"Stimulus? Hah! That's A Good One!" Finance Minister, Bill English, like an Eighteenth Century quack, has only one remedy for his unfortunate patient: "Bleed him, bleed him, bleed him and then bleed him some more!"
“THE SOFT BIGOTRY of low expectations” is a phrase attributed to George W Bush. It’s more likely author, however, is Michael Gerson, President Bush’s speechwriter. Some of the other, equally memorable, signature lines he supplied were “armies of compassion” (to describe America’s faith-based charities) and “axis of evil” (to describe Saddam Hussein’s partners in tyranny). Regardless of who authored “the soft bigotry” phrase, it makes an excellent starting-point for a discussion of Bill English’s fourth budget.
Whatever else might be said of Sir Roger Douglas and the economic programme which bears his name, as New Zealand’s finance minister he always aimed high. Indeed, There’s Got To Be A Better Way – the slim volume on economic reform he produced in 1980 – opens with a comment from no less a philosophical earth-shaker than Friedrich “God is Dead” Nietzsche.
The quotation is taken from Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human, published in 1878, in which the German philosopher declares that: “A nation usually renews its youth on a political sickbed; and there finds again the spirit which it had gradually lost in seeking and maintaining power.”
The image of a nation weakened by a debilitating illness; its people divided, confused and dispirited; was clearly a powerful motivation for Mr Douglas. New Zealand, he warned: “stands on the brink of economic ruin”. It has “stifled innovation for mediocrity”, and, as a result, the country “is losing thousands of New Zealanders, most of them young, each year.”
The Finance Minister-in-Waiting’s anguished cri de coeur: “New Zealand is a nation that has lost its spirit, the fire in its belly!”, is followed by the question: “How much further will New Zealand sink before we start to fight back?”
All of which, surveying New Zealand’s present predicament, possesses a very familiar ring. The big difference, of course, is that our present Finance Minister lacks his predecessor’s fervent belief in New Zealanders’ ability to make big decisions and absorb big changes. Mr English’s budget is a bigoted budget – not only because it evinces the bigot’s signature incapacity to entertain any ideas but his own, but also because, in the Bush/Gerson sense, it holds such offensively low expectations of its recipients’ capabilities.
It is a budget of “cant’s” not “cans”. For everything it gives, it makes a parsimonious virtue of taking something away. If New Zealand, to employ Nietzsche’s sickbed analogy, is a weak and dispirited patient, then Mr English must be cast as an Eighteenth Century quack, whose only answer to his patient’s declining health is to “bleed him, bleed him, bleed him and then bleed him some more”. The same leech-craft that is killing Europe, is being touted by Mr English and the Prime Minister as our own unfortunate country’s sovereign cure.
Is a more competent physician waiting outside the door? Is the Labour Opposition ready to stride into the sick room, cast back the dingy curtains, throw open the windows to fresh air and sunshine, and bid the patient, in the words of John 5:8, to: “Rise, take up thy bed and walk”?
Sadly, there is not. Labour’s David Parker bustles about with his sheaf of papers, muttering dutifully of thrift and probity, sounding for all the world like a provincial family lawyer, concerned about his ailing client’s unpaid debts, and anxious to settle the terms of his will.
Only the Green’s Russel Norman shows the slightest sign of possessing the Nietzsche/Douglas spirit. He, unlike Mr Parker, will not bow down to the deficit idol. The Greens co-leader simply refuses to go on heaping sacrificial victims (beneficiaries, public servants, the sick, students) upon the corpse-strewn altar of “Returning the Government’s Books to Surplus by 2014/15”.
Given the chance, I believe Dr Norman would cast back the curtains and throw open the windows of New Zealand’s economic sick-room. With the highest expectations of his fellow New Zealanders’ recuperative powers, he shows them a vista of blue skies and green fields, and invites them to get out of bed.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 25 May 2012.