Steven Joyce the power broker

MINISTER OF TOMORROW: Steven Joyce says he has been misunderstood, but that doesn't faze him. He just goes about his business of removing barriers to business, and helping tertiary students get quality study in the most productive areas.
MINISTER OF TOMORROW: Steven Joyce says he has been misunderstood, but that doesn't faze him. He just goes about his business of removing barriers to business, and helping tertiary students get quality study in the most productive areas.

It's a nasty job, trying to make the country richer. You pull all the levers and nothing much happens. You have a 120-point plan and voters who have never heard of your innovation strategy judge you on a whim. Luckily, Steven Joyce is a cheerful chap.

He is said to be the minister of everything, the Bill Birch of the Key Government, but "the title", he murmurs, "is greater than the reality". And he is certainly more engaging than Birch, National's grey eminence of old.

Mr Joyce is on the line from Indonesia, being pleasant to the journalist. "Have you been here?" he asks. Tremendous potential here for New Zealand, says the minister of economic development. "It's a fantastic story."

The minister for almost everything is perhaps the wonkiest of the Government's policy wonks. He loves the mind-numbing details.

Recently, he fathered a new super-ministry which he calls MB and his enemies call Mobie the white whale or elephant. Nobody outside Wellington gives a toss about how he rearranges the bureaucrats, but Mr Joyce is fond of his child and can talk at length about its virtues.

The critics say Mr Joyce, 49, the multimillionaire former businessman, is a rich man's politician and doesn't care about the workers.

He is famously unflappable and doesn't even blink at the charge. "I just completely disagree," he says mildly.

One of his jobs is tertiary education, a political swamp. When he cut back state support for most students but boosted spending on those studying engineering, the critics cried, "Barbarian at the gate!"

"A number of people," he says, "jumped to the conclusion that I was saying we shouldn't train any philosophers. And I said, 'Where did you get that?' Because philosophers, people who have done philosophy degrees, work in all areas of life.

"Tertiary education is good in its own right. [It's] about learning how to learn and learning critical thinking and all those sorts of things.

"I have no criticism of that at all. At the general level, we do want to raise the quality of education of our people. There's no doubt about that."

On the other hand, "it's also important that we actually signal the areas of occupational demand to people in a much better way".

The country needed more engineers, but the Government underfunded engineering courses, so that had to change.

Mr Joyce did a zoology degree which he never used directly while building a commercial radio empire, although, he jokes, maybe the study of animals did give him an advantage in business and politics.

Certainly his degree gave him "the ability to learn how to learn, [which] helped me in business". He also gained "the ability to assimilate and accumulate and analyse data".

Mr Joyce is one of the three most powerful people in the Government and his job is both huge and intricate. As economic development minister his work touches almost everything, and certainly plays a crucial role in creating National's promised step-change in the economy.

Lincoln University professor of economics Paul Dalziel says the Government can't deliver on this promise. For 25 years, governments have concentrated on lowering costs to business, but boosting economic growth will require much more than that. "For a long time New Zealand has lacked a national economic strategy. We have adopted the view that the role of government is to remove barriers so that others can lead economic development."

The Government needed to take a much more active role, leading with an economic vision supported by business, promoting skills formation, innovation and integration of science and business and so on.

Instead it was doing things such as cutting its investment in the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry. The Government's policy was like "clearing the Christchurch CBD and thinking our work is done".

Economist Gareth Morgan says the Government has gone the way of all incumbent governments. "They just want to keep life rolling on the same. They don't want to put anything at risk."

The Government had only one major policy change - the partial sale of state assets - and there was no way it could create a step-change in the economy.

Mr Joyce says these are caricatures of its policy. "Gareth . . . is doing himself a disfavour with that comment." The idea that "just lowering costs to business is the answer - well, that's certainly not the Government's view".

Lowering costs was important. "If we had three times the electricity cost or three times the transport costs of competing countries, obviously that's a problem."

But "frankly there's half a dozen things that we need to do to really help us be more competitive . . . The real opportunities are how do we assist firms in areas like innovation and provision of a skilled workforce? How do we assist them get and maintain access to export markets? That's crucial. How do we assist in the provision of capital?"

The Government has an "ongoing campaign" of making available natural resources to business, and is making "significant investments in public infrastructure." Yet the impression remains that the Government is thinking small rather than big, that it is tinkering. Where is the step-change?

It's coming, says Mr Joyce, but "frankly" - one of his favourite words - it has taken 30 years to get where we are. There have been 30 years of neglect of the export side of the economy and too much focus on domestic consumption and buying houses.

"So to magically say, 'Well, you can turn that around in 3 1/2 years,' with the greatest respect to anyone who says that, they really aren't in the real world."

Doesn't this sound like a political alibi? At the end of six years of government, does he really think the voters will accept excuses? Oh no, he says. "What I'm saying to you is it may not be a perfect nirvana necessarily in 2014, but they will be able to see progress and they'll be able to assess it."

The new super-ministry is a lightning rod for fierce political argument. Business likes the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The unions do not.

"We're supportive in principle," says Business New Zealand's chief executive, Phil O'Reilly, "but it has to be executed well."

The problems facing the economy were complex, and the different policy approaches of the old departments were ultimately unhelpful.

The new super-ministry will remove the gaps between them "and try to build policy strengths across those borders".

'I T'S BEING portrayed as business-facing, and we know the Government's vision of business doesn't include workers," says Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly.

She fears that the officials from the old Labour Department will be swamped by those from the ministries of economic development, science and innovation and building and housing. The workers' interests will come second. "The Government's attitude to working people is very dismissive. It sees them as lucky to have a job and that's about it. They should be grateful."

Mr Joyce says this is all wrong. "Just because an agency is business- facing - ie, involved with business - it doesn't mean it isn't involved with workers."

The new ministry will be involved in regulating business, and is not "always going to do what every business wants". Ms Kelly's view is "an old-style 'us versus them' " approach, he says. "If you are going to build a stronger economy with higher wages, you need businesses to be competitive and successful, but that's a positive for both sides."

Can we believe this from a former major employer, who as MD of RadioWorks sold his share of the business for $6 million and retired at the age of 38? Isn't he by nature on the employers' side?

No, he says. "Probably what I bring to the table is a bit of an understanding of what drives business to be successful. I haven't had any involvement with the commercial sector since I came into Parliament [in 2008]."

He agrees with those who say the new ministry won't by itself make a big difference to New Zealand's economic growth. No public service reorganisation could do that.

"Governments don't in this day and age determine the pace of growth by diktat. The reality is that you work on a range of things that will help companies grow, and how we organise ourselves to do that can help in a number of areas."

In many ways he is like his boss, John Key. Both seem abnormally relaxed. "I never saw him thump the table," says comedian Jeremy Corbett, a former radio colleague.

Officials report that, though Mr Joyce has strong opinions, he is always reasonable, unlike some politicians. Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, for instance, is a famous biter of bureaucrats.

Both Mr Key and Mr Joyce rose rapidly to the top in politics. Both made a lot of money in business and don't need to work for a living. With both, the question arises: will they stay in politics when the party starts to fail?

Mr Joyce says it is his intention to stay on past the next election. Is he happy just to be the minister for almost anything, or would he like to be leader?

He says he's not all that ambitious. "No, no, I'm here to help with a job and frankly I'm not the world's most political person. I'm reasonably practical and I just want to get on and see New Zealand do better."

The Dominion Post