The Centre of Attention: Trade Negotiations Minister, Tim Groser (third left) may be the smartest guy in the National Party caucus room, but in this country that doesn't count for very much. In New Zealand a reputation for intellectual brilliance and creativity is almost impossible to live down - especially if you're a politician.
TIM GROSER is certainly the smartest guy in the National Party caucus-room – and I suspect he knows it. That his colleagues know it too is his singular political misfortune – and ours.
New Zealanders have a deep suspicion of cleverness and seldom promote those who display even a whiff of intellectual brilliance or creativity. About the only professionals we’re willing to forgive for being utterly brilliant are doctors – and that’s for the most obvious and selfish of reasons.
In the profession of politics a reputation for intelligence is almost impossible to live down. Who’s going to trust a smart politician?
Perhaps it’s this belief that such a “clever bastard” could never pose a serious threat to their positions which explains Mr Groser’s senior colleagues’ general indifference to his public utterances. After all, who would bother to wade through all that stuff?
It’s a pity that more politicians and journalists don’t give it a go. Because Mr Groser’s speeches (which I strongly suspect he writes himself) are a joy to read. They are packed with pertinent and compelling facts – along with interpretations of those facts that are even more pertinent and compelling. Mr Groser is always ready to embark on potentially dangerous intellectual journeys and is refreshingly unafraid of arriving at a conclusion.
These are, of course, exactly the attributes one would hope to find in a Minister for Trade Negotiations. Indeed the complexity of his portfolio: it’s need for a minister capable of “big picture” thinking; is probably Mr Groser’s greatest political protection.
Thankful that it’s not their brains that are being asked to absorb the reams of detail concerning multilateral and bi-lateral trade deals, Mr Groser’s colleagues appear to have happily designated the whole of trade policy as “Tim’s department”.
What does it say about us – and about our government – that this should be the case? New Zealand is pre-eminently a trading nation. Our prosperity depends on continued access to world markets. The terms of that access are central to New Zealand’s well-being. So, why are they not also central to its economic and political debates? Is it wise to simply toss the trade negotiations job to the smartest guy in the room – and then forget about it.
Speaking to the NZ Dairy Business Conference in Rotorua on 5 April, Mr Groser addressed the subject of this country’s export strategy:
“The choice is not between different types of exports but exports versus non-exports. Commodity trading, carried out by NZ’s hugely efficient agriculture companies, can be enormously profitable just as so-called ‘high value added’ products can add more cost than value. I have no doubt this will be accompanied by continual progress in innovative dairy products, food ingredients. That will, I hope, be matched by continuing success in the non-agriculture export sector. The choice is not between agriculture and non-agriculture exports. It is an ‘and’ proposition; not an ‘either/or’ proposition. Our trade policy will, I assure you, enthusiastically support all exporters of goods and services.”
Very few New Zealanders would find much to object to in Mr Groser’s comments. New Zealand’s economic health has always been, and will continue to be determined by the health of its export sector.
What distinguishes Mr Groser’s speech to the Dairy Business Conference from his colleagues speeches, however, is the way it injects a real-world, real-time urgency to the task of putting practical flesh on what remain distressingly bare policy bones.
A viable export strategy is not something that would be “nice to have” it’s an absolute necessity.
As Mr Groser noted, the Republic of Belarus in Eastern Europe is rapidly expanding its dairy industry and will soon be producing as much butter as Australia. Boosting production of our key commodity exports and diversifying the range of goods we send overseas is not something we can afford to dawdle over any longer.
But that is precisely what this government is doing. And every day the chorus of business protest at its lack of a clear economic direction grows louder. Mr Key and Mr English, by weakening the country’s fiscal base through unnecessary and socially inequitable tax cuts, have wilfully deprived themselves of the resources required to fund not only the reconstruction of Christchurch, but also the comprehensive economic development plan New Zealand so desperately needs.
I suspect that Mr Groser, were he given the opportunity, would produce an economic action plan equal to the times we live in. Alone among his colleagues he seems to discern clearly the emerging contours of the future and grasps the urgent necessity for change.
Because he is an intelligent and creative politician, Mr Groser would act radically to ensure New Zealand takes full economic advantage of the vast geopolitical transitions currently re-ordering the globe.
But precisely because he’s an intelligent and creative politician – he’ll never be given the chance.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 12 April 2011.