John Key is a political instrumentalist; he has a vision for where he wants New Zealand to be. But rather than using his proportionately short time in government to implement radical change, he has opted to take a slow incremental approach. This has been a major factor in his popularity since he took office in 2008 and has allowed him to stay popular since.
This approach is at the heart of National’s political strategy. Most recently it explains why John Key and Bill English have dismissed the chances of reaching their long-term budgetary goal of having a fiscal surplus. Key has the ability to reach out and shave off the $500-odd million he needs from one of the less-important portfolios. Both Finance Minister Bill English and Key are financially savvy. Both are gifted political operators. Given their abilities, finding the money elsewhere would not be financially or politically challenging. So why not decrease spending slightly across the board and produce the surplus?
The answer is incremental reform. The Key-led government is built on this idea. His post-election speech last year mirrored this idea: “Our approach has been to undertake incremental, sustainable reform, and to take the electorate with us, as opposed to what might be described as the ‘big-bang theory’ of politics.”
The approach also crosses into the realm of pragmatism. As ONE News Political Editor Corin Dann pointed out in his article last week, the surplus goal provides a reasonable excuse to be fiscally conservative with the budget.
While the surplus is obviously a financial goal, the gain is political. National stands to benefit by having a surplus as the poster child of its “fiscally responsible” brand. But as Key stipulated last week, the surplus is relatively arbitrary. Whether the budget is slightly over or under the line doesn’t produce any change either way. Key labelled the surplus target as “artificial”.
The irony is that National will likely reach the target next year and, come 2017, New Zealand’s fiscally responsible political party will also have delivered a surplus, an achievement it won’t fail to remind the opposition of. Regardless of the irony of political point-scoring, this is still a tribute to National’s effectiveness. In 2011 there was an $18 billion deficit; four years later the books are just a hundred million shy of green.