Farewelling Makhlouf

I saw three reports of last night’s Beehive function to farewell the outgoing Secretary to the Treasury.  There was Barry Soper’s piece on the Herald website, and Herald political editor Audrey Young’s account, as well as Richard Harman’s Politik column (the latter is subscriber-only, but with one free article a month for non-subscribers).

Soper’s is the more hard-edged take

The atmosphere in the cavernous Beehive Banquet Hall last night was about the same as it would have been if Donald Trump walked into a Democrat’s convention.


It’s surprising the inquiry wasn’t done and dusted in time for the farewell given all the statements so far point to the fact that the Secretary knew full well when he claimed there’d been a hack attack that it hadn’t taken place, the GCSB spies had made that clear the night before.


But if last night was uncomfortable they were doing their best not to show it.

Across the three accounts, we learn that – Grant Robertson aside, as host –  no Labour ministers were present, but that a phalanx of New Zealand First ministers  and MPs were, including Shane Jones, whose (lack of) regard for the proprieties of public office is well-known.

I suppose that when it was decided to push ahead with this nauseating function, people had to at least go through the motions, but it sounds as if it was worse than that.    Audrey Young talks of the “glowing tributes” Makhlouf received (Harman talks twice of “fulsome praise” –  when I was growing up that meant (eg OED) “offensive to good taste, from excess or want of measure”, so perhaps Harman was deliberately being a bit double-edged.)    Reports suggest that at least Robertson was somewhat honest, since his praise seemed to involve the things that had seen a dumbing-down of The Treasury, and a lowering of its standing and capability to offer rigorous economic analysis and advice.  I guess when your government has no economic ambition, you don’t need much analysis.

But what seemed wildly inappropriate was the account of the State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes’s address.  You will recall that the State Services Commission is investigating Makhlouf’s personal conduct in and around the Budget affair.

“Thank you from the people of New Zealand. Our country is a better place for your work.”

He said Makhlouf had brought “strong leadership and a great deal of personal integrity” to Treasury.

He had been “authentic and straight up” and had been calm and unflappable.

“I will certainly miss your calm authority,” Hughes said.

In no conceivable universe (except perhaps some parallel one inhabited by SSC) could Makhlouf during that Budget episode be said to have displayed “calm and unflappable” leadership.  Had he done so, there’d have been no inquiry.

But, more importantly, how are supposed to take seriously (supposing anyone was inclined to) an inquiry into very recent conduct, when the person responsible for the inquiry gushes like this, and apparently went on to praise the collegiality of the public service chief executive “club”.   Looking out for each other no doubt (even if, privately, they must all be thinking “Gabs, how could you have?”)

And after all that attendees had to listen to Makhouf “at length” (is there anything worse at a farewell than long speeches?).  The sheer vacuity of it all was captured in this piece of (delusional) political pandering.

“I have to say, Grant, that one of my proudest moments was listening to the Budget speech and hearing the living Standards’ Framework come alive,’ he said.

While serious analysts struggle to identify any real difference the soft-centred feel-good rhetoric made.

The other thing that caught my eye in the Harman column was the photo at the top of it, showing Makhlouf and Grant Robertson chatting pleasantly with the PRC Ambassador, Madame Wu.  Pretty nauseating in the wake of the repression this very week of the Hong Kong protests –  but no doubt Madame Wu is delighted that our government, unlike Australia, the UK, the EU, and senior US figures, has said nothing at all.

But in particular the photo brought to mind Gabs’s shameless (and not even well-grounded) pandering to the PRC.   There is, for example, this

Secretary to the Treasury Gabriel Makhlouf has welcomed a new Memorandum of Arrangement formalising a financial dialogue between the New Zealand Treasury and the Ministry of Finance of the People’s Republic of China.

signed on the Prime Minister’s recent tributary visit to Beijing.  Of it, Makhlouf noted

There are fiscal, financial and economic issues of mutual importance to our two countries and there is much we can learn from each other

Quite what he thought the New Zealand Treasury could learn from economic policy etc in a middle income highly repressive state without the benefit of the rule of law or a genuine and open contest of ideas was never made clear.  You might excuse that bumpf on the grounds of “well, it is meaningless, and just the stuff officials sometimes have to do”. But the same can’t be said for the dreadful speech he gave in Beijing last year.  I wrote about it here.   An excerpt

What appalled in this particular speech was the craven grovelling to the PRC, the total relativisation of our two countries in ways which suggest that he thinks their system, their government, is just as good as ours.  (I don’t suppose he really does, but when you are a senior official, backing your government, what you say counts  –  including no doubt to the PRC authorities. He does the kow-tow)

He begins his speech with the rather empty claim that

Yet there is so much that we have in common.

