The big issues beyond the coalition gavotte

While politicians dance their coalition gavotte, there is time to ponder big issues.

Election campaigns foreshorten policy horizons from causes to symptoms in pursuit of here-and-now votes.

But the looming 2020s are likely to continue the digital reshaping of our lives and require major policy adjustments in tax, regulation, economic management and social services, assistance and equity.

High on that list is a distorted tax system.

National attacked Labour on income tax, including on capital gains, and “water tax” and trumpeted its own “families package” of income tax cuts and benefit and allowances adjustments.

That pushed Labour to push out rebalancing the tax system to 2021.

Many on the liberal-left think the tax system is too narrow and unfair because some favoured people escape some tax.

To them, fairness suggests taxing all income, including from capital gain. Equal opportunity points to taxing wealth — assets and land — so that privilege doesn’t trump honest work.

Only the Opportunities party (TOP) firmly pushed taxing wealth.

The less-and-least-well-off have to navigate a contorted tangle of income tax, Working for Families, benefits, special allowances, rebates and abatement rates.

National’s answer: a periodic shuffling of numbers. Labour: dollops of cash. Both are “rather twentieth-century”, unsuited to the more fragmented and insecure “work” and income in the late 2010s and the 2020s.

How is a genuine basic living income to be secured? And if can’t be, how is social cohesion to be maintained?

Next, Greens and TOP say (and Bill English years ago said) that taxing “bads”, the things you want people not to do like pollution and climate emissions, makes more commonsense than taxing “goods” such as work and business which you want people to do.

Pollution damages the environmental “brand” that underpins primary exports and tourism.

A recent Al Jazeera documentary highlighted the brand slippage. So has the latest Economist, which said “it can’t be long before visitors notice there is a problem in this pure, unsullied land”.

The cause: economic settings geared principally to “more” — more cows, more tourists, more migrants. We are running up against some limits to “more”.

Prosperity focuses on “better”.

In the “more” economy things that go wrong are fixed up afterwards, as with last week’s fuel pipeline fiasco. Pre-emptive action can be cheaper, as an insurance company will say.

That is the argument for action on climate change, which Jacinda Ardern called her generation’s “nuclear moment”, alluding to mentor Helen Clark’s anti-nuclear-weapons crusade.

National has catching up to do. A count by Carbon News found no mentions by English in any formal statement or speech up to last Monday. National backbencher Andrew Bayly was the only MP in a multi-party debate last Tuesday not to say climate change is the country’s biggest issue.

A prosperity objective underlies the Treasury’s work on wellbeing economics, focused on natural, social and human capital besides financial and physical capital. This goes beyond narrow GDP measures of success and calls for a full rethink of monetary settings.

Some elements of prosperity: all-round “health” from an early age, not just increasingly expensive repairs in later life; full cognitive and character development from age zero or near-zero in education, not mechanistic “standards”; decent houses to live in; and enough to live on.

“Social investment”, English’s biggest initiative, offers ways of thinking how to do all that and some officials now look to be getting ahead of the cabinet. Whether Labour and Greens can (eventually?) build on that is unclear.

Then there is the need for public servants not to be too subservient to ministers. Starting in earnest under Clark and intensified in the Key-English era, the public service has become somewhat “ministerialised”. That showed in the alleged “no-surprises” disclosure to Anne Tolley of Winston Peters’ national superannuation problem.

The State Services Commission has work to do — including on itself because it passed the information on to Paula Bennett. One small early test: will published briefings to incoming ministers be raked with ministerial redactions as in 2014?

Then there is population size and mix: the nation we want to be. Not strategically thinking that through risks making population a populist issue, as across much of Europe — witness the rise of the right in the German election.

And that touches on a pressing need: to build international realities and thinking into all policy.

Little or none of this is likely to feature in the coalition bargain. It is 2020s stuff, after all. The young who mobbed Ardern might wait patiently. Or they might not.

More to the point, one day the young might think voting has some value to themselves. But that day could be far off.