Key and his "p" ideas for a new generation of MPs

John Key did broach the “p” (for privatisation) idea at the National party’s conference. Twice in fact. And there was no uproar.

On one count people of Key’s 47 years (as of last Saturday) and younger might sensibly have got into far more of a lather than did Labour politicians and, eventually, National politicians over what senior MPs were scurrilously recorded to have said over drinks — a lather that said more about National’s devotion to marketing dictates than about its “secret” agenda.

This first “p” idea was buried in Key’s read-my-lips commitment to “retain all the superannuation entitlements and eligibility rules” and “progressively increase the amount of super paid”. What Key in effect said is that National is comfortable with baby-boomers privatising part of the superannuation payout.

For many decades life-expectancy has risen roughly two months a year. Yet the pension qualifying age stays 65. Younger people will in effect pay taxes for that extra two months while baby-boomers, fitter at 65 by far than their parents were at 60, will laugh all the way to the bank.

Key’s commitment says he and National think this is fair and equitable. Younger people might not.

But Key’s second “p” idea might resonate with their instinct for customised products and services.

Key said he would use (social) “entrepreneurs” to generate ideas for action and deliver programmes — to “deliver more chances and better-quality services”.

Entrepreneurs are people with innovative ideas who take risks to bring them to life, with their own money or that of backers. Entrepreneurs move things along.

In a complex society bureaucrats cannot have all the best social policy ideas for every suburb and every category of citizen. And they must be cautious and conservative.

So there is logic in drawing on others’ bright ideas and energy: councils and community boards, non-government and community organisations, charities, the private sector. This logic can cross ideological lines.

In fact, Steve Maharey did initiate a “social entrepreneurs” scheme early this decade — and Helen Clark’s government has backed a many local and private initiatives without labelling them entrepreneurial. But when one of Maharey’s “entrepreneurs” used state backing to study hip-hop abroad and the media brayed, Clark briskly buried his scheme.

That missed two points.

First, entrepreneurs are far more often good than bad and it is the very nature of entrepreneurial risk that some ventures go wrong or fail. Backers need good judgment and steely nerves.

Second, the scheme might have built for Labour an octopus of linkages throughout society — much like National’s multiple networks in its 1950s-60s heyday. The payoff is a potential underpinning of a long period in government.

I am not sure Key fully understands the networks dimension. He is still learning politics (though fast). And, while he is in the National party, he is not (yet) convincingly of the party. At the conference delegates were more comfortable with than inspired by him. They enthused, of course — but there was no wild stamping of feet and whistling.

No matter: the parliamentary party’s future looks brighter now than for a very long time.

That is not because National is streets ahead in the polls and odds-on to lead the next government. It is because there is an impressive crop of late-20s to early-40s new candidates: Nikki Kaye (28) in Auckland Central, part-Maori Simon Bridges (31) in Tauranga, Amy Adams in Selwyn, Sam Lotu-Iiga in Maungakiekie and Louise Upston in Taupo (all 37), Todd McClay (39) in Rotorua, Michael Woodhouse in Dunedin North and Melissa Lee (both 42) on the list.

Most of these are multi-degreed, some with first-class honours, and have useful life experience. In intellectual potential they look more like a Labour intake than a traditional National one. Add Harvard- and Oxford-alumna Hekia Parata (49) and media mogul and campaign chair Steven Joyce (45).

So when National ranks its list on Saturday it has rich pickings. A Prime Minister Key reshuffling cabinets would have quality replacements for old lags he could not avoid initially appointing.

The message to Labour when it does its list on August 30 is that to stay competitive it will not be able to afford passengers. That is a crunch test for Clark.

Labour might also ponder whether it might get left behind in the contest it always thinks it can win: the contest of ideas.

Key yesterday released his benefits policy. More important will be the wider welfare policy still to come and particularly early childhood policy. Key has intuitively grasped the relevance of “investment” in innovative ideas with multi-decadal returns.

Labour has courted the “investment” argument but never run hard with it. National’s 2008 intake potentially could and if to that it added the “social entrepreneur” idea, that could change social policy thinking and action.

And that would be a more telling privatisation than flogging off an SOE or two.