We are all human beings I guess, but it wasn’t clear what else he had in mind.   He tries, not very convincingly, to elaborate.

All of us here want open trade, thriving business, and economic growth. Those things matter for our material wellbeing. But they are only a subset of what contributes to the quality of our lives. I’m sure we share a belief in the importance of good health and education, decent housing, the support of family and friends, a clean natural environment, a safe and peaceful society. We seek that for ourselves and for future generations.

As the Secretary surely knows, the People’s Republic of China has no commitment to open trade, having a highly regulated economy, and tight restrictions on international services trade in particular, and on investment.    But what of that broader list of things he thinks we have in common?  Perhaps it is fine as far it goes, but he is talking to people in a country whose government has a million people from Xinjiang in concentration and re-indoctrination camps.  And for all the Secretary’s talk about wellbeing –  and even “social capital” –  it is notable that things like free speech, free expression, the ability to change your government, freedom of religion, and even the rule of law – explicitly disavowed not long ago by the PRC Chief Justice –  are totally absent from his list.  The things that divide free and democratic countries from the PRC regime are huge and important.  Perhaps even the sorts of things that might appear in a typical New Zealand assessment of wellbeing?  But they, apparently, don’t matter much to the Secretary to the Treasury.  He goes on the praise the Belt and Road Initiative –  under the aegis of which the previous New Zealand government committed to the (rather frightening) aspiration of “the fusion of civilisations” with the PRC.

In all that he was just warming up.  There is later a substantial section of the “NZ-China relationship”, which is almost nauseating in places.  Thus

It is a relationship that goes beyond diplomacy and trade. It’s also about the links between people, about investing in our mutual success, and about recognising our shared interests in the world.

Liberty, democracy, the rule of law for example?  I guess not.  Respect for established international borders?  I guess not.    Then again, there is this in common, that both China and New Zealand have dramatically (economically) underperformed their near neighbours over the last century of so: in China’s case, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and in New Zealand’s case Australia.

Then we get this

It hasn’t all been one-way traffic. New Zealander Rewi Alley helped establish the Gung Ho movement in the 1930s and dedicated 60 years of his life to improving the living standards of Chinese workers.

You mean the active member of the Chinese Communist Party and unashamed apologist for its evils  (I have one of his books sitting on my desk, co-authored with the dreadful Communist fellow-traveller Wilfred Burchett, written towards the end of the Cultural Revolution celebrating the quality of life in the PRC).    Then again, when we have a Chinese Communist Party member in our Parliament what might one expect from our elites?

The Secretary moves on to celebrate PRC foreign investment in New Zealand.  He notes, without further comment, that

Over half of the 25 largest Chinese investors in New Zealand are state owned enterprises including Huawei, Yili and Haier.

as if this is a good thing (Treasury not being known for its enthusiasm for SOEs in New Zealand), as if he cares not about the national security threat various allied governments have determined Huawei represents –  and note that Huawei likes to represent itself as a private company –  and as if he is unaware (or cares not a bit) about the PRC law under which companies (private and public) are required to operate in the interests of the party-State, at home or abroad.  In the best of circumstances, state ownership (and murky ownership) is a recipe for weakened capital allocation disciplines etc, and the Secretary to the Treasury really should know that.

That is the sort of leadership our Treasury has had for the past eight years.  But I guess you can see why he probably mostly went over okay in the Beehive.   And why Madame Wu was so keen to chat.

My trains anecdote yesterday prompted a former Treasury official to get in touch with another farewell story.

I recall him also saying, in the context of the Christchurch earthquakes, that what was needed was a “Canary Wharf” kind of initiative in Christchurch. I recall his total absence of any reference to cost/benefit or evidence leaving us all looking at the floor – we were trying to imagine what a Canary Wharf in Christchurch might consist of, aside from being mystified about what it was about Canary Wharf that he was seeing as welfare-enhancing.

No doubt we all say dumb things at times, and perhaps especially people who think aloud.   But not all of us, having already risen to such giddy heights – albeit by leaving home and coming to a small and remote country – say things of quite such economic illiteracy in formal work contexts, and then get promoted further, to be chief economic adviser to successive governments for eight years.

It isn’t Makhlouf’s fault New Zealand has drifted further backwards, in economic terms, over the last eight years.  But over that time he led an institution that could have played a powerful role in shaping and influencing for the better debate about how best to respond to our longstanding continuing relative decline.  Instead he chose to shift the focus to feel-good distractions.  He –  and those who appointed and reappointed him –  bear responsibly for that, for what is in many respects a betrayal of our people, perhaps especially the poorest and most vulnerable, who can’t just flit in and when their term ends flit off to another high-paying job in yet another country.