path into those countries. It is possible to imagine the big international pharmaceutical firms using Australia more as a base for the region if the standard is set there (and here).

The United States’ and the European Union’s medicines regulators de facto set the standards for many countries. If the trans-Tasman agency got traction, it could be a small counterweight to that Atlantic hegemony. New Zealand usefully adds the necessary supranational dimension.

And the more New Zealand makes itself useful in this way, the more Australian officials might look kindly on initiatives to promote the elusive “single trans-Tasman economic market”, which is much more in New Zealand’s interests than Australia’s.

The doesn’t mean subordinating New Zealand’s interests to Australia’s. Rejection last year of harmonised bank and finance companies regulation — over which Michael Cullen and officials defending this country’s less prescriptive regime seriously fell out — is an example of New Zealand’s national interest trumping the interests of Australian-owned banks.

But in modern “values” politics, interests are not everything. Key’s therapeutics agency conundrum is not just a matter of balancing interests.

National’s twisting on the therapeutics agency reflects in part a conflict of values: a yen for less government in business (save the small guys from the bureaucrats) versus a strong attachment to old Anglo-Saxon alliances, especially with Australia.

It also illustrates a feature of values politics: flexibility.

Ideology, the lens through which we are more accustomed to see the differences between the main parties, is often rigid. Ideological politics is as much concerned with process as outcomes. Means are as important as ends.

Values politics bothers far more about outcomes than process. “What works” is the guide. Process is relevant only if it determines the outcome.

Helen Clark and Michael Cullen explicitly talk about values in preference to theory: establish Labour’s values as the nation’s values and stay in power. But are they as flexible about means as values politics implies?

For example, are state-owned enterprises getting best value for the country in their present state? No, says investment banker Rob Cameron, who has studied them closely, in a conference paper today. Board appointments are suspect. Monitoring and performance could be improved by selling non-voting shares.

Labour, frozen in ideology, rejects that.

Try renewable energy. Is the Resource Management Act geared to promote renewable energy? No, say frustrated electricity generators.

Try housing. People who emerge as community leaders in a state house area cannot buy their houses and so stay in the area where they can be role models, mentors and social glue. Labour’s ideology blocks state house sales.

Try social welfare. Blair’s Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, John Hutton, was here last week exchanging ideas. Among innovations he is scoping is to bring in private sector companies to take the upfront risk in some limited aspects of social support delivery, with the government paying up on satisfactory (Labour-values-aligned) outcomes.

Labour here has become more flexible on delivery — David Benson-Pope is due to announce another initiative shortly involving early mental health intervention provided by the private sector, on the basis that that is investment which will yield a cost-saving return. But Hutton is a step further on.

It’s about values. And flexibility.