Can Key do Lange-Douglas-style ambition?

Twenty-five years ago next Tuesday David Lange’s government was elected in a landslide and in turn set off a landslide. John Key, claiming “ambition”, is reticent by comparison.

Lange came to office as a mascot of a rising generation, the freedom generation. His contemporaries demanded personal, moral and economic freedom. Their prolific writing, painting and music reflected their independence from Britain, the first generation to be unselfconsciously so.

Lange’s cohort also set out down a bicultural road as a rising generation of Maori demanded, and over time won, respect for the Treaty of Waitangi.

It added up to a revolution, our independence revolution. Business-as-usual after that revolution could not be the same as business-as-usual before it.

And obviously, government policy after the revolution could not be the same as before it. Lange’s cabinet — average age 42 — radically recast policy. This was most evident in the sclerotic and unbalanced economy. When people remember 1980s politics they talk of Finance Minister Sir Roger Douglas — now in Parliament as ACT’s patron saint — more than Lange.

The legacy of Lange’s revolutionary government is Key’s inheritance:

* a much more flexible and resilient economy, weathering this economic shock far better than the 1970s oil and trade shocks;

* a more diverse and also a more unequal and less cohesive society;

* a more confident international posture; and

* a distinct culture and custom that is of the Pacific, not just in the Pacific.

Revolutions are adolescent. In time they subside into middle age. Helen Clark saw to the middle-ageing of the Lange-Douglas revolution. Its social, cultural and economic settings became business-as-usual, with the more exuberant youthful edges planed off.

But middle age does not go on forever. Now there is Key and a new bunch of (mostly) younger ministers. “Younger” implies change.

Moreover, Key did not fight the 1980s revolutionary battles and was offshore in the 1990s. He is free, as no Prime Minister since Lange, to reframe policy issues.

His prime ministership has a distinctively fresh personality. He connects with most of this society’s many publics. He may be making the emerging customs of our diversifying society more widely accepted, or at least less threatening, to the “mainstream”.

And Key says he is “ambitious” for this country. That implies he will back imaginative and flexible policy that looks ahead, not back.

Logically, he needs to. After a major international financial shock, just as after a revolution, business-as-usual is not the same as business-as-usual beforehand. Policy needs to reflect that to be relevant and effective.

For example, there is much talk, even at the OECD council of ministers, of “green growth”. Here, however, while Conservation Minister Tim Groser is keen, Key is wary.

So how ambitious is Key? The answer so far is: not very.

Key has listened to “wise, old” heads around him for whom the past shapes the future and who mistake tactics for strategy. Since electorates are inherently conservative, that usually helps keep “wise, old” heads in power.

But the financial shock has changed the rules. The past 25 years is unlikely to accurately signpost the future. “Wise, old” heads thereby miss some options.

This is most evident on the fear side.

For example, Key is a prisoner of the Lange cabinet’s (and after it Jim Bolger’s cabinet’s) interference with pensions, which brought fierce voter retribution for Labour in 1990 and National in 1993 (and gave us Winston Peters, exhumed on TV1 last weekend).

Last week Key wrote to all pensioners and soon-to-be pensioners restating his commitment to the universal pension qualifying age of 65 (thereby imputing decrepitude to 65-year-olds). Since this doesn’t compute long-term, he is dumping on a future Prime Minister a tangled issue that demands imaginative policy.

Another example: Key is a prisoner of both main parties’ fear about selling even a small proportion of state-owned enterprises, no matter how marginal or commercially at risk.

He backed selldowns before he was got to in 2005. Before the 2008 election he rationalised the no-sell policy by asserting there was no debt problem. Now there is a debt problem.

He is signalling a second-term change but meantime his commitment blocks one way of holding down the level to which debt will climb as Bill English stacks up 10 years of budget deficits in our seriously unbalanced economy. Future taxpayers — especially those under 50 now — will pay higher taxes to service that debt than otherwise they would have paid and/or accept spending constraints.

One such current spending constraint is on innovation, the surest route to a balanced, prosperous economy.

Lange was fresh and his government revolutionary and overall it did more good than harm. Key, a risk-taker in a former life, is fresh but cautious, which, post-shock, risks more harm than good.

Ambition, it seems so far, is better said than done.