The modern National party on show

Does Bill English have a radical rightwing economic agenda and did we see flashes of that this past week in Treasury Secretary John Whitehead’s speech on the public sector and English’s foreign investment rule changes?

Is this the vulpine National party slinking out from its lair to ravage an unsuspecting populace? Is that what we will see on show at the party’s conference this weekend?

Broadly, no. But Mr English and Mr Whitehead are trying to underline that business-as-usual as it was until 2007 will not resume when the economy turns up. The government has to change and so do we all.

There are two parts to this.

One is that huge forces are at work over which New Zealand has no control. Because of unrequited rich-country consumer greed and the wild behaviour of “bankers” in New York and their “regulators”, there has been a jolt in the world’s political and economic tectonic plates.

It happens every now and then, just as in the geological sphere it happened to Fiordland and Southland on July 15.

The second part is that Mr English and Mr Whitehead are not just sitting this earthquake out. They are trying to get some lateral thinking done, to get ahead of the game or at least up with it.

The 1990s-2000s orthodoxies won’t work. A new orthodoxy has to be established.

This may seem a bit out of character for Mr English. He is essentially a conservative chap. He comes from Southland and, though Catholic, exhibits much of the old south’s traditionally dour Presbyterianism.

But as far back as a decade ago this southern conservative was pondering the nature of the rising generation.

Baby-boomers were the products of factory-state mass production thinking. But, outside the state, mass production has long since given way to customised products and services. Younger generations assume their specific wants will be catered to and that goes for goods and services funded by taxes as well as those bought with cashcards.

So it would be wrong to read Whitehead’s speech as a reprise of the 1980s-90s “privatisations”. He and English know that the four-legs-good-two-legs-bad slogans of that era about private v public don’t wash. It is what meets needs that counts. That is John Key’s instinct, too.

So, while elements of their evolving policies are similar to those generated in the 1980s-90s when neoclassical economics was at its zenith, that is more coincidence than ideology. This is evolution, not revolution.

Moreover, Mr English did not come to office with a plan as did Ruth Richardson in 1990. He wants ideas from others — from academics, professionals, business, not-for-profits, public service branch offices and suppliers to departments. That is what Mr Whitehead, his chief executive, is trying to facilitate.

Not much in Mr Whitehead’s speech last Monday was new, though there was much more detail. Some of his thinking dates to a speech 18 months ago. Some he flagged in a speech in early June.

Much of what he talked about got under way in some departments months back. Much is in practice in Labour-governed Britain and Labor-governed Australian states. The border between “public” and “private” is being pushed out of line in both directions.

And don’t bet on a future Labour-led government re-setting the boundary in stone where it was at the end of 2008. A younger Labour generation is coming through in Parliament, too. It will not be “National-lite” but it is likely to be more flexible than the baby-boomer leadership.

But there will be plenty of room for disagreement and contention. There is an unmistakable National cast to this government’s evolving policy line.

So when ministers come up to a decision they are more likely to opt for self-regulation or light regulation than heavy regulation, for a private sector or non-government solution rather than a government solution, for a smaller, not bigger government and for lower, not higher taxes. The structural fiscal deficit adds piquancy.

Simon Power has shown this National cast in his decision not to regulate franchises, Nick Smith in his Resource Management Act changes, various ministers in their “blue list” appointments to boards of government agencies, Tony Ryall in his push to contract out more hospital operations, Key in his now clear indication of selldowns of state-owned enterprises to come next term and the pre-election policy (which will be revived in due course) to reduce personal and corporate taxes.

National in that sense is liberal. That will go down well this coming weekend.

But National is also conservative. Mr Power (actually a liberal) has done his bit for tougher law and order and Judith Collins is going to put prisoners in containers (for shipping to Australia?). Mr Key has resurrected knighthoods. Paula Bennett has resurrected Christine Rankin. Anne Tolley has rescinded Labour’s bid to get schoolkids to eat healthily. All that will go down well this weekend, too.

The modern National party is on show. And in power. Delegates this weekend will feel god is back in heaven.