By Jenesa Jeram*
They say the grass is always greener on the other side; for New Zealanders looking to Australia, it often rings true.
The sun seems to shine a bit brighter there, the pay packets are a bit fatter, and they have koalas.
But times are changing.
The decline in long-term migration figures to Australia is just one example.
And the reason is simple: Australia may have cuddly koalas, but New Zealand has John Key.
When I attended a conference in Sydney last week, I was struck by the Australians’ enthusiasm for anything New Zealand in general and our re-elected government in particular.
What surprised them was John Key’s apparent ability to get the public on board with his "radical" reform agenda.
At least on our side of the Tasman, Key hardly ever gets described in such ways.
And indeed, at first glance, not a lot has changed since Key first took office.
National has preserved traditional Labour policies such as state-funded education and health care, Working for Families tax credits, interest-free student loans and KiwiSaver. And as long as Key remains in office, superannuation reform is off the table.
But this seeming stability obscures some changes that are indeed quite radical.
Increasing GST and reducing income tax was no small feat.
Nor are charter schools, asset sales, loss of lifetime tenure for state houses, and increased obligations for beneficiaries.
As the Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher put it, John Key “has coaxed his country into swallowing the pills of reform yet entrusting him with power once again.”
So here’s the paradox: Key’s government looks reformist from a distance but his policies do not appear to be particularly bold when looked at in New Zealand.
The question is, how does Key manage the kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reforms, while implementing some truly substantial changes to New Zealand’s policy landscape?
The answer to this conundrum is that Key exemplifies the art of what one might call “radical incrementalism”. Key has a good sense for the electorate’s appetite for change.
The public has to be on board – and reforms take time, patience and good explanation.
That’s the real story other countries can take out of Key’s incremental radicalism.
It’s not about tricking your patients into swallowing the pills, or promising false cures that won’t deliver results. It’s about educating the public on why these pills are necessary to build a strong, healthy economy.
And hopefully, in time, the electorate will start demanding the pills themselves, with the knowledge a thriving economy transforms lives and living standards.
Jenesa Jeram is a research assistant at the NZ Initiative in Wellington.