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Insights 4: 16 February 2018
Roger Partridge: A lesson for the education minister and his boss
Latest report: Recipe for disaster, building policy on shaky ground
Upcoming event: Dinner lecture with Katharine Birbalsingh

A passionate politician
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
Almost a century ago, the great sociologist Max Weber defined the ideal politician in his lecture Politics as a Vocation. As Bill English just announced his retirement from politics, we may well measure his record by Weberian standards.

English entered Parliament twenty-seven years ago. Staying in any one job for such a time span is unusual these days. In the tough world of politics, it is an eternity – particularly considering his time in high offices.

Politics can have a deforming effect on personalities. As Weber put it, “the knowledge of influencing men, of participating in power over them, and above all, the feeling of holding in one’s hands a nerve fibre of historically important events can elevate the professional politician above everyday routine even when he is placed in formally modest positions.”

It is because of these temptations of office that Weber explained what three qualities were essential to be a good politician: “passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion.”

English has all three qualities in spades.

In Weber’s words, passion is not blind excitement but “devotion to a cause”. English’s cause was most obviously to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in society. Anyone who has ever heard him speak about the Social Investment Approach knows how deeply he cares about this issue.

In Weber’s view, such genuine passion had to be coupled with a cool head. This is where ‘responsibility’ and ‘a sense of proportion’ come in.

Weber was adamant that “Politics is made with the head, not with other parts of the body or soul.” In English we could see a politician who finely exemplified what Weber meant: a leader passionately driven by his personal values and pursuing them with perspective.

As Finance Minister and later as Prime Minister, English championed the use of data and statistics to promote better social outcomes. He took the cold hard facts available to government to inform policy, leading to better, more targeted and earlier interventions.

English followed his life-long passion for politics through a career of highs and lows. But, as Weber said, “only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer.”

New Zealand can be grateful for the contribution Bill English has made. We wish him well for his future.

The farcical case for banning you from selling your home to a foreigner
Dr Bryce Wilkinson | Senior Fellow |
New Zealand exports about 95 percent of its dairy production. The receipts make it a major overseas earner.

Imagine a proposed ban on the export of dairy products.  “This would”, the misguided advocates might earnestly explain, “benefit New Zealand consumers by making dairy products more affordable (cheaper) in New Zealand”.

You do not need a degree in economics to spot the flaw in this argument. That benefit would be entirely at the expense of New Zealand producers. New Zealanders would lose overall from lost sales revenues at a higher price to overseas consumers.

No competent assessment of the mooted ban would ignore the forgone benefits of selling at a higher price on world markets. The proposal is so manifestly foolish that to the best of our knowledge no one has ever proposed it.

Well, more accurately, no one has proposed it in that specific context.

Yet, this argument is built into the existing Overseas Investment Act. When declining applications from overseas persons to purchase assets from a New Zealander the Overseas Investment Office is not instructed to count as a cost the lost value to the New Zealand seller. (See our 2014 report Open for Business: Removing the Barriers to Foreign Investment.)

Unhappily, the argument reappears in the official material accompanying the government’s Overseas Investment Amendment Bill. This Bill proposes to ban all New Zealanders from selling their homes at the best price they can get when the buyer is a non-Australian overseas person.

The Treasury’s supporting Regulatory Impact Statement uncritically assesses that the New Zealand public will benefit from the Bill through lower house prices whereas regulated overseas persons (which excludes Australians) will be the ones that incur the costs. This assessment fails to recognise the loss to the thwarted New Zealand seller.

Other measures in the Bill will make New Zealand’s already extraordinarily costly and intrusive screening regime even more so.

None of the official material we have seen even purports to demonstrate that the ban represents an efficient and effective response to a real housing affordability problem. It is as if no one in charge cares. Populist prejudice rules.

Parliament should be demanding that parliamentary and public debate over such major Bills are informed by a professional non-partisan assessment of its net benefits for New Zealanders.

Read our submission to the Finance and Expenditure Committee on the Overseas Investment Amendment Bill.

Diary of a health expert
Jenesa Jeram | Policy Analyst |
Week 1- After years of campaigning, I knew it was only a matter of time before our government ramped up its efforts tackling child obesity. Like my counterparts in Chile, I will be offering the government my technical expertise to crack down on junk food advertising to children.

My Chilean colleagues have already told me what to expect. Their weekly meetings grapple with very complex matters, deciding what counts as advertising to children.

According to their ministry’s head of nutrition, sometimes spotting marketing to children is easy “like if a dog is wearing glasses and talking like a person, but sometimes it’s not…We fight and fight and fight until we have consensus.”

I am ready to fight. If Chile can defeat Tony the Tiger, Kinder Surprise, and those creepy M&Ms characters, New Zealand can do the same.

Week 4- Committee meetings are going well. Let’s just say the Cookie Bear’s days are numbered.

Must complain about my colleague Sally, though. Totally embarrassed me in front of the team. She told us about a new report by NZIER claiming that the evidence a sugar tax will improve health outcomes is weak. NZIER even claim earlier economic studies of effectiveness have “fundamental methodological flaws”.

I thought I would be helpful by pointing out that Big Sugar and Big Junkfood will likely have their greasy fingerprints all over it. There’s no need to take it seriously.

Turns out the study was commissioned by our Ministry of Health.

Week 6- Went grocery shopping with my wife. I love her, but did she have to spend so long dithering over the craft beer bottles?

Then it occurred to me: she was distracted by the aesthetically pleasing designs on the label. It turns out children are not the only ones susceptible to pretty branding. The brainwashing effects of marketing are more pernicious than I thought!

I wonder if anyone has looked into plain packaging for alcohol…

Week 7- Exciting news! Just got an urgent memo saying we have something important to discuss. A new product on the market is threatening the health of children and teenagers. It comes in bright orange packaging and is apparently too tempting to resist.

New York legislators are already looking into banning the product, reformulating it, or including more health warnings.

Week 7, later- Tide Pods. We are regulating Tide Pods. Teenagers are reportedly eating the colourful laundry detergent, and the government must step in.

It might be common sense to point out this diary is entirely fictitious. But hey, we’re living in a world where teenagers eating laundry detergent is a serious public health issue.

On The Record
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  • Development is about more than cash.
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