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Q+A: NZ Businessman Chris Liddell

Q+A: NZ Businessman Chris Liddell interviewed by Corin Dann

‘I think you’ll see a much more moderate position’ – NZ businessman Chris Liddell on US president-elect Donald Trump

New Zealand businessman Chris Liddell who had a major role in Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and has more recently advised the Trump campaign on its transition to the White House told Q+A that you will see a more moderate Donald Trump presidency than the one seen on the campaign trail.

‘Donald Trump’s a very atypical president. He’s not a traditional Republican. He’s not a traditional Democrat. He’s a mixture of both of them. And if you want to take an optimistic view, and I’m optimistic, I think he will actually come up with some policies that both sides will be willing to look at.

When asked whether he is worried about more protectionism under a Trump presidency, Chris Liddell told Corin Dann that ‘the days of unbridled free trade and unbridled free markets are over.’

‘OK, well, personal view – I think the days of unbridled free trade and unbridled free markets are over. I worked in the private sector all my life, so I’m a believer in free markets, but not unbridled free markets. And we’ve had 30 years since the mid-‘80s, both in New Zealand and here in the US and globally of basically free markets being driving the whole thinking, the whole rhetoric around and governing. I think those days are over, personally. I think we’re going to go through a circular trend of a much more restrained free market.’

I think free markets, TPP, are extremely challenged in this environment. For somewhere like New Zealand that’s had extremely attractive one-on-one trade deals, fair deals, are still on the table, but this concept of unbridled free markets, I think, is a secular trend against that.’

When asked whether Donald Trump has the temperament and character to be a good president, Chris Liddell said, ‘to be determined.’

‘One of the first things is who he surrounds himself with. A lot of the work I did was on transitions. People focus on the president, as they should, because the president’s the single most important person, but the president works through these huge numbers of other people running various departments and so forth, so who he starts to surround himself, how he manages those people, will define his success.’

CORIN Is this a warning, too, for the New Zealand government that if they ignore inequality, they ignore the middle-class concerns, that they are going to have some major problems?

CHRIS I think it’s warning for any government. When you look at those big issues, if you aren’t solving the inequality issue; if you aren’t dealing with the hollowing out of the middle class; if you aren’t facing big issues which affect people emotionally, like immigration, then you are blind to the big issues that we’re dealing with.

Please find the full transcript attached and the video link here

Q + A
Episode 36
Chris Liddell
Interviewed by CORIN DANN


GREG But first, the question everyone wants an answer to — what will President Trump do? We spoke to the one New Zealander who might actually know. New Zealand businessman Chris Liddell has been a CFO to both Microsoft and General Motors. He's also got involved in Republican politics. In 2012, he worked on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. More recently, he's been providing advice to both the Trump and Clinton camps on the transition to the White House. Corin Dann caught up with him in New York and asked whether New Zealanders should be worried at a Donald Trump presidency.

CHRIS In the short term, there’ll be a lot of noise – who’s going to get what positions, what’s going to happen. The biggest issue is what are the underlying issues we’re facing as a country and as a world, and how is the Trump presidency going to address those? So, yes, there’ll be uncertainty for a period, but I think people should be focusing not on the short-term and all the noise and the theatre, but on the long term and what the presidency might mean for the big issues that we face as a country.

CORIN A lot of people and a lot of young people who are, for instance, protesting here, their anxiety is about what perceive as racism, the xenophobia, and those sorts of things – the rhetoric of the campaign.

CHRIS Mm-hm.

CORIN Do you believe we’re going to see more of that from a Donald Trump presidency, or was that part of the campaign, and he will be a different president?

CHRIS I think you’ll see a much more moderate position. He is really wanting to do some things, but Donald Trump’s a very atypical president. He’s not a traditional Republican. He’s not a traditional Democrat. He’s a mixture of both of them. And if you want to take an optimistic view, and I’m optimistic, I think he will actually come up with some policies that both sides will be willing to look at. Now, not all of them are going to be popular. Things like—He will be anti-trade, for example, but infrastructure spending – he’s probably likely to have that as part of one of the things he’s going to be doing initially, and both sides of the aisle are likely to want to do that, so I think you’ll find him coming out of the gates pretty quickly. I’ve been talking to people inside the campaign. They’re focused on the first 100 days. With presidencies, really, the tone of the presidency is set in the first 100 to 200 days.

