OPINION: What on earth has happened to the great gurus of political speak, Crosby Textor? The Nats used to pay great attention to these Australian specialists in political communication techniques, as did the Liberals in Australia and the Tories in Britain.
The constant Crosby Textor refrain, as I recall it, was: "What's the back story? Where's the narrative?" Both seem to be missing from some key Government policy matters of late, resulting in some great public relations lapses, such as Finance Minister Bill English's aside that the Treasury predictions on the likely asset sales total ($6 billion) were just a guess.
Well, yes, we all probably suspect that Treasury predictions involve an element of guesswork, but the political footwork usually involves not admitting this to the electorate because it undermines the mana of the office and of the minister. As former United States President Harry Truman advised: "If you can't convince them, confuse them."
The trouble is the communications around the controversial asset sales process have been unconvincing as well as confusing. But the comms have been lamentable, too, around the equally unpopular Crafar farms sale, and even such straightforward political traps as Labour's proposal to Mondayise Anzac Day and Waitangi Day. Who wants to turn down a holiday?
On the latter there was, initially, much Government shuffling of feet, and wondering about the cost to the business community. It took a week before Cabinet heavyweight Gerry Brownlee came up, Truman-like, with the explanation that the two dates commemorated momentous events in New Zealand's history and it would cheapen the remembrance to Mondayise them.
As for the asset sales case, it is time to broaden the argument from debt reduction to creating safe, reliable utilities for Kiwi Mum and Dad investors. This is often laughed out of court by the anti-sales brigade, but thousands of New Zealanders lost billions of dollars in the collapse of the finance houses after 2008. For many this was a catastrophic and tragic loss of retirement funds.
If we are to have a hope of encouraging Kiwis to save and to move away from the property market and revamped finance houses we need to have an expanded share market with reliable blue chip utilities where Kiwis can invest with confidence.
As for the expected take from the sale of a minority stake in the state-owned companies, all Mr English needed to do was avoid the "guess" word and explain that $6 billion was a ballpark figure, but that it was unwise to be more specific for commercial bidding reasons.
The High Court decision on the Crafar farms sale to China's Shanghai Pengxin, requiring the Overseas Investment Office to demonstrate that this would bring greater economic benefit than a sale to a New Zealand buyer, was like an unexpected blow to the solar plexus.
The Government imagined that the sale was done and dusted, that opposition would eventually fade from the radar, the farms would be resuscitated with the promised Chinese financial injection, and state-owned Landcorp would get assistance for projects in China. Now the issue is back centre stage with the opponents reinvigorated, crowing, and predicting the rejection of the Chinese bid.
The Government would be unwise to legislate to change the OIO rules. For a start it would find it difficult to get the numbers and the drawn out political spectacle in Parliament would be slow motion hara kiri. It could appeal the High Court decision, but that would also be a lengthy process.
The OIO should be able to come up with the required case, considering that the Chinese buyer is paying more, injecting more, has its own supermarket connections in China, is spending $100 million over five years on Kiwi promotions in China, and is willing to assist Landcorp's ventures there.
If the OIO fails to make the case the best option might be a Government surrender. That will be politically popular, but it could frighten off other investors.