Transcript: IV With Roger Kerr Of BRT 1/9/05
Transcript: Interview with Roger Kerr, Sept. 1, 2005
Interview By Alastair Thompson
Transcription by Rosalea Barker
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Alastair Thompson (Scoop): In the Sunday Star-Times, there was an email sent by you on November 7, I think, where you wanted to have input into the race relations policy of National. Why were you interested in it?
Roger Kerr (Business Roundtable Executive Director): Well, we've taken a serious interest both in Treaty issues and in Maori advance generally. Indeed, we've got a major project on at the moment about Maori and economic and social progress, and ways of improving it. The connection with the Treaty debate was very minor, actually. And, in fact, as Don Brash said yesterday, I was not keen on that part of the agenda being discussed. I didn't have much of a problem, actually, with what was said there, although I'm in no great hurry to see the removal of the Maori seats; I'd rather there was closure to the Treaty process and a greater sense of social cohesion around things before that happened.
But what I was most concerned about was that there was a balancing up of that part of the agenda, with all the very important things to do with Maori economic and social progress that we're working on. And this has to do with a better economy, plenty of jobs, fewer barriers to employment, less in the way of welfare dependency, more choice for Maori parents about the kind of education they want for their kids. That's the basic line that both Rob McLeod and I, at the Hui Taumata, for example, and in other contexts, have been pushing. Towards all parties.
Alastair: So the agenda that the Business Roundtable was attempting to push to Don Brash was not the agenda that was outlined in Orewa?
Kerr: We don't have much of a problem about that, subject to being concerned about the proper context and the balancing up. I mean, we're in favour of equal treatment. We're in favour of "we are all one people" kind of ideas, and don't have any dispute whatever. But there are important things. Article 2 of the Treaty gives clear property rights to Maori. We're very concerned about property rights issues. We found ourselves on the side of Maori on a lot of fronts: the debate over the Privy Council, the foreshore and seabed.
We had a very close alignment with Maori in terms of what we were advocating there, essentially saying it was a matter that should be determined in the courts because we don't like New Zealand governments playing around and adjusting property rights in a cavalier kind of fashion. I'm not saying that was an absolutely cavalier thing, but we've seen too much of it in many areas of business.
So there is a significant alignment there, and I guess it's a matter of wanting to promote discussion on a more logical basis.
Alastair: I suppose what I'm trying to get here: Is the agenda that National has now advanced on Monday in terms of their race relations policy, which involves saying that the Treaty is not a partnership. Is that in accordance with Business Roundtable philosophy?
Kerr: I don't think the Treaty is a partnership in the sense of two partners. I think it's a "we are one people" kind of idea and we would be in favour of removing--
Alastair: References to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi?
Kerr: That's right. Nobody understands in the Resource Management Act what they mean. No court has determined it. It's something that holds business back, including Maori business.
Alastair: The Court of Appeal says it means partnership.
Kerr: Yes, well, that's something I would dispute. I don't think that's a correct interpretation.
Alastair: You said you were concerned about the issue of social cohesion. A lot of commentators in the last few days are suggesting that they're very concerned about the potential implications of National pursuing this agenda without the consent of Maori.
Kerr: I think there are some legitimate issues here, because there's still a job to be done to get things in a proper perspective. I think the Treaty is important. It's essentially though about some levels of redistribution, recognising grievances in the past that we've got to do our best to rectify. But it is not a basis for increasing wealth going forward. Growth and wealth creation is really a separate matter from wealth redistribution.
Alastair: So it's not a long-term partnership agreement?
Kerr: Well, I regard it as part of our constitutional framework, if you like, but the question is: Let's put the Treaty and Treaty settlement issues in one particular category, by and large, and let's also recognise, though, that for Maori development there are a whole bunch of other very important things--and *more* important things, actually.
And this was really the thrust of the Hui Taumata. The Treaty was barely mentioned there. All the focus was on enterprise, skills, ability for Maori to participate in the workforce. That's what we endorse.
Alastair: To get back to your emails, do you know why the National Party seem to be so uncomfortable about them?