CORIN How many of those policies of Donald Trump are realistic – the building of the wall, the deporting millions of migrants?

CHRIS There’s a lot of rhetoric, and that will disappear. But again, you come back – what are the big issues we’re facing as a country and as a world at the moment, in the situation of New Zealand, to some extent? Inequality, the hollowing out of the middle class and the role of the government in solving those issues. And that’s what the election was all about. It wasn’t about the barking and the theatre. It was about a deep concern about a huge number of people in this country about those big issues. And the way in which President Trump and his administration address those issues, not all that hyperbole, that will define whether they’re successful or not.

CORIN What would that mean in the context of growth for America? New Zealand is very dependent on a strongly growing US. Do you think American growth is safe? Can it start to speed up? What’s your level of optimism there?

CHRIS Well, I think we’re in a globally relatively modest growth period. I just think that’s the reality of the environment that we’re in. Could it speed up a bit? Yes, it could. Could infrastructure spending help that? Yes. But again, people— It’s not going to be some quick fix to all these big issues. These are big fundamental issues.

CORIN How worrying is this anti-trade sentiment, though, from Donald Trump? I mean, New Zealand relies on free trading. Are you worried that there’ll be more protectionism?

CHRIS OK, well, personal view – I think the days of unbridled free trade and unbridled free markets are over. I worked in the private sector all my life, so I’m a believer in free markets, but not unbridled free markets. And we’ve had 30 years since the mid-‘80s, both in New Zealand and here in the US and globally of basically free markets being driving the whole thinking, the whole rhetoric around and governing. I think those days are over, personally. I think we’re going to go through a circular trend of a much more restrained free market.

DONALD Working together, we will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American Dream.

CORIN It’s interesting, because we’ve not for a Republican president and a Republican Congress. You’re saying we’re going to see a government that moves away from that Neo-Liberal model and becomes more interventionist?

CHRIS Yeah. I think the role of government and the world that we’re going into is going to be much different from the world that we’ve had in the last 30 years. Again, people worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow. Worry what’s going to happen over the next five, ten years. What are the issues of our generation? One of the big issues is what’s the role of government in solving the problem? What we saw in the election was people saying the government doesn’t work anymore. This whole concept of totally free markets and government intervention in certain areas hasn’t worked. So, yes, it’s easy to focus on all the noise, but when you look at those issues, people are saying, ‘It doesn’t work for us anymore.’ And so what you’re seeing is someone come in who’s non-traditional, who’s not a traditional Republican, not a traditional Democrat, and saying – yeah, to be determined whether it be successful – ‘I’m going to try something different.’ So, yes, I think free markets, TPP, are extremely challenged in this environment. For somewhere like New Zealand that’s had extremely attractive one-on-one trade deals, fair deals, are still on the table, but this concept of unbridled free markets, I think, is a secular trend against that.

CORIN Do you think that will spread to New Zealand? Do you think we’ll see it spread out across the world, that governments will step in?

CHRIS Governments will change their role, yes. They’ll be more interventional. But governments have a role in the economy regardless. They represent 30% or 40% any country, so the way in which governments use their power is going to change in that environment.

CORIN What does that look like, though? I mean, Donald Trump’s talking about on the one hand big tax cuts, but on the other, big infrastructure spending.

CHRIS I think that intervention looks much more focused at solving what are the big issues, which is the hollowing out of the middle class an inequality. So I think you are going to see trade protectionism and driving towards jobs for the middle class and retraining in the middle class is going to be one of the big policies of any successful government going forward.

CORIN So how does that work with China? They have a big export-focused growth strategy. They’re not going to like that, are they?

CHRIS No. No, absolutely not. And that’s part of the attraction from Trump’s point of view. He goes out and says, ‘China’s been raping us for 10 or 20 years, and I want fair trade. I don’t want free trade.’ Now, that’s a populist message, yes, but the reality is that the US has a huge trade imbalance with China. So here, you are going to see much more intervention – I don’t know how.

CORIN But there’ll be retaliation, surely.

CHRIS Well, we’ll see. We’ll see exactly what it is. But it’s going to change.

CORIN Let’s say he followed through on a promise of, what, a 45% tariff or 35% tariff of imports on Chinese goods. That would surely just whack up prices for Americans at Wal-Mart.

