The story of the government's first hundred days is one of confidence over strategy and a hail Mary attitude that could cost us in the long run

It was Franklin D. Roosevelt's promise of radical reform during the dark days of the Great Depression that began the political obsession with a government's first hundred days. Such a contrived measure tells us little and, frankly, given that no government since has come close to achieving the far-reaching change FDR managed in 1933, it's hardly a flattering comparison.

However the recession we're suffering now is often said to be the worst since the 1930s and so the sense of urgency 100 days gives is apt. And John Key asked to be judged on his efforts over these first few months, making a 'to do' list for voters during the election campaign. So what do we make of his efforts?

For a start, Key spent about 15% of those days out of the country, at his holiday home in Hawaii. That was simply too long and still leaves a bad taste given the utter calamity of the times. It still amazes me there wasn't more public criticism – perhaps that's another indication of how most New Zealanders are still blind to how bad things will get before the year is out.

That aside, let's start with the best aspects. Perhaps this government's most important contribution to the country in its early days is the confidence it has projected. Right now confidence matters in so many ways. Perhaps the best way to appreciate it is to consider how much worse things would look without it, and how infectious a lack of confidence can be.

John Key's determined enthusiasm and Bill English's serious and unflappable demeanour have served us well. We should all be delighted that two-thirds of the country rate Key's performance as strong or very strong, not because of what it says about National's political position but because of what it says about the nation's psyche.

John Key's deal with the Maori Party and visit to Waitangi has, in the short term at least, improved the country's race relations. By not exploiting race for political gain, Key has shown both more dignity and more long-term vision than his National party predecessor. That relationship building, and the channels of communication he has kept open to other parties, has also helped MMP look more stable. There are even a few individual pieces of sensible legislation, such as the bonding of graduate teachers and medical workers and the repeal of the EFA.

But let's get to where the rubber meets the road, the government's economic management. If you've read anything I've written on this site in this past 100 days, you'll know of my deep concerns and disappointment. To their credit this government has brought forward some infrastructure spending, has added $1.65 billion to the capital budget over the next three years (not $4.5b extra as the Sunday Star Times claimed), and, er, that's about it.

So let's move to the worst aspects of the past few months. There seems to me three serious causes for complaint; that is, policy changes that will make New Zealand worse off in the long-term.

As we're already talking about the economy, let's get into that first. Yes, the government hasn't done enough. It has dressed up old spending and put lipstick on its rolling maul, but the amount and diversity of spending promised simply is insufficient. The government has opted to keep its head down and its fingers crossed, waiting and praying for other countries to spend and innovate and lead us out of the desert.

What's worse is that the limited money committed to smoothing the rough edges of this recession is not being well spent. As Gordon Campbell so succinctly put it on Scoop yesterday:

Frankly, it is hard to see many links between the causes of the recession, and the actions taken so far by the Key government in response to it.

Surprisingly for a CEO PM, this administration lacks a strategy. The closest this government has come to articulating one has been to say their priorities are growth and productivity – although at other times they talk about growth and jobs. Yet the bulk of the promised stimulus, tax cuts, will do little for growth and nothing for productivity. Contrary to their goal, they have cut the R&D tax credit and the Fast Forward agriculture scheme.

We have long been told we are an export-led nation, yet the government is doing nothing to assist exporters, except offering a few more export credits. We are heavily dependent on tourism, yet there have been no schemes targeted at overseas travellers. The talk does not match the trousers. And as any businessperson will tell you, enacting policies that don't move you towards your strategic goals, well that's just bad management.

Bill English has said that New Zealand can do little amidst the foaming sea of the worldwide downturn. My reply is that having little power is very different from having no power, and it's no excuse for inaction. We can't cure the common cold, but that doesn't mean we ignore it; we guzzle orange juice, pop some painkillers and probably take to our beds to aid the recovery.

It is perfectly reasonable for New Zealanders to both recognise the limitations of our small country in this global crisis AND demand that our leaders do everything they can to protect us from it.

One example: Despite my calls for more spending, I do recognise the ongoing horror that is the government deficit. I'm happy to see it rise in times of emergency, but I'd like to see some plan about how to get it back in its box come better days. Yet English, for all that he's publicly fretting over the issue, has yet to come up with a solution. Perhaps putting a time limit on the April tax cuts?

[One tangential thought: From the beginning of the election campaign there's been little serious or urgent debate about how deep this recession will be. Looking back, having an election with all its attendant promises and hype just as the world was entering an economic abyss may have been appalling bad luck on our part. Government money had already been committed – often to areas that wouldn't have been a priority in a global recession. Spending for the coming year was prefaced on what was best for winning an election, not what was best for surviving this downturn.]

What are the other two areas of concern? The first is the environment. The government has unpicked the finely tatted cross-party consensus on emissions trading and stalled any serious action on climate change for a year. It has given away our world leadership position (hurting our exporters and therefore undermining the government's growth strategy), turning us once again into a nation of followers. It has walked away from the Greens' $1 billion insulation fund, that would have made significant gains in terms of health and energy consumption. The opportunity cost of both those policy decisions are huge; we will pay the price in years to come.

Finally, the government has wasted time and liberty in its pointless efforts to look as if it is 'doing something' about crime. Have no doubt, collecting the DNA of every imprisonable offender, removing suspected domestic abusers from their homes for up to five days, and budgeting for yet another prison will do nothing to make us safer. The "three strikes" law introduced and sent to select committee is unjust, arbitrary and may actually make us less safe, if criminals on two strikes decide they have nothing left to lose.

Having written that all down, I can't help but feel a profound sense of disappointment at opportunities missed. In putting together a 100 day list, Key asked to be compared to Roosevelt. It would be fair to say that both spent their first hundred days scrambling. FDR however looked for the common good and had a long-term strategy. Key does not. Sure, he can tick off a shopping list of policies today, but a list ain't the same as a coherent plan. Here's hoping we get one in the next 100 days.

Comments (3)

by Toby Cooper on March 01, 2009
Toby Cooper

Without wanting to prioritise money over use, regarding the Justice and Courts policies, there's also the cost.  So many of these new policies involve keeping people in prison longer, or having more cases before the courts.  This requires more people everywhere: judiciary, security, judicial support, corrections officers (good luck with that one), etc, not to mention prisons.  From where is this money to come?

by Tim Watkin on March 01, 2009
Tim Watkin

I'm loathe to get into the cost argument. For example, I just find it sickening that people mention the cost of imprisonment when they're making a case for capital punishment. So I don't want to get too far into it. But I'd point out that recent AG report into Corrections does get into this issue, and it's tellingly covered by David Beatson (http://www.pundit.co.nz/content/correcting-corrections - a must read if you haven't read it yet). Corrections is struggling in large part because so, so much more is being asked of it and its staff. Barry Matthews made it clear he desperately needs more staff funding from the Budget in May. So yes, punishment is expensive. But the first question (and the second and third) should not be about cost, it should be about justice.

by Toby Cooper on March 02, 2009
Toby Cooper

I agree entirely.  I mention cost as in some areas it is a major focus of the new government, yet in others (such as justice) rates scarcely a mention.  This inconsistency suggests that the government's 100 day items are not only a list without a strategy, but a list without much in the way of understanding or thought.  As pretty much everyone knows, you can be busy working on and ticking off items on your to do list, without contributing anything of value.  Thanks.

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