National's new asset sales plan more Labour 'lite'

Last updated 13:11 24/09/2007

One of the problems of being a party without any policies is that when the leadership so much as raises a suggestion of what the party might do, it is scutinised within an inch of its life, as opponents and the media try to figure out what it might mean.

National's deputy leader, Bill English,  has found himself in this quandary over state asset sales. Quizzed on TVNZ's Agenda programme yesterday, English ruled out selling any more state assets "holus bolus'' but then went on to display considerable enthusiasm for partial state asset sales - or as he termed it, a "mixed ownership model''.

That led to inevitable questions about which assets National may consider part-selling, what it would use the money for, and when it might consider doing it.

English did his best to dodge these questions, but ended up conceding the the Government's rich electricity companies might be a good start, and that the money from the sales could be used to fund further infrastructural projects, although he didn't say which.

English also suggested that "Kiwi mums and dads'' would love to get their hands on some shares in some of the Crown's companies - ignoring the obvious fact that, collectively, said mums and dads already own the companies. And the fact that it's not just Kiwis that would be interested in buying the shares: given the profits of Meridian and Genesis Energy, large international institutional investors would be pretty keen as well.

On the face of it, English's suggestions are perfectly reasonable. Properly directed, a part-sale could free up some reserves for the government to spend on, say, roading, or broadband cabling, or building a few new schools or hospitals.

And there is no intrinsic reason why the Government needs to own an airline, or a bunch of farms, or a coal company. Labour didn't seem to think so in the past - it presided over more asset sales than any other party in New Zealand history. Even when this Government bought Air NZ again in 2002 it stated the purchase was not a long-term hold.

But if you're going to present a new idea, such as partial asset sales, it's got to be done properly. All the counter-arguments have to be thought through and answers to all the tricky questions worked out. Otherwise, you'll lose control of the argument straight away.

That's precisely what's happened in this case. The Government has leapt on English's musings with ill-disguised glee.  Branding it "National's privatisation policy exposed'', it's sent eager-beaver Clayton Cosgrove to savage English and paint his thoughts as the start of a new plan to fund National's tax cuts.

Prime Minister Helen Clark is likely to wade in with her two cents' worth later this afternoon at the post-Cabinet press conference. By the time Labour's finished, National will stand accused once again of planning to hock off the family silver and privatise the health system.

That's not what English was suggesting, but National has only itself to blame. English has always had a habit of thinking out loud. It's a trait that endears himself to journalists, but not always to his colleagues. National has been kicking this stuff about for months, along with a whole lot of other ideas in health and education.

The problem is, it's too scared to release any of it. National is torn between following its ideological principles, keeping faith with its major funders and backers, and avoiding giving Labour anything with which to beat it over the head.  

With good reason. National has been doing just fine in the polls without saying anything much at all, and doesn't see why it should spoil this by saying something the public doesn't like.  

But this is only going to work for so long. It leads to issues like English's gaffe on state asset sales and puts questions in voters' minds as to exactly what National is planning, since it won't tell us.

It also leads to taunts that National is Labour-lite. There have been too many "me-too'' responses from the Opposition lately, on everything from KiwiSaver to foreign policy to nuclear energy to climate change. Sooner or later, it has got to come up with some policy of its own. Preferably policy that differs from that of the Government.

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