Wednesday 13 April 2011

The Smartest Guy In The Room

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.


Anonymous said...

He is still pushing neoliberalism and free trade, and has failed to get national to reduce emissions and invest in clean energy (he his a climate minister along with Dr Nick Smith).

Tim has been promoting New Zealand selling more coal to India (the country that had big shares in the failed Pike River Coal mine). One the one hand trying to sell coal to India as a trade minister, and on the other trying to reduce emissions as a climate negotiator. Does't sound to smart to me.

Goff and National are free trade neoliberals. No matter how smart Groser is, he is not promoting smart economics, just more of the same. Which is a pity.

Matthew said...

"In the profession of politics a reputation for intelligence is almost impossible to live down. Who’s going to trust a smart politician?"

The NZ voters elected Helen Clark for three terms. She was formidably intelligent. I will never forget the leaders' debates before the 1999 election. Helen Clark toyed with Jenny Shipley - a politician in the typical mould, Chris, if ever there was one - like a cat, a mouse.

NZers do elect intelligent and competent people to Parliament. Perhaps not in the current crop - my God, do they fill me with despair. But, generally, I think your caricature of the NZ voter is inaccurate.

Loz said...

I don’t agree Chris,

The removal of Tariffs and local Industry Protection from 1985 onward was predicated on the belief that reforms would be the precursor for the suggested "export led recovery". Mr Groser's remarks at the NZ Dairy Business Conference are iterations of commentary from the same broken record that free trade leads to efficiency, increased prosperity and higher wages for everyone.

Far from being smart, calling for increased exports while rejecting expensive "value adding" is a tried and true recipe for a third world status. Mr Groser certainly writes well but if he really is the smartest guy in the room it's not a compliment.

Anonymous said...

There once was a syncophant called Chris
first I thought he was taking the piss
but when you look closer
he really loves Groser
could Chris get any grosser than this?

Anonymous said...

Belarus, the country Groser so enthusiastically champions as a future trade partner, could otherwise be described as “a brutal, authoritarian dictatorship that blatantly ignores human rights and fundamental freedoms" and has been so described - by the US State Dept. Stick your FTA

Robert Winter said...

Reasonably bright, maybe, but unlikely to get much further, for all sorts of reasons.

Anonymous said...

More of the dangers of bipartisanship, or finding acceptable Tories. I wonder when was the last time that Groser was asked a serious question in Parliament, rather than one about his bar tab.

Seriously, we have to question that point about the export sector, precisely because the officials don't really believe it is so important, otherwise they would not prefer an overvalued exchange rate. We are told that commodity prices are the best for about 40 years, so why is the economy in such poor shape, even with capital's preferred governing party. Has anyone actually explained why all this visionary trade stuff makes very little difference to the average urban dweller paying higher GST and food prices?

Andy C said...

I spent hours searching for this quote, best fun i've had in ages. From Yes Minister.

Dr Cartwright explains that he'll never be promoted (not quite verbatim):
Hacker: 'why not'
Cartrwright: 'Ah, because I'm an expert, you see'.

Victor said...

There's a number of provocative and interesting thoughts in this thread.

Firstly, Groser seems to be an able trade representative of a government dedicated to the neo-liberal consensus on international trade.

Are his skills derived from his ideological standpoint or are they the inherent professional skills of a good and experienced diplomat?

Of course, now he's in politics and a member of a neo-liberal administration, we will never have the chance to see Groser's assumed skill base used in a different ideological setting.

However, I used to know a very able and charming guy in the Soviet embassy in Wellington, who revealed himself to be no less charming and able once the red flag had come down over Moscow.

Secondly, Matthew cites Auntie Helen as an exemplar of intelligence in New Zealand politics. Yes, she was and is formidably intelligent but I'm not sure that was ever a huge electoral asset for her.

Certainly, her intellectual tastes helped mark her out as 'different' to most New Zealanders and in ways that they didn't all necessarily like or respect. Her electoral success was, I think, achieved despite rather than because of her perceived intellectuality.

If you'll forgive the excessively broad brush strokes, anti-intellectualism does tend to be a prominent characteristic of all primarily Anglo-Saxon societies (the Scots, bless them, are a mite different, as, clearly, are the French and Germans).

In New Zealand, this tendency has merged with the egalitarianism, intimacy and insistent practicality of a small and relatively new society to discourage what tends to be seen as preening displays of excellence in just about any field other than sport.

I think this trend has grown stronger in recent years, thanks to the expatriation of so many of our brighter and better educated young people and, perhaps, in reaction to the Clark years.

