Bill English, incremental radical

Bill English told Australians last month his style was “incremental radicalism”. Is this an oxymoron?

First, some history. English was a new young MP in 1991 when Ruth Richardson plunged National into turmoil with her radical “mother of all budgets”.

He watched in dismay from the back benches as National’s vote plunged 13 percentage points in 1993 and as people seized the chance to vote against nine years of Labour and National radicalism by choosing MMP.

That told English “crash through or crash” (the 1980s line) could “crash through and crash”. But it did not extinguish a youthful reform urge, (cautious) flickers of which he showed when first a minister in 1996-99.

Leading up to the 2008 election, he strongly advocated the John Howard approach: do some reform, get public acquiescence, then do more. That way through four terms as Prime Minister Howard made significant changes in Australia.

In opposition Key unwound 2003-06 leader Don Brash’s radical economic and one-nation Treaty lines. In office he and English have taken the Howard line.

This has enabled them to run the most right-leaning government since Richardson. Upfront radical Brash could never have got away with it.

So it is fitting that it was in the annual John Howard lecture at the Menzies Research Centre on June 25 that English talked up his “incremental radicalism”.

It coincided neatly with his acknowledgement that he might flog off some state houses, around which legal and financial vultures have been circling, to a Queensland outfit.

Asked whether this was radical or incremental, he said it was incremental.

Privately, he has said to some others — in their version of the conversation, not his — that his housing and other social policy initiatives are radical.

They certainly are far-reaching. The landscape is changing.

The landscape has also got cluttered. Third-term-itis has had ministers (not just jack-in-the-box Nick Smith) scrabbling. The budget included two manoeuvres so suddenly cooked up that official advance advice was cursory: the small boost to some benefits, which should soothe worries some National folk have about “inequality”; and the ad hoc income tax on capital gain from quick-flick house trading to ease “affordability” bother.

Now suddenly renting rules are to be updated as more are condemned to rent long-term.

Stand by for more, particularly as Steven Joyce hunts fixes to regional inequality, set to intensify over the next 30 years if demographic trajectories don’t change.

But English’s radicalism is not driven by momentary excitements.

He has talked up “customisation” since the 1990s. In 2002 he was proposing individualised health accounts. Those were early pointers to his post-2008 push for deeper change to how the government delivers social services, including housing for the poor.

This is English’s radical dimension. It revises embedded ideas dating back 80 years that the state is the operational channel for collective national action to even life chances and counter misfortune.

He says the state cannot do it all effectively. That needs additional operational channels.

Some see this as “neoliberal”. And English does talk “markets” and “customers”. The Tamaki housing redevelopment mixes state, community and private, raising complex financing and leasing issues.

But it is not simple Roger Kerr-type ideology.

English did not sell 100% of the electricity generators. The proceeds went on capital works and social services buildings. He ruled out future sell-offs, including even lemons such as Television New Zealand.

So with state houses: a few thousand to start. Private charter schools and prisons are few. Privately financed social bonds have a limited initial span.

That is the incremental dimension: don’t frighten the mice (voters).

Start small and exploratory. Find and fix teething problems, including working out how to write workable — not risk-adverse, straitjacket — contracts with not-for-profits that also avoid embarrassing crashes. Get taxpayers, especially well-off ones, believing they are getting measurable results, value for money.

Try to shape changes so those doing the work — public servants, not-for-profits, iwi — get more value from their work. Meet customers’ needs.

Then extend — incrementally.

At some point it becomes difficult for a future government to reverse. English’s problem is that he might have only another two years.

If he gets longer, how radical might he be?

One measure will be where he goes with the “forward liability investment approach” to reducing long stays on benefits, now to be applied to reducing prisoner recidivism. Will he apply it in some way to housing?

And watch to see if it is converted — incrementally — into a “forward asset investment approach”, not just avoiding a future liability (with co-benefits) but actively investing to build social, environmental and cultural assets.

That would be radical — almost certainly too radical for English’s incremental side.