Opinion: Shouldn't a finance minister know about money?

Then Finance Minister Bill Birch arrives at Parliament to brief journalists on his Budget of 1999, his last year in ...
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Then Finance Minister Bill Birch arrives at Parliament to brief journalists on his Budget of 1999, his last year in office. (File photo).

OPINION: Back in 1998 I wrote a letter to Wellington's  The Dominion newspaper about the Jenny Shipley-led government selling assets without reference to the owners, i.e. the people.         

Finance Minister at the time was Bill Birch, now Sir William Birch, who just happened to be a qualified land surveyor, just like me.

In the second part of the letter, I wrote "I am bemused as to the qualifications of Mr Birch to be a finance minister.  Like Mr Birch I have a land surveying degree and there's a good chance, I have more vision for New Zealand, more foresight and more intelligence."

Modestly I suggested there would be at least a 50-50 chance.         

Then I went on to say "perhaps I or some other land surveyor not programmed to an ideology could take on the job?"

In a similar letter to The Press I suggested to the Prime Minister Jenny Shipley that as I was available, I would consider taking the job. I added I would be in that afternoon, expecting her to call.          

She never did call and it's taken me almost 20 years to get over the "rejection neurosis syndrome"  I developed after her snub.

Now I see current Finance Minister Steven Joyce has waged fiscal war on Labour over its fiscal plan which was finalised last week. Timing it just before the second leaders' debate, Joyce claimed Labour had made an error with their figures and there was a $9.4 billion "fiscal hole". 

But leading economist Cameron Bagrie said Labour's Fiscal Plan was transparent and achievable. He said Joyce "added in a few other alleged errors to get to $11.7 billion. Joyce has called that a 'hole' and implied the books are wrong. They are not," he said.          

Others backed  Bagrie up. Columnist Mark Sainsbury  wrote, "So far not a single economist has backed up the finance minister – all say the man in charge of the nation's books has got his sums wrong."

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How could a finance minister not do his sums correctly?     

Perhaps they are being too hard on Steven Joyce? Remember Bill Birch was a land surveyor but in charge of the country's profit and loss books? Well Steven Joyce is no better qualified than Bill Birch. He might arguably be even less so according to Wikipedia.         

Steven Joyce went to "Massey University applying to study veterinary science. However he 'missed the cut', graduating instead with a BSc in zoology – he took eleven economics papers at Massey from 1984 to 1986 and failed eight of these through insufficient grade, withdrawal or failure to complete."

Now here's a curious thing. Over time New Zealand's  ministers of finance have had little or no background in financial management, no more than the average competent house wife or house husband has. 

For example, Walter Nash a tailor by trade was finance minister in the 1935 Labour government. Arnold Nordmeyer finance minister in the Labour government of the late 1950s, had a bachelor of arts degree  and studied theology.           

In 1972 Labour's prime minister Norman Kirk, arguably one of our best prime ministers in terms of integrity and commitment to the public, chose Bill Rowling, a West Coast school teacher with a Bachelor of Arts to be finance minister. This was strange because in Labour's cabinet was an accountant Mick Connelly from Dunedin who was Minister of Police, Minister of Customs, Minister of Works and Development (in 1975) and Minister of Statistics but never finance minister.           

Then when Kirk tragically died while still Prime Minister, incoming PM Bill Rowling chose not an accountant like Mick Connelly but a scientist and a 'hot-headed" one at that, in Bob Tizard.         

Some other finance ministers followed. Roger Douglas and Robert Muldoon were accountants but then many would argue they did not leave a good legacy of sound financial management. Then there were others like lawyer Ruth Richardson for National and another lawyer David Caygill for Labour. Then came land surveyor Bill Birch referred to earlier, a history teacher Michael Cullen and a Treasury gnome Bill English who had gained a commerce degree.           

Teachers, surveyors and lawyers or zoologists or whatever. Well why not the proverbial butcher, baker and candle stick maker?   

So why didn't Jenny Shipley phone me back in 1998?

Tony Orman is a Marlborough-based freelance journalist.

 - The Marlborough Express

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