One way to make Key's National the future

Bill English first came as an MP to a National party conference in Christchurch in the floodwaters of the 1991 “mother of all budgets”. Delegates were stunned or in uproar. The only uproar at this weekend’s conference in Christchurch will be rapture over its leader.

John Key and English will be lionised for victory last year and for running an agenda delegates can applaud.

English was seared by his 1991 experience and vowed he would not repeat Ruth Richardson’s response to recession then of slashing spending in line with neoclassical economic theory. In his May budget he dished out $3 billion in new spending.

In 1991 National’s poll ratings plunged. It lived on as a government only because Labour was flat on the floor — in the mid-1990s Labour’s sad conference was so small it fitted easily into the Canterbury University students union common room.

Public thrashings were the price of those parties’ radicalism as jobs were lost, benefits cut and the state reshaped.

Key and English are no radicals. Opponents and some commentators have tried to fit out English as a radical in the wake of Treasury Secretary John Whitehead’s speech on the public sector last week. But actually he is conservative (at times crustily so).

With liberal Key, English forms a liberal-conservative leadership duo that fits comfortably into mainstream National tradition — an updated version, for this government is marking a transition from the baby-boomer era to the generation X era.

But how modern is the Key-English duo and the cabinet they head?

English earlier this year challenged departmental CEOs to “frighten me” with ideas on how the economy and the public sector might operate better. That sounds like an openness to daring new thinking, as befits a generational change. (The last such change, in 1984, was very daring.)

But English also made it clear he would not take up some ideas. He was challenging them to be innovative but not radical. This has caused much head-scratching around Wellington. But in political terms it fits generation X’s un-radical inclinations.

So the Key-English duo is modern in reflecting that generational shift. But is it modern in terms of reaching for the future?

Here is a test.

Tomorrow morning National’s Blue Greens will hold their usual breakfast meeting on the conference’s fringe. The Blue Greens are a discussion group, fostered by generation-X Environment Minister Nick Smith. They have been gaining numbers.

The Blue Greens reckon private initiative has a place in good conservation and environmental practice and reckon, moreover, there is money to be made. A new convert to this way of thinking is Tim Groser, who is Minister of Conservation as well as Minister of Trade.

Despite having actor-parents, a far-left political youth and a lifelong public service career, baby-boomer Groser is a free-marketer — more than Key and English.

In a largely unremarked speech three weeks back Groser bubbled about the “good economic news” in ecosystem services which not only “lie at the base of any well-functioning economy” but also directly aid the making of money, in tourism and in some products.

New Zealand’s environmental “asset base” is its “point of difference”, Groser said. Having spent his professional life on trade, “I know only too well how important maintaining a point of difference is.”

His CEO, Al Morrison, expanded on this in a speech the same day: “Conservation potentially has long lines of credit that can be used if the right interest is paid. But it will take a shift in thinking to get there. Conservation is not simply a worthwhile social cost. It is also an investment making a good economic return for New Zealand.”

He would say that, of course, talking up his book. But Groser has no need to talk up that book.

And add this from Key to Federated Farmers 10 days earlier: “We want to be world leaders in the field of agriculture greenhouse gas research.”

It all sounds upbeat: there is money to be made from being good environmental citizens.

But Key added a qualifier to his “world-leader” ambition. It was for “one important reason”, he said: “Because we have to be.” That is, he was talking threat, not opportunity.

The challenge for the Blue Greens is to come in from the fringe, make “green growth” mainstream National economics and thereby flip the focus from threat to opportunity.

This is what some companies, most recently Wal-Mart, are groping towards. In June a ministerial council of the 30-nation OECD rich-country club declared for a “green growth”. The meeting’s chair, Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-Soo, called that a “paradigm shift”.

Well, maybe. Multilateral meetings make a habit of lofty statements that blow in the wind. But if Groser is right, a truly modern Key-English National party would explore the potential for such a paradigm shift — and shift the language from defensive to assertive.

That, to coin a phrase from Key’s lexicon, would be ambitious. And consign 1991 to history.