CHRIS That’s not going to happen. But again, people go extreme, right? You take the extremes of some of the noise that you hear about. That’s not going to happen. But what might happen is a total reshaping of the trade relationship in a new way and a much more bilateral world where we’re doing different trade deals.

DONALD Folks, it’s a rigged system.

CORIN Do you think he’s got the temperament and the character to be a good president given what we’ve seen?

CHRIS To be determined, but, again, go back to what Hillary Clinton says, and I say, you know, look at her speech from yesterday. I think it’s one of the classiest speeches I’ve ever seen in my life, and she said the people have chosen Donald Trump, and we have to give him the chance to see whether he can do what he says he’s going to do. We now actually have to give him the opportunity. One of the first things is who he surrounds himself with. A lot of the work I did was on transitions. People focus on the president, as they should, because the president’s the single most important person, but the president works through these huge numbers of other people running various departments and so forth, so who he starts to surround himself, how he manages those people, will define his success.

CORIN That is interesting, because it appears he’s going to have to appease the Conservative Christian right, presumably – the Newt Gingrich’s and the others even more extreme. Are those guys going to have to be in there, do you think?

CHRIS I don’t think he has to appease anyone. I don’t think he’s an appeaser. I think he’s going to do exactly what he thinks is right and surround himself with the people who he thinks are the people who are going to sort that out.

CORIN Do you have any ideas on who he might be putting in there?

CHRIS I’ve got some, because I’ve been talking to the people inside his transition team, and I’ve been keeping, informally, associated with him, so I have some sense of it, but—

CORIN Any ideas? Can you give us any ideas?

CHRIS No, no.

CORIN I’ll put it this way, then. As a businessman, do you get the sense that he is putting the right people around him?

CHRIS Yes. Yeah, I think he will bring in a very interesting mix of establishment people who can get things done in Washington and new people who have a totally fresh perspective and who will shake things up. Whether he’ll get exactly that right balance, I don’t know. I don’t know exactly who he’s going to appoint and things. But he will bring a mixture of people in, and he has a very big aspiration to change Washington.

CORIN You— As you mentioned, you’ve done some work on transition. You’ve worked for the Mitt Romney campaign four years ago. Where is the establishment Republican Party now? Where do they stand in this? Could they end up being an opposition, a check on Donald Trump if he doesn’t do a good job?

CHRIS I think it’s going to be fascinating. I mean, this wasn’t really a win for the Republican Party. This was a win for Donald Trump. Let’s be frank about it. It was as much a middle finger to the establishment Republican Party as it was a middle finger to the establishment Democratic Party. So I think how the Republican Party coalesces around Donald Trump will be very interesting. Now, we have an unusual situation in that the Presidency is Republican, the House is Republican and the Senate is Republican, so they have an opportunity to actually do things collectively, which is unique for some time. How they actually do that will be very interesting, because a lot of the things he’s talking about – being anti-trade is not exactly a strong Republican Party; infrastructure spending – you know, a significant amount is not traditional Republican. So there’s going to be a lot of deals and a lot of trade-offs here. That’s a really—that horse-trading has already started. That happens very quickly. But you’ve got to realise around here that all the fighting that goes on during the party, that stops the day after the election, and people start to coalesce around the new equilibrium, or the new order.

CORIN This is an enormous event, isn’t it? How significant is it, in your view?

CHRIS I think it’s one of the most significant events in my lifetime. I think it’s amazing. This in combination with Brexit – this is Brexit times 10. But it’s a lot of the same issues. You know, Brexit wasn’t a vote for whether you were in or out of the EU. It was a vote against the establishment government and the inability of the current government configuration to solve the big issues of our time. So I think this is monumental, not because of whether it’s President Trump or not, but what it says about people’s belief in our government going forward.

CORIN Is this a warning, too, for the New Zealand government that if they ignore inequality, they ignore the middle-class concerns, that they are going to have some major problems?

CHRIS I think it’s warning for any government. When you look at those big issues, if you aren’t solving the inequality issue; if you aren’t dealing with the hollowing out of the middle class; if you aren’t facing big issues which affect people emotionally, like immigration, then you are blind to the big issues that we’re dealing with.

CORIN Chris Liddell, thank you very much for your time. Fantastic.

CHRIS Thank you.

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