Matthew Hooton had a column in the NBR today about the Sky City deal that loads of people have already tweeted and linked and Facebooked, but I wanted to make a couple of quick comments about.
Firstly, that is just a really great piece of political commentary and part of the reason for that, I think, is that it pulls back the curtain on a major political news story and tells us why something is happening. Most political punditry focuses on what’s happening, and/or what the pundit thinks of it, or what should happen, or wants to happen, or what the different political parties say about an issue. Hooton is an political insider so he takes us deeper, explaining the history and the personalities and the processes, and how they interact with each other.
Jonathan Lynn, the co-creator of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister once said that he wanted his show to explain to people how government worked. How power and influence were wielded. How decisions were really made. And that, he explained, is why he never wrote any scenes in the House of Commons. There is some politics in the House, and much theater, but no government. Nothing that truly mattered. It’s a quote that came back to me this week when Winston Peters questioned the Prime Minister in Question Time about whether he dyed his hair, and ‘why the carpet didn’t match the curtains.’ You could just about hear the columnists in the press gallery sighing with relief. ‘The Prime Minister’s pubes! That’s this week’s piece sorted.’ Hooton’s column is a reminder that political commentary can be very vital. It doesn’t have to be trivial nonsense.
Having said all that, Hooton can write this particular piece because he isn’t a political journalist. He doesn’t have to maintain a good relationship with the Prime Minister’s office. He doesn’t rely on National’s press secretaries to feed him stories and tips. On the contrary, a lot of the people he’s writing about here are his enemies and commercial rivals. But my point is that political columns about government and ‘what’s really going on’ are a lot more important than whatever is happening in the House, or whatever trivial gaffe someone made, and they’re also a lot more compelling. It’d be nice to have more of them, and that’s supposed to be the point of having gallery journalists who are ‘political insiders’.
My other point disagrees with Hooton a bit. He wrote:
Mr Joyce’s botulinum-grade arrogance is making the debacle worse.
Mr Joyce genuinely believes his commercial background consolidating provincial radio stations makes him a match for Mr Morrison’s quarter century of experience in the Asian and Australasian gambling industries.
The SkyCity team is laughing at him the way Kerry Packer laughed at Alan Bond over Channel Nine and Toll Holdings laughed at Michael Cullen over KiwiRail.
Despite having no experience in the procurement and management of half-billion-dollar construction projects, Mr Joyce and the prime minister’s chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, took it upon themselves to deal directly with SkyCity over the terms of the convention centre contract and the associated regulatory-relief package.
The problem with government Ministers negotiating directly with Sky City goes a bit deeper than individual hubris, or incompetence. Sky City is a profitable regulated private monopoly. The best way for it to make more money is to win concessions from the government, and it can – and probably has – invested many hours and millions of dollars paying lawyers and accountants and lobbyists to try and figure out how to extract value from the state and the taxpayer. But Key and Joyce – who represent the taxpayer – don’t have many hours and millions of dollars to throw away trying to beat Sky City at the negotiating table. They have a country to run. This can only be a very peripheral issue for them. (Even now that the deal has exploded into a public relations fiasco Key is busy committing our troops to Iraq. You like to think he’s paying a bit more attention to that than the convention center.)
So Key and Joyce will never be able to out-negotiate Sky City because of the massive asymmetry in resources between the two negotiating partners. This isn’t a new problem (although this government seems to think it is). The problem of how the state and the private sector interact in free market democracies has been with us for a while now, and solutions to all of these problems of influence-peddling and conflicts of interest and information asymmetry have been solved and implemented in New Zealand for several decades. We have the SOE model and the State Services Commission and laws and processes and the Auditor General and basically a whole fucking public service to avoid this exact situation which Key and his Ministers have blundered into. This disaster stems from the right’s contempt for the public service. They’re just bureaucrats. Glide time. It’s all walk-shorts and red tape. The idea that those hated bureaucrats were actually an apparatus designed to protect Key, Joyce et al and prevent them from making a huge, predictable and easily preventable mistake wouldn’t have occurred to them.