Treasury's stance on sales makes Govt look moderate

Bill English
Bill English
It may sound barmy, but maybe the Treasury should be added to the list of state assets National has singled out for post-election share floats.

While the share price would have to be heavily discounted given the department's dismal track record in spurring economic growth, the Treasury, as the branch of the bureaucracy most forthright in urging asset sales, might benefit from some of its own medicine.

Exposing the institution to the real world might infuse it with some much needed competition - the competition of ideas. The Cabinet would at last get some contestable advice, rather than the inflexible, undiluted free market stodge which the department has served up to ministers for the best part of three decades.

Joking aside, this week saw an admission of sorts from the department's acting chief executive, Gabriel Makhlouf, that he and his officials do not have a monopoly on ideas.

However, his speech to the Institute of International Affairs - which included a strong defence of sales of New Zealand land to foreigners - only proved some ideas still have a monopoly within the Treasury.

The myopic view of the world held by the Government's main source of economic advice has been given renewed sustenance with the return of the Prodigal Son in the guise of Minister of Finance.

A former Treasury staffer,  is happy for the Treasury's chief executives to take a political position in public. This may make a nonsense of constitutional notions of accountability. But it is shrewd politics.

The Treasury's position is almost always extreme and consequently out of touch politically. The Government can accordingly take a less extreme stance and look moderate.

Such is the case with National's privatisation policy. Background papers show the Treasury clearly frustrated that National is not disposing of all of the Crown's shareholding in the state-owned enterprises tagged for partial sale.

Neither is the department deliriously happy with the conditions likely to be imposed on the share floats - especially those on foreign investors.

With another tranche of axings and mergers announced this week, the Treasury will be more pleased with National's shaking up and shrinking down of the public service.

Mr English, who is driving this policy, insists he is not following some preconceived master plan. It beggars belief, however, that his never-ending demands for "cost efficiencies" is motivated solely by his ambitious timetable for getting the Budget back into surplus.

It also beggars belief that someone who thinks long and hard about things does not have a pretty clear idea of what he wants by way of lasting reform.

Such a strategy is evident in the largely unnoticed Supplement to the 2010 Investment Statement accompanying last month's Budget. The document lays out what is little short of a revolutionary shift in the relationship between the state and its citizens.

This revolution goes far beyond the pending sale of minority portions of state-owned electricity generators Genesis, Meridian and Mighty River Power, and coal producer Solid Energy, plus the reduction in the Crown's shareholding in Air New Zealand.

It goes beyond a new approach of using the proceeds from those sales to fund future capital spending on hospitals, schools and other "social assets" - rather than the cash being dedicated solely to debt repayment.

It goes beyond Mr English wanting far greater flexibility with regard to the holding or disposal of the Crown's estimated $220 billion worth of capital assets.

Mr English is advocating greater "freeing-up" and "recycling" of capital to reinvest in areas of priority, with public-private partnerships the preferred vehicle for such reinvestment.

Where this revolution really shows itself is in the document's push for much greater private sector involvement in state agencies' delivery of public services.

Mr English has put a lid on departmental budgets in order to fast-track a return to surplus. That is also a means by which to force departmental chief executives to find cheaper ways of doing things.

National's reforms (so far) have not seriously altered or undermined fundamental roles of the State. National wants a leaner but not necessarily meaner state sector.

However, add all this together - asset sales, a stripping back of the core public service and extensive contracting out of management and service delivery to the private sector.

Then add the opening up of accident compensation to competition. Then add major welfare reform to cut back the number of beneficiaries and you start to get the real picture of National's slimming of the State's apparatus and ipso facto its role.

Governments usually undertake major reform only in their first term because the public backlash kicks in thereafter. Bucking convention, John Key is now seeking a mandate for a second-term agenda which is pretty radical and pretty transparent.

So far, there has been little if any impact on National's sky-high poll ratings. That may be because voters have yet to realise National's agenda is much greater than the sum of its parts.

It may be because voters are not hearing Labour's shrill warnings.

It is probably because Mr English's revolution is incremental rather than "big bang". It is also probably because the focus of the privatisation debate is on the partial asset sales. National believes Labour has misread the polls, and that feelings no longer cut very deep on this issue.

To prove that point, the Prime Minister is making the selling job of selling state assets a personal crusade. He will be helped by the conditions placed on share floats on top of the restriction of a maximum 49% of any enterprise.

The Treasury won't be happy about that. But having botched major asset sales in the 1990s - notably Telecom and New Zealand Rail - the Treasury might concede that here, too, it does not have a monopoly on wisdom.

• John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.



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