Getting ambition: Jones just doesn't cut it

New Zealand often reminds itself it is a small place. These past few months and particularly these past couple of weeks our politicians have demonstrated we can’t even do a real corruption scandal.

No MP has dug a moat or done up a residence on parliamentary expenses as British MPs did. And as for United States Senators…

Shane Jones, once a man of high-flown hubris and now a man of hard-won humility, hardly cuts the British mustard. Len Brown got in on the act from day one but his shopping list does not inspire confidence he can think big enough to make Auckland a world city. And it’s all been paid back!

Nearer the mark was Georgina te Heuheu’s $4.8 million backroom deal with the Pacific Economic Development Agency.

And what will happen now that credit cards are being chopped up? Winston Peters had an answer: staff carried the credit card so nothing was on him. Auditors says “sensitive” spending (a phrase Jones might translate for you) will still occur but there will not be the credit cards’ automated paper trails detailing sellers.

And every now and then there will be a shock/horror/probe. Concerned citizens, who, of course, all keep their expenses squeaky clean, will cut another percentage point off their trust in politicians. And politicians, feeling untrusted, will respond with timidity and short-term manoeuvres to catch attention and votes.

The alternative is to build durable policy proposals from first principles. That is what the tax working group did, with working papers and complex reports.

Paula Bennett’s welfare working group, by contrast, has yet to put working papers on its website. It appears to be aimed primarily at paring the welfare bill.

Emulating the tax group would lead Bennett’s group first to formulate an objective for “welfare” (or some rephrasing of that debased word) and then to inquire into the impact of high income inequality on social cohesion, state spending (for example, prisons) and economic growth and how disadvantage-reducing interventions can be made effective and be paid for over the long term.

Having to report by December precludes a serious attempt to mine and test-drive international new thinking. The tax group took most of a year in its narrower field.

And after any paring, the suburbs will still whinge about bludgers. That is a fixture in our politics. Labour in response began the shift of focus from palliation to work.

By contrast, politicians dote on pensioners. That is wise politics because pensioners are vociferous, often ill and often needy — and vote. John Key and Phil Goff know how Peters got to be Deputy Prime Minister, Treasurer and Foreign Minister and don’t want a repeat.

And now that the baby-boomers are claiming their gold cards, expect Greypower to get pushier. Baby-boomers cut their political teeth on Vietnam war, Manapouri and anti-Springbok crusades.

So Key, leading a party of would-be welfare-parers, won’t touch pensions. He rates them a “third rail” issue: touch it and you’re dead. Labour agrees. The two-party consensus is rock-hard.

So the idea that a bit less spent on over-65s who are still working means more can be spent steering “at-risk” kids into productive education and work (in part, to pay over-65s’ pensions) will have to await the next National-led government, a decade or more away, by which time the pension bill will be climbing steeply.

But political rocks do sometimes crack. There are signs that public fears over genetic modification have eased since the scaremongering of 2002. The same goes for partial asset sales.

Labour could have won votes among modest-income voters if it had allowed them to buy steady-dividend-paying bits of the electricity generators. Iwi, too, would have valued being able to add such long-term holds to their portfolios.

Instead, such votes will go to Key, who has got over his poll-driven timidity of 2008.

Sure, he had suddenly to rediscover his over-my-dead-body pre-election assurances not to sell any of Kiwibank — a flip-flop-flip to match the pre-election cast-iron assurances of tax cuts that were junked and then resuscitated by trashing assurances of no GST rise.

But electricity generators and Solid Energy and airports are not third rails if a small part is sold to mum-and-dad investors and maybe iwi and if profit-taking foreigners don’t get cash cows cheap.

The value for the government in such sales is not to pay down its own debt or even to lift operational efficiency, as was needed in the 1980s. It is to enable the enterprises to raise capital to expand — Solid Energy chair John Palmer’s point — which would fatten dividends over time. And it is to deepen the thin (and to small investors scary) sharemarket and thereby boost investment generally.

This country is a small place and its markets are small. So, often, are its minds. Key’s opportunity, so far postponed, is to expand the minds, rev up the markets and make this place bigger — big enough for Jones to get his hubris back.