Lightweight Cameron the wrong role model for NZ’s National party

Published in The Australian (Sydney) 18 August 2022

The situation was dire as the country went to the polls. Certainly so, according to a pamphlet produced by the opposition leader.

“The general election is just a few weeks away. … It comes at a time when the economy is in deep trouble. We need to mend our broken society and rebuild trust in our political system,” the publication read.

The opposition leader promised the usual: bringing public finances in order, sorting out education and health, fighting crime. “We can’t go on like this. It’s time for a change.”

And so, David Cameron became British Prime Minister in 2010.

After a dozen years of Conservative rule, an opposition manifesto today would promise the same.

Except the challenge to get Britain back on track is even larger now than it was in 2010.

Recorded crime in England and Wales is at a 20-year high. The National Health Service is falling apart. Public debt has almost reached Britain’s annual economic output.

Even commentators in the Tories’ favourite newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, are scathing. One of them, Allister Heath, recently predicted the “coming collapse of basket case Britain” as a result of ongoing “short-termism, cowardice and state failure.” Quite.

None of this would be worth mentioning in a column dealing with New Zealand.

Except that New Zealand’s opposition leader, Christopher Luxon, has chosen none other than David Cameron as the source of political inspiration.

Luxon had invited Cameron to speak at his caucus retreat earlier this year. When Cameron was prevented because of a Covid infection, he settled for Cameron’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne.

One hears that copies of Cameron’s memoir are making the rounds in New Zealand National Party circles. And the New Zealand Herald reported that Luxon regards Cameron’s softer positioning of the Tories as a shining example.

It is all rather curious. In Britain, no-one, especially in Tory circles, would regard Cameron as any kind of role model.

Cameron had won the 2010 election by a whisker and needed the Liberal Democrats to become Prime Minister. He then outmanoeuvred his coalition partner to win the 2015 election, but still on a relatively dismal 36.8 per cent of the popular vote.

Of course, Cameron lost most of his reputation in the 2016 Brexit referendum, which led to his resignation. Whatever positive reputation he may have had left, it probably did not survive the Greensill scandal. That was when Cameron reportedly received $10m for lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital just before it collapsed.

Cameron’s party-political achievements are mixed, to put it mildly. Yes, he got his Tories into government after thirteen years of Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. But he hollowed out his party’s programmatic beliefs and replaced them with mere slogans: “Let optimism beat pessimism. Let sunshine win the day.”

But Cameron’s economic legacy is far worse – and has proven to be more long-lasting.

Britain in 2010 would have needed a new direction, just as Cameron declared in his election pamphlets. But it would have also needed a Prime Minister meaning to implement it. Most of all, it would have needed a Prime Minister who understood economics.

The economic issues facing Britain in 2010 were palpable. The state had become too large.

Regulations had become a drag on doing business. Public services were not delivering value for money. The planning system had slowed down the building of new houses.

Reforming any of these areas would have required economic understanding and courage. Cameron had neither. And so the problems that had built up under the previous UK Labour administration continued to fester. With one exception: education.

Thanks to the determination of Education Secretary Michael Gove, and driven by his advisor Dominic Cummings, England got a new curriculum, a new assessment system and many new charter schools.

Gove fought a fierce battle against the education establishment – and that made David Cameron nervous. He fired Michael Gove after four years, presumably for being too brave. No amount of reform ambition was allowed to jeopardise Cameron’s campaign for re-election.

New Zealand’s situation at the time of next year’s election is likely to be like Britain’s was in 2010.

By September 2023, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will have been in power for six years. Six years may not sound like a long time, but it was a time of upheaval in New Zealand politics.

Whoever forms the next Government will inherit a country with a much-increased public debt burden. Crime, especially in Auckland, is out of control. The New Zealand health service is stretched.

Education results have plummeted. The defence force needs to be rebuilt. The Reserve Bank is fighting inflation. The labour market is tight. The public service headcount has ballooned. The number of people on benefits has increased. Infrastructure projects have stalled. Energy security is no longer a given. Race relations are fractious. And according to a poll, one in five Kiwis consider emigrating. And who could blame them?

New Zealand’s situation could not be more perilous. The coming parliamentary term will decide if the country is to remain a first-world country. Or if New Zealand will be relegated to the status of economic and political basket case. A bit like Britain.

Such circumstances cannot be overcome by marketing slogans. No amount of clever electioneering will be a substitute for economic reform. No aiming for the median voter will cut the mustard.

If New Zealand’s opposition politicians want to prepare themselves for the brutal and thankless tasks that lie ahead, David Cameron’s memoirs won’t help. In fact, they will lead them astray.

The next Prime Minister’s reading list should include biographies of Winston Churchill, Ludwig Erhard and Margaret Thatcher. Economics books by Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. And political philosophy texts by Karl Popper, Robert Nozick and Jonathan Haidt.

And having read all of them, New Zealand’s next Prime Minister will understand what was wrong with David Cameron’s lightweight approach to politics. And do it differently.

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