Little Feet: Candidates vying to succeed Dr Russel Norman as the Green Party's Male Co-Leader. From Left: Gareth Hughes MP, Kevin Hague MP, James Shaw MP and Vernon Tava. When tasked by The Nation's Lisa Owen with supplying the answer to a simple economic question, three out of the four candidates failed dismally. His successor will have to work very hard to reclaim even a little of Dr Norman's hard won economic credibility.
IT WAS IMPRESSIVE – but it wasn’t real. The Greens’ apparent mastery of economics turned out to be just one man’s – Dr Russel Norman’s – achievement. Hopefully, Dr Norman’s successor will attain an equal level of economic literacy.
Because most commentators agree that, throughout John Key’s second term as Prime Minister, the Greens’ co-leader, Dr Norman, easily outstripped his centre-left rivals as the best informed and most articulate economic spokesperson on the Opposition benches.
With rare political discipline, Dr Norman acquired a good working knowledge of economics and spoke its language as fluently as Finance Minister, Bill English. Perhaps more so.
Quite rightly, Dr Norman had identified the Greens’ unfamiliarity with mainstream economics as a serious weakness. Why should the voters take them seriously if they cannot talk convincingly about the exchange rate’s impact on manufacturing; the effectiveness of the Reserve Bank’s handling of monetary policy; or whether employers are responding adequately to rising levels of worker productivity?
It was all very well to talk about a future based on “Green Growth” and “Green Jobs”, but voters living in the here-and-now needed to feel confident that the Green Party understood what was happening in New Zealand’s economy – to their jobs.
To become a great artist, it is said, the art student must first learn all the rules and master all the techniques of painting. Only then will he be ready to break all the rules and develop new techniques of his own. Dr Norman clearly believed that the same applied to economics. Only after familiarising themselves with the “dismal science” of classical economics would the Greens be ready to preach the more joyful gospel of sustainability and self-sufficiency.
Dr Russel Norman: Big shoes to fill.
Dr Norman’s efforts in this all-important sphere of politics did not go unnoticed. Mr Key’s second term had hardly begun when the Parliamentary Press Gallery began referring to Dr Norman as “the real Leader of the Opposition”. This wasn’t solely due to the fact that the Labour caucus’s internal feuding was wreaking havoc upon the Party’s political credibility. It was also about the way Dr Norman, as the Greens’ economic spokesperson, was going head-to-head with the Finance Minister in the House – and not losing.
Did all this praise go to Dr Norman’s head? Is that why he raised the possibility that, in a future Labour-Green coalition government, the Finance portfolio might well end up in his own hands? (The very idea was enough to cause serious conniptions in Labour’s ranks!) Was Dr Norman’s much derided suggestion that New Zealand embark on a limited degree of quantitative easing all the evidence his critics needed to prove that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing?
Actually, neither of these accusations stack up. Subsequent events were to reinforce Labour’s serious lack of talent in matters economic. And the journalists, so quick to pour scorn upon Mr Norman’s QE proposals, revealed much more about their own, and their government briefers’, ignorance of economics than they did about the Green co-leader’s.
In spite of the fact that Labour’s policies on superannuation and capital gains had been in place for more than three years, neither the party’s leader, nor its finance spokesperson, proved equal to the task of selling them to the electorate. A Labour-Green coalition could have done a lot worse than making Dr Norman its Minister of Finance.
Not that any of this matters now: not after last week’s edition of The Nation on TV3. In the course of introducing the four candidates competing for the co-leader’s job Dr Norman is stepping away from (Gareth Hughes, Kevin Hague, James Shaw and Vernon Tava) the show’s co-host, Lisa Owen, asked each man to answer a quick-fire question on the economy. What’s the unemployment rate? The inflation rate? The Reserve Bank’s official cash-rate? The economic growth rate?
Only one of the candidates, Mr Shaw, even came close to supplying the correct answer. In less than five minutes, Dr Norman’s hard graft over more than three years: his gift of (as Ms Owen put it) “economic cred’”; was needlessly thrown away.
None of the questions were difficult. A few seconds on the Statistics New Zealand website was all that they required. That none of the candidates had devoted even this much time to acquiring the answers, makes Dr Norman’s economic literacy an even more singular achievement.
Some very hard yards await his successor.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 March 2015.