I have a pleasant memory of the only time I met Jim Anderton. One of his daughters was in the same class as me at Remuera Intermediate, and at the end of the year the Andertons hosted a class barbecue at their home just up the street from the school. I was a youthful political junkie and Jim Anderton was running for Mayor of Auckland. It was a pleasant evening and he seemed to be a lively and engaged parent (later struck by the awfulness of the suicide of another daughter).
Accounts suggest that Anderton did a good job of helping to revitalise the Labour Party organisation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was, for the time, a moderniser, instrumental in helping reduce the direct influence of the trade unions in the party, and promoting the selection of some able candidates who hadn’t served time in the party (eg Geoffrey Palmer). Various tributes talk of a personal, and practical, generosity.
I don’t suppose either that there was any doubt that he pursued causes he believed in, and that those causes were, more or less, what he regarded as being in the best interests of New Zealanders (perhaps especially “ordinary working New Zealanders”). Probably most politicians do. Sometimes they are mostly right about the merits of the causes they pursue, and sometimes not. In Anderton’s case, even if one agreeed with the sort of outcomes he might have hoped for, his views on the best means seem – perhaps even more so with hindsight than at the time – to have been pretty consistently wrong. And for all the public talk in the last few days about Anderton’s contribution to New Zealand, few (if any) of the things he opposed in the 1980s have been unwound/reversed, and few of the things he championed when he served later as an effective senior minister have done much for New Zealanders.
Take the 1980s when, upon entering Parliament in 1984, Anderton quickly isolated himself in caucus. Even before that election, he’d opposed the CER agreement with Australia, and opposed Roger Douglas’s talk of a need for a devaluation and a reduction in the real exchange rate. Even after the 1984 election, in circumstances of quasi-crisis, Anderton still opposed the by-then inevitable devaluation – and in league with Sir Robert Muldoon sought to use a select committee to run a kangaroo-court inquiry, to undermine the choices his own government had made. He was opposed to GST, and he was opposed to creating SOEs for state-trading operations. He opposed privatisations, whether small or large. Of the large, there was vocal opposition to the sale of the BNZ and of Telecom. I suspect the list of reform measures, not subsequently unwound, that Anderton did enthusiastically support would be considerably shorter – perhaps vanishingly so – than the list of those he opposed.
As a pure political achievement, to have survived resigning from the Labour Party – in a pre MMP period – was worthy of note. But then Winston Peters did much the same thing – and he’d had the courage to resign his seat and win a by-election to return to Parliament. And the distinctive Jim Anderton party has long since disappeared, as Anderton returned to the Labour fold.
And what causes did he champion as a senior minister (for a time, deputy prime minister, in the fifth Labour government). Probably the institution that will be always associated with Anderton’s name is Kiwibank: it certainly wouldn’t have existed without him. But to what end? Has Kiwibank changed the shape of New Zealand banking? Not in ways I can see. It remains a pretty small player, operating in segments of the market where there has always been plenty of competition. It hasn’t come to a sticky end – as many state-owned banks have here and abroad – but we’ve never had the data to know whether, even on strictly commercial grounds, the establishment of the bank was a good deal for taxpayers (but the fact that no private new entrant has tried something similar suggests probably not). If simply promoting competition in banking had been the goal, perhaps it would have been preferable to have prevented the takeover of The National Bank by the ANZ?
There has been talk in the last few days of Anderton’s contribution to “revitalising the regions”. I’m not sure what this can possibly mean – even allowing for a few government offices being decentralised (at some cost) around regional centres. Generally, the real exchange rate mattters much more for the economic health of the regions than direct stuff governments do. Anderton was Minister of Economic Development. In that role, he was keen on using taxpayer money to subsidise yacht-building (which didn’t end well), and a champion of film industry subsidies. In tributes this week, there has also been the suggestion that Anderton was one of those responsible for the creation of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, something I hadn’t heard before. If so, I guess he deserves some partial credit for the fiscal restraint the then Labour government exercised in its first few years. Beyond that, what was created was a leveraged speculative investment fund – not a model followed, as far as I can tell, in other advanced economy – with returns that over almost 15 years now really only seem to approximately compensate for the high risks the taxpayer is being exposed to. No doubt Anderton opposed the decision in 1989 or 1990 to start raising the NZS eligibility age from 60 to 65, and the same opposition to any further increase in the age beyond 65 – even though it is a step many other advanced countries have taken, as life expectancies improved – was presumably behind any involvement he had in the creation of the NZSF. In so doing, once again his hand was involved in holding back sensible gradual reforms, and keeping New Zealand a bit poorer than it need be.
I suspect many of the tributes of the last few days are mostly a reflection of Anderton’s part in the Labour reconcilation. The prodigal son returned – having been one of the leading figures in fomenting the civil wars in the first place, before walking out of the party. They were tumultuous years, and few things are nastier than civil wars. Anderton doesn’t ever seem to have been a team player, but by the end of his career he seem to have found his place back alongside the team he started with.
But from a whole-of-nation perspective, what did Anderton accomplish? If the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s haven’t produced the results the advocates hoped for – we still drift, more slowly, further behind other advanced countries – that wasn’t for the sorts of reasons Anderton advanced. Had we followed his advice, we’d most likely now be poorer still – and many of the issues around equality and social cohesion that he worried about might have been no more effectively addressed. In the end, Anderton is perhaps best seen as a belated figure from the New Zealand of the 1950s and 60s. There was a lot to like about the New Zealand of those years – some of the best living standards in the world then – for all the increasingly costly distortions to our economy. There are parallels to Muldoon – who famously told a TV interviewer of his goal to leave New Zealand no worse than he found it – both in the genuineness of their concerns, and the wrongness of too many of their policy stances. Both seemed to back very reluctantly into the future, with all too much willingness to trust our fortunes to the state, and the possible winners identified by politicians and officials, rather than to the market.