The mostly unseen power of a Power

A big hole opened up in John Key’s cabinet last week. It is a hole he will not fill readily. The hole will be dug by Simon Power (41, going on 55) when he leaves Parliament at the election after only one term as a minister. Key was “stunned”. Bill English loses a political and personal friend.

Power’s staff were stunned, too. So were observers. No one leaves after one term except for “personal” (meaning shady) reasons and none are suspected in Power’s case.

He is decent, courteous in an old-world way (when courtesy counted for something), plays by the rules, scrupulously respects boundaries between his and others’ portfolios, doesn’t leak and doesn’t tell lies: almost too good for politics, though he says politics has long been a burning enthusiasm.

In fact, Power decided in 2008 to do one term and pack into that term the work of three. He has: this year alone he has 40 bills. In a second and third term in the cabinet he would be consolidating, not initiating.

Of course, he would one day have been deputy leader, perhaps even leader though he would have needed a meaner streak and a better platform style for that. But when? Even when Key moves on, in 2014 or not long after, English is more likely to stay deputy to the next leader than move up and bring Power in as deputy.

And would Power, after nine years in opposition from 1999-08, have wanted to be deputy leader of the opposition? He found the last three of those nine years tedious. To sit out six or nine years again to be back in the cabinet in his 50s is not for a generation X-er.

Take it as genuine that he wants to run something in the private sector. Nibbles have started coming in, stimulated by his time in the commerce portfolio where he learnt a lot and brushed up against a lot of heavy-hitters. And don’t think “running something” will be confined to New Zealand. He has run the single economic market agenda with Australia and has built contacts there. Just last week he had another meeting on such issues in Wellington with his state and federal counterparts.

The private sector will be taking on energy and toughness (though also a business novice). Power has had two of the bigger and most intellectually challenging portfolios: justice and commerce. In his spare time he is an associate to English and, with Gerry Brownlee tied to Christchurch, is this year manager of Parliament’s agenda.

He has had to fix the badly broken finance sector. In doing that he faced scorn from the smart set who said the select committee would humiliate him. In fact, the committee in essence backed him. He has started fixing the creaking court and “justice” system. In doing that he faced down self-interested (and some public-spirited) lawyers.

In those reforms he has been self-assured but not arrogant.

He is the sensible senior minister every cabinet needs in its inner council and he is one of that inner four. Add an ambition to do things rather than be things; every cabinet needs some of that ilk. Add in a moderate liberalism in a cabinet not stuffed with liberals.

And add in his instinct for compromise and upholding cabinet collective responsibility that anger and frustrate activists but result in small steps towards a more liberal policy positioning and you get his modest lean against the “drivers of crime”. Yes, he formally backed “three strikes” despite Act’s firm view that he didn’t in their talks; but he backed out of managing it by handing it to Judith Collins.

In sum: liberal-ish in policy, conservative in manner.

His going digs a big hole in the cabinet. It is not a hole that will be visible on television screens, where he hasn’t featured much. It is a hole in the cabinet’s operational integrity.

That is the more important because Key is still learning. He gaffed again last week in telling Bloomberg he had an “expectation” that Alan Bollard will cut the official cash rate on Thursday and would “certainly welcome” one.

Annette Beacher, head of Asia-Pacific research at TD Securities in Singapore, tartly commented: “The Reserve Bank already has a very difficult decision to make and whether real or perceived, there’s now an additional layer of pressure. He should be maintaining the appropriate distance between central bank decisions and the government.”

Exactly. For Bollard to demonstrate his constitutional independence he would now need not to cut. (In any case a rate cut is an inappropriately blunt weapon for specific Christchurch needs better met fiscally).

Key seems not to know where the boundaries are. Yet again, constitutional niceties are trampled. That sounds esoteric but our freedoms depend on the powerful observing those niceties.

Power would not for a moment offer a whiff of comment on that, even in private. That would not fit his sense of decorum. But he has learnt — from academics, it is true, and most politicians despise academics — proper constitutional conduct.

The cabinet, and Key, need a Power or two and their mostly unseen power.