Kerr: Well, who likes private correspondence to be publicly disclosed? I think that's very improper. I think there are ethical issues there as well as possibly legal issues. However, I don't have any embarrassment about the sort of things that we were involved in as far as Roundtable communications were concerned.
Alastair: In terms of the headline on that particular email that was highlighted in the Sunday Star-Times--"Tool of the Roundtable"--was that a joke?
Kerr: It was. Because this was the whole purpose of that proposition was to say, "There'll be people who will say these kind of things, and it's ridiculous. You're an independent person--"
Alastair: It was irony?
Kerr: It was irony. And it went on to say that proposition *should* be ridiculed in the sense of promoting so-called hard, right, extreme kind of views. This was the sort of stuff we used to have about 15 or 20 years ago. The country has recognised now that the sort of things that we've all advocated as an organisation--as well as other business organisations; there's no difference there that matters--and governments of all colours have persisted with market-oriented policies which have made the country just so much stronger.
And it's time that *we* stood up now and actually said that: "These things were right; the critics at the time were wrong. These are orthodox policies. You see them anywhere around the world and we need more of them if New Zealand's going to prosper further."
Alastair: Okay. At the same time that you were sending emails to him suggesting that he raise race relations as an issue, so was Roger Douglas. His emails are more explicit in terms of the context. He says, "You will be seen as dry and dull, Don." Effectively: "Use race as a means of colouring up your campaign."
Kerr: I didn't myself see those particular points. But Roger Douglas is a politician. He's operating in a different space than we are. We're focused on policies. We don't mind what parties adopt them. We've had parties right across the New Zealand political spectrum aligned with lots of things that we've wanted to do.
The present government, in fact, has not changed the basic frameworks that got put in place back in the 1980s. What we're concerned about is that the country is not improving in terms of its growth performance--which is what the government says is its number one priority--and business is very frustrated because we know there's a lot of potential to do much better.
Alastair: One final question. The two main planks of the Business Roundtable government policy that I would have thought you were interested in would be a corporate tax rate cut and potential sale of assets, which are both things that you've made speeches about in the past. Neither of those seem to have been included in the National Party's economic platform, but the race relations issue has been included. Is there anything that can be read into that? Have the efforts to influence Don Brash in his new position failed?
Kerr: Those areas are two of many. We're also concerned about constraining government spending. We've had a tremendous increase projected in government spending going forward, and that's not going to help the country grow. We're also very concerned about employment law, about infrastructure, about too much business regulation.
But in the area of tax, we're very pleased that there's some serious debate in the country about tax. We haven't had that in recent elections. I think the country knows that there's much scope now for lower taxes and that would benefit us a lot. We are disappointed with the National Party not having a stronger position in respect of the company tax and the top personal tax rate. Personal ones are very important because many businesses really are affected more by the personal rate than the company rate--farmers and small businesses and so forth.
With respect to privatisation, I think the evidence is very clear in New Zealand and around the world that economies have benefited from governments not running businesses. We've seen how bad they have been at doing that in the past, which isn't to say that all private businesses succeed, but on average and over time they do better than state-owned businesses.
We've seen, for example, the government already lose value in its investment in Air NZ. Why should taxpayers be exposed to that? We've got Australia at the moment with one of its major issues there being the sale of the remaining state shareholding in Telstra, and other state governments--Labor--are very often progressing with privatisation programmes.
New Zealand, again, is going to lose out in terms of a more efficient economy if it doesn't have that as part of its programme. The OECD in its reports on New Zealand keep on pointing that out.
Alastair: One other final final question. What in particular in the Orewa 1 speech were you not happy with?
Kerr: Mainly the proposition of the abolition of the Maori seats, which personally I would support on a longer-term basis. It's really a matter of timing and context much more in my mind. I would rather see closure to the Treaty settlements process. I'd rather have a better understanding of the sort of things we've been talking about, about what matters for the welfare of the overall community before doing something which could be divisive, depending on the way it was gone about.
I'd rather we had a greater acceptance that, yes, the time has come for removal of Maori seats as well as other specific features where we do not need to have special kind of arrangements. Which may not mean all. I mean, Article 2 in the Treaty remains.
Alastair: Thank you very much.