During my 25 (good heavens!) years in New Zealand, I've had the sometimes dubious pleasure of meeting four Prime Ministers.

The first was Muldoon, who was already out of office at that time. There may have been something more to him than his brutish curmudgeonally mask, but I was incapable of detecting it.

The second was Bolger, whose cheerful bonhomie made him instantly likeable (at least to a fellow middle-aged bloke), even though I passionately disagreed with his government's policies.

You didn't need to be long in Farmer Jim's company to recognise depths of intellect carefully hidden beneath his bucolic charm.

Then there were the searing blue eyes of Helen Clark, which seemed to be engaged in some deep if reflexive calculation over who I was and how I fitted into the scheme of things. I was and remain a great admirer of Clark but I can't say that meeting her was a comfortable experience.

And then there was the first and only time I've met John Key.

"Nice to see you AGAIN!" he quipped breezily.

Says it all really!

Walter Bagehot(of "English Constitution" fame), defined Lord Palmerston as the ideal UK Prime Minister in that he was not an average Englishman but an average Englishman could be "cut out of him".

If you're looking for a leader who cuts the mustard electorally and can also deliver in areas of substance, the Bagehot principle (transfered to New Zealand)takes some beating.

Finally, Chris, there's a huge physical gap in this thread, just before the end of the contribution of Anonymous @9.25 pm. This might be discouraging other posters.

Anonymous said...

..through unnecessary and socially inequitable tax cuts

the top 10% of Kiwi taxpayers carry an exorbitant 76% of the income tax burden, an astonishing 66% more than our fair share.

Conversely, the bottom 50% of income earners pay no income tax, despite the fact that they are the overwhelming users of social services.

While we labour long hours and are overtaxed to our knees in order to support the lifestyle choices on the indolent, according to Chris and the parasites, we're not paying enough.

Anonymous said...

Chris, I think you confuse smartarses with intellectuals.

Too many clever, quick thinking and over confident people with expensive educations get labelled as intellectuals when really they are shallow smart arses.

I think these are the people the electorate dislikes rather than the deep thinkers capable of the combination of brilliance,creativity and emotional capacity that is the hallmark of the genuine intellectual.

Groser hasn't come up with any original insights into business, economics or anything else as far as I can tell. Unless stating the obvious has become so uncommon it is now a considered genius.

Any person who is part of the present government lacks emotional intelligence - a sense of connection and empathy with their fellow humans that is surely a prerequisite of the genuine intellectual as opposed to the clever sociopath.

Victor said...


Your point is a silly one.

A certain quartile might carry a higher tax burden than other quartiles. But you, as an individual within that quartile, only carry your own tax burden.

I thought that wealthy right-wingers such as yourself believed that we should all stand on our own feet as individuals.

So stand on your own feet as an individual and stop pretending to be part of an allegedly aggrieved but actually non-existent collectivity!

You're behaving just like a trade unionist!

Anonymous said...

Tim Groser is a climate fail, and a free trade junkie.

More of this and the world's climate will fail.

Andy C said...

I was told many years ago, by one of my school teachers I think, you can get away with anything except taking it to excess.
I think that's a common attitude in the argument about tax and welfare. To coin a wonderful NZ euphamism "make sure everybody gets a fair suck on the sav". Nobody denies the unemployed the dole when they need it but when do you say enough, now you'r taking the piss. 2 years, 5 years, 10. Ten years on the dole is a truckload of cash.
Remember the Indian immigrant in the last election campaign. I'm remembering the quote but it was akin to "I've been here here 10 years and havn't been able to get a job. I'll be voting Labour because they know how to look after the unemployed."
Was there anybody from the left who did not cringe at that statement.
In ten years you would have had two boom and bust clycles surely there was work for those who wanted it. Even if its only for a short while.

Victor said...

Andy C

You are much mistaken if you think that unemployment by choice and/or taxation to provide for the unemployed are central to New Zealand's economic problems.

Anonymous said...

Some of the earlier comments here have gone. Strange? Did Labour or National complain or something? Has the site broken down.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@3:06PM

Just one comment had to be deleted because whoever left it had somehow managed to create a huge gap in the text. To make it easier for other commentators I removed it. Whoever made the comment should feel free to repeat it - minus the huge gap of course ;-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clearing that up, I just wondered. I can't be bothered repeating it. This is my favourite left blog. Tha gap was an error, sorry.

Chris Trotter said...

Thanks for that Anonymous - and keep 'em coming.

Anonymous said...

Ta. Mislaid Narrative...ironic.

Will indeed keep ém coming, it's good fun for a rainy afternoon, or even a sunny one.

Best wishes.